I have rules about Glossier, the millennial-pink beauty brand beloved by Instagram: I duck into its showroom after work (and sometimes on my way into the office, shhh…) and head straight for the glass checkout table. I come here for one thing and one thing only: their eyebrow gel Boy Brow, in the brown shade, and literally not one more thing. I divert my eyes from the wall-sized photos advertising their Perfecting Skin Tint (a foundation sheer enough to seem like an ever-so-slightly tinted moisturizer) or their Stretch Concealer (concealer with the same lack of coverage and basically the same consistency). I don’t hate these products — in fact, I wish I could swear by them — but persistent hormonal breakouts from the summer that I graduated from college, moved to New York City, and started my first job have left my face freckled with hyperpigmentation. I don’t need a concealer that stretches; I need one that can do a roundoff back tuck and stick the landing.
Glossier is the aesthetic behemoth of a lot of skin-care conversations, and I don’t begrudge it. My closet and vanity are littered with those pink bubble-wrap bags from purchases past, a buyable way to declare everything I want to believe is true about myself: that I’m carefree and easygoing, my pimples are small and contained, that my lips always look like they’re freshly wet (from the 12 gallons of water I drink daily or from a blow job, who can say really?), that my hair catches the light just so. It’s one brand that is emblematic of a beauty trend that prioritizes the rituals, maintenance, and wellness of skin over vibrant colors and bold contours. That’s fine. “Glossier is makeup for people who don’t need makeup,” one of my friends often repeats. She says it, and we both sigh: I want to be a Glossier bitch, but Fenty does more for my dark spots.
It feels important, then, that in the age of Glossier, the last year has presented two adolescent heroines whose skin isn’t pristine. In Eighth Grade, out this week, and last year’s Lady Bird, we get to see two misfits whose skin looks like the skin of someone actually in high school. I’m not talking about the glamour of high school by way of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage or the rebelliousness of those early aughts Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes movies. Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) and Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) have blotchy, covered-up pimples, and they go unremarked upon, because that’s what your skin looks like when you’re a teenager, when that boy you like hasn’t called you back, when you’re fighting with your best friend after school.
Kayla has the imperfect skin of every 13-year-old, and I hope it lets other girls her age exhale. (Especially those without someone in the house who prioritizes maintenance — “No, your acne cream won’t work for me,” I still tell my divorced dad when he inquires about a new bump.) Pimples declare manifest destiny on her chin and forehead, and they don’t lead conversations, because zits are interlopers you don’t want to bring attention to. One of director Bo Burnham’s most powerful techniques is to keep the camera on Kayla when she doesn’t want to be seen: He shows her awkwardly having to butt into a group photo, the precise act of getting the right angle on a selfie, trying to put on some cover-up.
Lady Bird’s cheeks, pockmarked with pimples, were the first thing I noticed about Lady Bird when I saw it. In that first scene, mother and daughter are in the car, driving home from a college visit, when a familiar fight erupts: Is everything her parents have worked to provide her wasted on her? Lady Bird rolls her eyes and looks out the window. You can see, ever so slightly, a constellation of brownish spots imperfectly masked with cover-up. I thought it was a mistake at first, but there they were in every scene: This was a real girl, with skin like mine.
It was a conscious decision for Ronan, director Greta Gerwig, and makeup artist Jacqueline Knowlton, as the actress herself was recovering from the first acne breakout of her early 20s: “I just felt like it was a great opportunity to show someone as they really are at that age,” Ronan told Racked. “Because most young people do get bad skin! And I don’t think that’s something you get to see much. Growing up, a lot of of the teenage girls I saw in movies and TV shows were played by these fully formed 30-year-olds with great skin. I hope it helps young people — and anyone who struggles with their skin — to connect with the character.”
One of Eighth Grade’s first scenes remixes a familiar visual trope: a protagonist assesses herself in the mirror, maybe changing her posture or trying on a smile. In 13-year-old Kayla’s case, however, she has one eye on her pink Beauty Blender, and another on her phone’s screen. She’s watching a perky makeup tutorial — a “going-out look” — and trying to imitate its results on top of her own face, where pimples have claimed her chin and forehead as their own territory.
How familiar that image is to me: In middle school, I did the same, using a sponge to press Clinique makeup on top of my broken-out zits and into my broken-out skin. In high school, my skin was kept under control by prescription topical creams and monthly visits to the dermatologist, and I’m back to making those monthly visits again. I think about what a difference it would’ve made if I saw this struggle reflected when I was 13 — that poreless, hairless faces are hard for everyone to manage — and what it would’ve meant for a movie to show its lead doing that work. Skin care is something we talk about now, so bad skin ought to be something we see. Whether I’m managing one breakout or four, I’m still Kayla, looking up tutorials and explainers, fixers fast and slow, trying to reflect the luminosity of a Snapchat filter.