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Women and the Myth of Self-Care: A Conversation with Annie Harmeston

. 8 min read
Women and the Myth of Self-Care: A Conversation with Annie Harmeston

by Mikaela Dery

“First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption,” Ellen Willis, music critic and feminist, wrote in her 1970 essay, “Women and the Myth of Consumerism.” “The profit system is oppressive not because relatively trivial luxuries are available, but because basic necessities are not.”  

Fifty years later, in a lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 virus, the 23-year-old photographer Annie Harmeston had a similar thought. In March 2020, after a non-COVID-related hospital stay, she left her home in London and went to stay with her mother in northern England. Her relatively tranquil lockdown was punctured by unrelenting Instagram ads, which insisted that a healthy ‘self-care routine,’ consisting of bucketfuls of skincare products, would provide relief in this trying time. It was a near-comical message when one’s Instagram feed was also peppered with horrifying images from the frontlines of the pandemic. For Annie, the ads themselves became a source of anxiety. She was working full time, completing her master’s degree at London College of Fashion over Zoom, and grappling with the fallout of a once-in-a-generation viral pandemic. All the while, there was a constant visual intrusion insisting that—in the midst of everything—glowing skin was not just a way of dealing with These Unprecedented Times, but a signifier of personal success.  

She responded by not checking her phone and creating Quick Fix, an interactive film. Viewers watching online are plunged into an eerily perfect pink world, where a woman ‘likes’ beauty products on Instagram, which then appear in front of her on a conveyor belt. When the viewer presses the space bar, they are transported into a mint green world, where the same woman goes through the same process. The products in each ‘world’ are branded slightly differently. In the pink world, there is, for example, an ‘optimizing oil’ and a ‘win at life journal.’ Meanwhile, in the green world, there is an ‘essential oil’ and a ‘stress less journal.’ There is an online store where users can browse through each of the (unpurchasable) items with satirical product descriptions. The tongue-in-cheek branding is likely well-known to anyone with an Instagram account and underscores an uncomfortable but familiar reality: Whether beauty companies are selling self-care or empowerment, the core message—that buying products will lead to happiness—remains the same.

I met Annie over Zoom to discuss pastels, the commodification of self-care, the beauty industry, and alternate worlds with the same dystopian undercurrents as our own.

MIKAELA: You have kind of a general aesthetic that goes across a lot of your work. How did you arrive at that?

ANNIE: I typically combine ugly things with beautiful things. As you can see, I’m wearing pastels and then I’ve got pastel earrings and then behind me you can see pastels. I don’t know—it’s just a stylistic choice. I think it’s also creating worlds, especially with Quick Fix, it’s creating worlds that are so put-together as a comment on the fact that everyone is trying to be so put-together, but actually, the world is a total shitstorm. And I think overusing specific colors and being so obsessive with colors is a comment on that—on the fact that we all like to think that we’re so put-together with our highly curated Instagram accounts and life in general.

How did Quick Fix happen?
It was honestly a total whirlwind. I had never made a film in my life other than my silly boomerang selfies on Instagram, so I was really starting from scratch. I just knew the topic that I wanted to look at, and then the film idea sort of unraveled from that. It started with lockdown. I felt awful because I came out of hospital and I was like, “Okay, I need to go home to my mom,” and I literally had nothing with me. And I dress in a certain way—I like to wear my pastel eye-liner and I like to be put-together, which is kind of ironic considering the messaging of my film. So I came up north and I had nothing with me and I was just loving life. I was so happy, through a time where I was supposed to be really unhappy, where I was taken away from all the things I love. I suddenly felt like I could breathe.

All of a sudden I had really bad cystic acne. I’d had acne before, but it got really bad in lockdown, and I had no makeup with me. So I was really forced to be like, “Oh my god, what is happening to my skin?” I know we all see them all the time, but I just noticed constant ads telling me that I need to be glowing and I need anti-acne products and everything was to do with acne. It got to the point where it was too much, to the point where I decided not to use my phone. And I guess that’s where the premise of Quick Fix came from. I was just being bombarded with constant ads all the time when initially I was really happy just to be at home with no make-up, no skin products, no nothing, no taking pictures, just chilling. The ads on Instagram, that was the inspiration.

When did the interactive element come into it?

