The Long-Standing Allure of Beauty Sleep During Volatile Times

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I started writing this at 5 a.m. in Paris. With my heart sprinting, my mind swerving, and time vanishing, writing was the only thing that calmed me down. I couldn’t sleep so I leaned over, fumbled around for my phone, and began typing into the glow of the screen.

Every night when I’m trying to be good, I produce the conditions for a sound night’s rest—or at the very least, the appearance of one. That is to say, about five hours before writing this, I was exhausted but in lieu of extra sleep, I had taken out half an hour for a nighttime skincare routine that I basically made up on the spot: a no-BS face cleanser recommended by one of my oldest friends, a few swipes of micellar water from the pharmacie (that’s French for pharmacy), applied using cheap toilet paper that left crumbles on my face, a charcoal exfoliator I bought when I was sad and overwhelmed, a soothing eye cream that I don’t particularly like but have an intimate attachment to because it’s the first eye cream I’ve ever had, and a nighttime gel mask sample packet that I ended up not wiping off.

Why was I not sleeping? As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in an 18th century love sonnet, let me count the ways: stress, irreparable jet lag, the line in Chris Marker’s La Jetée, “the camp police spied even on dreams,” (which reminds me, who did I want to kill in my last nightmare?), anticipation of boyfriend, annoyance with my crush, the thrilling combination of having both a boyfriend and a crush, my new prescription from the shrink, my next deadline, those rowdy upstairs neighbours, unchecked voicemails from the bank, that ringing in my ears, the clean laundry piled up on the left side of my bed, how to write about the psychoanalytic theory of cathexis, too many espressos, my itchy psoriasis outbreak, oh, and did my landlord cash my rent cheque?

Beauty has long existed at the intersection of politics, economics, social relationships, self-making, self-erasure, distraction, and everyday life. Today, sleep is a market, and to conquer it promises almost everything cosmetics can’t: not only clean, bright, and youthful skin but also health, longevity, and happiness. In in her 2016 book, “Goop Clean Beauty,” Gwyneth Paltrow calls this lifestyle “clean sleeping,” a failed rebrand of “beauty sleep.” She suggests that sleep is the most important thing in life. Yes, sleep is tantamount to virtue; it can ward off your need for makeup, food, doctors, psychiatrists, and breathing.

But if you’re not Ms. Paltrow, and you can’t get a good night’s rest (in this economy????), Sephora has dozens of results with “sleep” in the product description: sleeping masks, Tarte’s “Fake Awake eyeliner,” silk pillows, bareMinerals’s make-up for sleeping, etc. In a more indulgent vein, when Fenty Beauty launched, Rihanna said that if she has a bad day, she might wear a brighter lipstick to distract from her under-eye circles. And in a recent video about hustling tips for New York Magazine, rapper Cardi B recommended to “wake up early and go to sleep late because time moves fast in New York.” Because she demands that she is heard, I listen to Cardi B (I listen to most black women) and this particular recommendation is not a beauty tip. Like me, Cardi B is an adult child of capitalist rap music, irreversible climate change, and New York City. We have lived to conquer the earthen world. She is advising you to sleep less and get yours.

Beauty, like sleep, is a dirty job. Beauty involves pastes, liquids, and powders that produce stained wine glasses, sullied pillowcases, smudged lips, and fingerprinted light switches. Sleep is not slumber without snores, drool, period-stained sheets, night sweats, terrors, wakefulness, and too-late text messaging. For a dirty job, that is to say, for most jobs, there is no right way to go about it.

Even given the known tyranny of the natural and so-called effortless look, no-makeup makeup is decreasingly but still forcefully lionized as an invisible mask for delicate women. But the openness of our cosmetic bags and skincare routines on Instagram, YouTube, Into The Gloss, and in our beloved group chats, means that we share the work we put in, with strangers, our homies, fans, and, yes, even the IPOs. Voyeurism often follows online exposure, and recently took on new levels with a grown man who invented the misogynist MakeApp that “un-makeups” women, women who have put their time and effort into simply wanting to metamorphosize for a day. Needless to say, I prefer the whip-smart style of Sailor J, whose recent viral YouTube video about contouring, inheritance, and wifedom jests—through expertise, experimentation, and comedy—that flesh is better invisible.

I like to think of my own beauty practices as the ambition to misplace innocence and kill pain in the process. The less sleep I have, the more unregulated I am by my own body, the more I feel my flesh, and the longer I take to get ready. I want to feel what Frank Ocean sang on “Wiseman”—just flesh and blood exists; I want be immortal, like I don’t need sleep, but the fact is I’m working all the time and sleeping even less. I often look it. I usually start my day by staring into the mirror at my under-eyes stained grey like the sky just before a storm and my lips maraschino red—a leftover from passing out the night before without taking off that day’s work. I don’t know what a perfect night’s sleep will make me look like but it’s not the look that I desire most. Rather, I love the feeling of looking like I’ve slept more than I actually have.