What does beauty mean to you and how can that definition empower — or terrorize — the way you care for yourself?

“Self-care,” as coined by Audre Lorde, is a term that originally examines terror. Misconstrued now to describe anything remotely indulgent — skin and body treatments or an extra slice of something — the true meaning of self-care, as it pertains to Lorde’s findings in her last days, is lost.

I often find myself fascinated with the other side of common ‘self-care’ traditions, namely beauty and its terrors, too. (Different from Lorde’s, of course.) While ruminating on my own conceptions of beauty and care, Arabelle Sicardi came to mind. Presently working on their debut book, Arabelle doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of what beauty is, and what it can come to mean. No, really: this essay on the many connotations of perfume, and this one, on the anxieties of spa-tripping for trans gender-nonconforming people are required reading.

Catch our conversation below, as they talk about beauty as a tool of power, the practices in asserting selfhood, and their go-to products of the moment.

Amani Bin Shikhan: The first question is a simple one: What was your 2017 like?

Arabelle Sicardi: A complete trash fire. I am glad I’m in therapy to process! 2018 has already been better than 2017 and it’s been here a month [at the time of this interview] — I found writing about last year to be really helpful. At the end of it, I realized it was about killing parts of me that needed to die, and what parts of me are undeniable. Truly definitive of the apocalyptic consciousness — things revealed.

AB: Can you expound on that? What’s revealed itself to be undeniable and what’s been laid to rest?

AS: It’s about what I can give to others and what I have to save for myself. I really went to the furthest extent to which I was capable of, and then some. Learning, up close and ugly, how people process poverty and trauma was a big lesson for me in 2017, too. When I think about 2017, I think a lot about certain parts of the empathy exams — [that is to say that] no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. And empathy is not always enough. Certainly, I think, it rarely ever is.

AB: Damn, I feel that. I’m glad you’re glad to be in therapy.

AS: I missed my therapist! It’s so nice to have one now. Whenever something bad happens now, I just laugh and feel my feelings and go, “Wow, can’t wait to process this in therapy!” I get to let it go. It’s the best life hack, knowing I have a support system to witness me when I’ve decided to process [in a way that isn’t] dependent on my public processing of my trauma. I don’t need to write my way out of trauma.

“There’s nothing more desirable than desire itself, you know?” – Arabelle Sicardi

AB: What do you think got you through 2017, even superficially? Your buoys or “life balms,” so to say?

AS: I had specific friendships that literally did save me several times. Staying on people’s couches when I had nowhere else to go. Doing face masks with them and not feeling pressured to have to leave. My favorite bookstore, too, is very important to me, and I spent a lot of time there reading my way past despair and into my imagination. That was nice, too.

AB: Tell me about the bookstore.

AS: [It’s called] Molasses Books. It’s a coffee shop/used bookstore [in Brooklyn] that sells wine after hours. Sometimes, I stay there all day. The right book always seems to find me when I’m there, and I like knowing I’m trading in my books for someone else’s revelations.

AB: I love opening a book to find love notes or strange little markings, even though I never put them in my own books. Feels like life lives in them, you know?

AS: Marginalia is my favorite thing about books. I need to be able to underline things. I take photos as I underline, so I have a huge marginalia index that spans like, a decade. Books are so tactile. I need to be able to talk to them directly.

AB: Do you find beauty in the wear and tear? Or are you unconcerned with that?

AS: I love destruction and well-worn things. It’s like that Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. I think books are meant to be read and loved.

“The less I care, the better I look. I think the stress of not looking my best makes me look [my] worst.” – Arabelle Sicardi

AB: Can you tell me more about your understanding of wabi-sabi?

AS: It’s a worldview based on imperfection and being well-worn, based on the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence — impermanence, suffering, and this thing called ku, which is like… absence of self-nature? I don’t know… it’s like the romanticism of deconstruction to me. I think it encourages curiosity and tenderness in ordinary things, which I love, because there really is beauty in everything. I got super into wabi-sabi and the philosophy of avant-garde design in high school, when I realized fashion can be political. I think things make us feel things, and wabi-sabi is a really positive approach to imperfection and dying.

AB: What do you see beauty as, fundamentally? What about it moves you the way that it does?

AS: My praxis has always been: Beauty is terror. The more I write and read it, the more I see it less as terror, literally, and more [as] a vehicle of power. But power and terror, in our reality, are the same thing. It’s just semantics. I’m interested in how we can use that which is used against us to protect us. Beauty is just a tool of an institution, so I’m always looking at it from a perspective of context and strategy.

Like, when I’m writing about a beauty brand using a [bleeped] up name for a product, I’m writing about racism and profiting off of making us feel bad about ourselves. And when I’m writing about perfume, I’m rarely super interested in “if you like the smell of this thing…” I am more interested in the labor involved in attaining a thing, and the cost of the thing, and what that thing may tell someone else in the room about you. Beauty is politics by other means. I love writing about beauty because I like to learn about politics and strategy so I can share what I learn with people I love so we can protect ourselves.

