Would you like a side of existential dread with that exfoliator?
Gen Z has taken to sandwiching anxieties about the state of the world between skincare hacks. Is it a healthy coping mechanism or an unsupported cry for help?
Tuesday 26 July By Isabelle Truman
For the past few years, it’s been impossible to separate social media from serious political and cultural issues. Interspersed between images of friends getting engaged, travelling to Greece (is there anyone actually left in the UK right now?) and general Hot Girl Summer content, the latest of which is – yes, truly – taking Hot Girl Walks, come the near-constant reminders of the dismal state of our world.
When London’s temperatures soared to record-breaking heights this month, viral Instagram posts made it clear that this was all thanks to the climate crisis: ‘This is the coldest summer of the rest of our lives,’ read a typical post, while others shared swipe-ups to news articles in which scientists confirmed that if we continue this way we will all, quite literally, be toasted.
But whereas Instagram – with its infographics and statistics – takes a more direct approach, Gen Z has embraced an altogether lighter method to document its rising existentialism. The platform? TikTok (of course). The medium? Short, music-backed clips (of course), in which therapists summarise coping mechanisms for anxiety while youthful users reveal their worries and fears in funny, relatable ways.
This isn’t surprising: research suggests that Gen Zers are significantly more likely than other generations to report their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor’. Like their millennial counterparts, they’re also more inclined to report having received treatment or therapy from a mental health professional – so much so that, for many, knowing whether a potential date is in therapy is now an essential prerequisite to said date.
So far, so (relatively) traditional. However, a more recent showcase for Gen Zers’ candid communication of their issues comes via the current trend for interweaving real talk into beauty or skincare videos. If that sounds like a lot to take in, let me illustrate with a recent example.
The following words were shared alongside a selfie video of the poster smiling at the camera: ‘What foundation do y’all use because I just saw someone say “we tend to forget it’s our parent’s first time going through life too”, and I do not think I will emotionally recover. Anyway. I want to try Flawless Filter but I don’t want to look too shiny?’
Though the caption reads simply, ‘Send recs’, those who replied mainly did so to respond to the revelation sandwiched in the middle of the sentence: ‘I feel like we expect so much from them and forget they are human too,’ one person wrote. ‘We fail to see that they sacrifice so much for us and we too only see their faults and not the good things they’ve done for us,’ commented another.
Some – rather fittingly – multitasked: ‘I use setting powder to help control the shininess! That sentence made me die inside a little,’ and, ‘I use inkflash! Still not gonna forget the way they traumatised me thanks to their trial & error though. Great when you set it matte!’ Elsewhere, others opt to share information that alludes to the state of their own mental health. ‘What lip-gloss do you guys use? I’m scared to get close to someone cos [sic] I hate my body. I use one from VS I love it,’ is a not-untypical post.
Of course, it could be argued that all this is just another well-trodden example of one generation behaving in the opposite way to the one that came directly before them. In which case, championing non-curated, real content, aka being relatable and gross – naturally, another trend on the app is being a ‘gross girl’ – is simply the inevitable follow-through of millennials’ endless FaceTuned photos of the 2010s.
It could similarly be argued that it makes sense for the so-called TikTok generation to take to the platform (which lends itself to it like no other) in this ‘hybrid’ way to comment on the unrelenting stresses of the world. That it’s just their way of forging community, speaking through issues, and attempting to find solutions. All of which sounds pretty harmless, but should we be worried about normalising – let alone joking – about such serious confessions? Is it as harmless as it’s branded or is there a danger of perhaps even romanticising depression and sadness as the Tumblr era once did?
A bit of both, says Sydney-based psychologist Kayla Steele, who points out that a COVID-19-inflicted backlog has made affordable, appropriate healthcare even harder to access than usual, and many have been prompted to find alternative outlets for support. ‘When young people are struggling and can't access the professional support they need, they often find creative solutions,’ she explains. ‘For the most part, I would take these posts lightly and view them through the lens of finding a community of likeminded people who can empathise with their experience.’
Which is not to say that extends to all such posts. ‘My concern is related to the potential for these kinds of posts to inspire others to engage in self-destructive acts, such as self-harm,’ says Steele. ‘We know from the scientific research and public health data that young people (under the age of 25) are more likely to be impacted by suicide contagion and involved in suicide clustering, and that those who post and engage in this kind of content are unlikely to have the training or skills needed to deal with the potential flow-on effects.’
The other side of the trend is that, while turning real-world issues into memes – or cute sharable TikTok videos – theoretically raises awareness, in real terms it does little to nothing to effect change. We may show that we’re aware of the abolition of Roe v Wade through selfie videos overlaid with captions such as, ‘What eyebrow gel is your favourite rn? Firearms now have more rights than women in America and I’ve been using the göt2b Glued Styling Spiking Glue’, for example. But beyond a shared recognition and demonstration that you’re clued up on constitutional issues, the political part of the message is recurrently, ahem, glossed over. (I’m ashamed to admit that the aforementioned post made me Google ‘göt2b Glued’ before it made me research ways to support abortion rights.)
Whatever you may feel about any of that, perhaps we can all agree that the current trend to deliver a side of existentialism with your skincare hacks does at least, to some degree, evoke openness and allow for common anxieties to be shared – albeit at surface level. Provided we’re not spreading misinformation or downplaying the severity of issues, we may just have to accept that our next search for the best exfoliator (it’s Glow Recipe’s Strawberry Smooth BHA + AHA serum, in case you’re wondering) is going to come with a side order of existential vent.