I’d never made a film before, so honestly—I probably shouldn’t say this—I pretty much Googled everything. Like, I genuinely didn’t know anything and I was just totally winging it. Initially the idea was just to make a film, but then I started to think about my view on how I look and how I care for myself and the products I use, how it’s changed over the years. I started to think about how I was when I was at school and I was so happy to wear shitloads of makeup and be really colorful. I just didn’t give a fuck. And now I feel like it’s all sort of been stripped back, and I started to think to myself, “Why am I now trying to be less? Why am I now trying to strip back and make sure my skin is perfect so I’m able to have this really minimal and ‘dewy’ look?” We hear that word all the time, and it’s just not possible for my skin, it just is not possible. I want to wear really vibrant makeup and I want to look a bit extra and that’s fine. I was really interested in why that happened.

Then I started to look into, or sort of realize and remember, the transitions of brands. Brands are sort of now going to this natural and minimal look, and everything is about wellness and your inner beauty, but it’s not really about your inner beauty. It’s always, for women—and this is the point of Quick Fix—at the end of the day, no matter what the product is, about either making them look better, or just be better in general. It’s this huge pressure, despite the fact that the packaging may be green or maybe really plain and only have one word on it. It just doesn’t change the message that it’s giving to girls.

So I spoke to loads of girls, and then I thought, “Okay, there are two sides to this, there are two narratives.” There’s the narrative of girls wanting to dress how they want to and just be how they want to be without being told that that’s wrong. And then you have the other side, where we’re told to be minimal and we’re told to be natural and have dewy skin and care for our insides. So that’s where the two sides of Quick Fix came from.

How did you decide how to style it the way you did?

Obviously, the whole thing is about the changes in advertising targeted towards women, and my thing is that it’s the same shit, it’s just advertised in a different way, through a phone or through Instagram ads. So with that in mind, I wanted to make something that was simultaneously an older vibe, almost a ‘60s style, and then combining it with the more contemporary elements, like with the phone and the Instagram-style feed. By combining those two aesthetics, I was trying to put out that idea that actually, not a lot has changed, and the message is still the same to women.

In terms of the styling and alternate worlds, it is very sort of sarcastic and it is very over the top and put-together. I like to coordinate things and I like to make them all match. That’s why I went for the pink and yellow for one world and all green for the other.

I think the most important was the green one. It’s supposed to be totally stripped back but also totally extra and totally put-together. It’s supposed to be the natural world, but obviously it’s totally not natural. The pink one is meant to be more fun. The products are less natural but they’re still the same things. They’re still things you put on your face, they’ve just got different names. One’s an LED face-mask which looks totally robotic and crazy, but then a natural, soothing sheet mask is... I guess the juxtaposition between the two is like, despite things having a million ingredients or one ingredient, or despite them being really extra in appearance or really simple-looking, it’s the same message for women.

I thought the shop was so funny, and such a nice way of exploring that idea too. How did that come about?

For the shop, we were thinking, “How can we add something to the experience and give more context?” There were so many ideas, so much input and thoughts from other women, and I wanted to include them but I couldn’t, because obviously there’s no speech. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll just link a shop and include all the props.”

I was thinking about the beauty industry while I was watching, because I agree that it’s kind of a gross industry, but I still feel good when I use beauty products, and I buy the serums and creams and am totally complicit in it. I don’t really know how to navigate that. And I was wondering if working on this made you think about how you navigate that in your own life?

Do you know what? I spoke to so many other people about it and everyone was sort of in the same boat. I think that now, honestly—and I’m actually not even lying about this—I wear make-up for sure, but my skin products are just so minimal. I don’t need all of the other stuff. To be honest, I didn’t really do it in the first place. It was more that I was just being told to do it to solve problems that were really affecting me, like having cystic acne. It really affected me to the point where I was getting depressed, and I just thought, “This cannot be good for other girls.” And I guess I wanted to watch it and feel empowered by it, like I just need to ignore all of this stuff that’s coming up on my phone, because it’s total nonsense.

Mikaela Dery edits Laid Off NYC's Fashion section. She holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and has written for Bedford + Bowery, Guernica and others. She lives in Manhattan. Get to know her better: @mikidery

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

**All images are stills from Quick Fix, courtesy of Annie Harmeston.