AB: Beauty as alchemy and harnessed power.

AS: Yeah. I mean, we’ve waged war for beautiful things. There’s nothing more desirable than desire itself, you know?

AB: What of desire?

AS: It’s so funny because I write about beauty, but I don’t think I ever approach it from a point of “this will make you desirable” unless I’m being a cynic because it’s like, desirable to who? To what end? That’s why beauty is a balm to me. I don’t think it will save anybody, but it helps us save ourselves, for a little while. I got into it because I thought it would be more liberatory than fashion, but the more I know about it, the more I realize that isn’t the case. But it’s still so useful, and we can still do so much with it.

AB: Your perspectives on beauty and its entanglement with politics, history, culture, gender identity — all of it — is so deeply interesting to me. I think that so much of the way we talk about beauty is as though it’s frivolous, or a thing to constantly be shared. Do you find that, for you, it’s more of a thing you practice with yourself or a thing you practice with others?

AS: I mean, that depends on understanding myself as having clear boundaries of my selfhood with other people. And I don’t! I tend to share so much of me. I think it’s really important to realize we leave an inheritance. I’m so interested in beauty as a cultural product and vehicle because it’s like, one of the most obvious evidences we have of femininity and identity creation in history.

The root of my beauty practice was always with other femmes in like, sleepover settings or watching my girlfriends put makeup on and falling in love with them because they smudged their mascara and didn’t care, and it was so endearing. Sure, I do it “for myself,” but I know I’m entangled with others, and beauty is such a tender thing to share with literally anybody — perfect strangers or best friends. I love that about it. It’s the most powerful part of it — knowing you’re never alone, knowing you’re never the only witness. That’s real power, and most of us are taught to serve it rather than the other way around. We’re not taught how to own ourselves. We’re taught to make the labor of selfhood invisible, and look easy or whatever.

AB: To get a little lighter: What are your beauty routines? What do they look like on a day-to-day?

AS: I used to have a super intricate routine because #beautyeditor, etc., but I don’t know, I pay less attention to it now. The less I care, the better I look. I think the stress of not looking my best makes me look [my] worst. My morning routine [now] could just be spritzing my face with aloe vera spray, or it could be Cosrx Good Morning cleanser, a toner, an essence, a snail mucin moisturizer, and sunscreen. My nighttime routine is usually always intricate because I do it while I’m watching Netflix and rolling a [redacted].

I might do three face masks in one night. (That’s not unusual for me.) I revolve my retinoids on a day-to-day basis. Serums I use, too. It depends on my skin from the day.

AB: Has skin care always been important to you, or is it something you’ve built up to become a part of your life routine? That significance has to have some significance outside of itself, right?

AS: It depends on when you see my life starting. Skin care was always important to me, even as a child. But mostly because I was frightened of my body, and saw it as a failure to be corrected by any means necessary. And the more I learned, the better I felt, and the better I ended up looking. It’s also so fun to constantly toe the line around “correction” and “agency.” I sometimes really like my acne, but I also looooove not even worrying about hiding things, because there’s nothing to hide because I can have no scarring [with makeup].

The mental work of feeling okay about my body in the world is so tied to beauty practices. And that’s ok. I like to constantly engage with the conversation on what I should have to feel ashamed about, what I have to work for, what cannot be solved.

AB: What’s undeniable and what can be killed, to bring it full circle.

AS: Yeah. There’s no right answer about beauty, which is extremely comforting to me. It makes me work hard all the time. I love chasing an impossible thing.

“We’re not taught how to own ourselves. We’re taught to make the labor of selfhood invisible, and look easy or whatever.” – Arabelle Sicardi

AB: I tend to think of beauty as the rubble of everything around it. Trying to make sense of what remains.

AS: [An excerpt from] one of my fave poem stanzas, by Alice Notley: “no house in beauty or power / just my self / I am.” It’s quiet and destructive. [It] won’t let you have anything. “no house in beauty or power / just my self / I am.”

Arabelle’s Life Balms

  • Foam rollers! I don’t go to yoga or cycle in studios anymore — too expensive, post the $99 Classpass era, which I will miss forever. So I do yoga before bed every other night or, if I’m lazy, I just use this foam roller. I have horrific posture and sit all day so there’s nothing more satisfying than a good inversion. Sometimes I watch action movies and foam roll the entire time. John Wick + Foam Roller = Profit.
  • Tangle toys. I got one from a beauty brand randomly years ago and I still carry it around when I’m particularly stressed out and inclined to start picking my skin again.
  • Dumplings. I have this gross tradition of dumplings and champagne with friends in Chinatown. And I can’t really cook anything but dumplings and random Taiwanese street foods. Nothing comforts me more than just cooking a whole bag of $4 dumplings. Vinegar and soy sauce are extremely necessary.

Like Arabelle’s thoughts? Follow their journey on Twitter and Instagram.

Amani Bin Shikhan is a culture writer and researcher with a focus on music, movement, tradition, and memory — when they coincide, especially. Follow her on Twitter. Photo by Asmaà Bana.