It is a Monday morning and I am making a smoothie, which in itself is not unusual. I like smoothies. This, however, is not an ordinary smoothie. It is not, say, a 20oz pineapple and coconut blend from a chain store, like the beverage I carried to class in a Styrofoam cup all the way through college. That kind of smoothie is not cool anymore. Such a beverage could be full of sugar, "toxins," and the kind of ingredients a person could buy at a common grocery store -- which is to say, unacceptable ingredients. This smoothie is different. This smoothie is going to make me beautiful.
I found the recipe for my beauty smoothie on the blog of The Beauty Chef, an Australian naturalist "who is passionate about nature and the profound synergy we share with it." Her name is Carla Oates and she is very glowy and runs a company that, in addition to publishing recipes online, sells dietary supplements with names like "Glow Inner Beauty Powder" and "Collagen Inner Beauty Boost." Though the line is based in Australia, some of the The Beauty Chef's products are now available at Anthropologie, one of several clothing stores that has recently expanded into the booming, ubiquitous, lucrative, and para-religious beauty and wellness arena.
The Beauty Chef is just one of about a half-dozen companies currently peddling what have come to be known as "beauty foods" -- powders, pills and other food additives claiming to keep a person baby-faced indefinitely. There is HUM ($25), a set of 26 dietary supplements for hyper-specific beauty purposes sold at Sephora; Moon Juice ($65), a California-based juice bar and "provider of Cosmic alchemy for a thriving body, beauty and consciousness" that is sold at Urban Outfitters; Dirty Lemon ($65), four targeted cleanses with celebrity cachet that can only be ordered by text message; and Fountain, a bunch of scientific-seeming liquid supplements with names that sound like they've taken a spin through Google Translate ("the 10X Hyaluronic Molecule: Look Good Molecule"). And I have decided to take all of them.
Despite the fact that I am making this smoothie, and, in fact, have signed on to take this stuff for a week to see what happens, I'm not so sure any of it will work. The science behind the supplements is hazy; the marketing copy so breathless that it's making my bullshit detector go berserk; and, frankly, though the trend is still on the upswing, it seems doubtful that the secret to everlasting beauty, sought after for millennia, has been found by an Australian cookbook author with a motive to move product internationally.
Still, I once bought a foot file shaped like an egg that I saw on an infomercial, so I've already stooped fairly low in the name of beauty. What's a few potentially useless powders? Even if I do have to take out a loan to afford them?
Back to this smoothie I'm making. I have tossed raspberries, almond milk, a chunk of avocado, mint leaves, Himalayan salt, and a tablespoon of Collagen Inner Beauty Boost ($50 -- by the way, the prices on these things can vary wildly; it contains macqui berries, acai berries, blueberries, papaya, grape-seed extract, and a proprietary probiotic culture) into a blender with ice, and am now drinking a thick, fruity smoothie with an excellent mouthfeel. I would have added honey, if I'd designed it myself, but it's really not bad. The avocado is a nice touch. I want to know what Collagen Inner Beauty Boost tastes like alone, so I take a tablespoon of it like cough syrup. It tastes… about like cough syrup.
By the time I get to work on The Day of the Smoothie, I look… exactly the same. That's to be expected I guess, this early in the process, but still, I'm disappointed. I kind of hoped I'd have grown 6in and developed an adorable dimple by now. But no. I soldier on. At lunch, I brew myself a glass of Get Gorgeous tea ($10.50) from Be Well Teas to help the process along. It contains rooibos tea, orange peel, hibiscus, chamomile, and some other stuff, and is flavorful enough to drink without sugar, which I like. And the active ingredients are completely different from those in the Collagen Inner Beauty Boost.
For dinner I scour The Beauty Chef's blog for a fancy-sounding recipe made of actual food and settle on mushroom buckwheat risotto. I use farro instead of buckwheat, because despite offering an entire shelf of weird grains (teff, freekeh, amaranth, corrugated corduroy roughage), the store near my house does not sell buckwheat. The risotto comes out remarkably tasty. The mushrooms are tender and the grains are chewy and I feel pretty great when I'm done eating. More importantly, the farro looks fantastic in the clear grain container next to my rice and flour.
After dinner, I drink the first of my six bottles of Dirty Lemon Skin + Hair. This six-day regimen is a recent release from the company, which made its name on a celebrity-endorsed non-cleanse cleanse that you drink every night before bed, in addition to eating normal food. On top of a lemon juice and cayenne pepper base that sounds a lot like the Master Cleanse, a starvation technique popular in the 1970s, the original version of Dirty Lemon relies on activated charcoal, which is what they give you if you get your stomach pumped at the hospital. This one has no charcoal, but contains hydrolyzed fish collagen peptides, an herb called horsetail, and red clover. Its most immediate effect is to make me feel like I have a small bonfire in my chest area. Heartburn, maybe? But it turns me off to the idea of eating anything sweet after dinner. Good job, Dirty Lemon.
The next day, I start my morning with a shot of shilajit, an offering from Moon Juice ($7). Although the description does not explicitly claim it will make me prettier, it does say it will "increase my core vital, creative, and sexual energy," which sounds hot. Plus it's "a hand-harvested resin made of primordial matter gathered from the Himalayan mountain ranges" and is a pretty red-brown color that makes it look like it will taste like berries.
(Please note: shilajit does not taste like berries. I take a sip and then make a face that immediately gives me frown lines. Shilajit tastes like a campfire of cardboard and gym socks.)
Still, as they say, beauty is pain, so I move forward. There is a Juice Generation near my office in Midtown Manhattan. I stop in around lunchtime. "Can I ask you a strange question?" I ask the saleswoman, the same one who has been selling me smoothies for two years and will undoubtedly look at me funny from here on out. I indicate the refrigerator case of pre-bottled juices and packaged lunches to the right of the register. "Would you say any of these foods are 'beauty foods'?"
"This is," she says, pointing at a shot of construction cone-orange sea buckthorn extract. "And, I'd say, coconut oil? Coconut water? Coconut water, definitely."
I pluck -- or should I say gather -- a bottle of sea buckthorn out of the refrigerator case. The marketing copy says it was "wild-crafted from the Tibetan Himalayas." I'm noticing a pattern here. I take a sip. It has a nice floral nose on it, but is possibly the sourest thing I've ever tasted.
Know what would be beautiful right now? A beer.
Because I'm a journalist and believe in honesty, I will tell you that I ate pizza later in the week. But I drank smoothies every morning containing Collagen Inner Beauty Boost, or Beauty Dust, a powdered smoothie additive from Moon Juice that comes in a tin that looks like it should hold a candle. Instead of coffee, I drank beauty tea at work. Every night, after dinner, I drank a bottle of Dirty Lemon Skin + Hair and then slept the dreamless sleep of the immortal.
The last day, I made a mistake. On the container of Beauty Dust, it says not to be afraid to double dose. On Moon Juice's website, a reviewer named Inez M. says she thinks the brown powder tastes like "a light version of cocoa." So I decided to add a second daily serving to my routine, drinking it in a glass of almond milk. Despite enthusiastic stirring, the powder resisted dissolving into the milk. When I drank it, in clumps, it tasted like a coffee-flavored creamer farted into a pile of stevia. I nearly lost all the other beauty foods I'd eaten that morning, but I finished the glass. The experiment was complete.
It's already appalling to consider the outlay of money the upkeep of the modern female requires. Are we supposed to do this in addition to all that?
The main thing I learned about beauty foods, in addition to the fact that many of them taste awful, is that no one seems to agree on what they are. Collagen Inner Beauty Boost relies on a pre- and probiotic formula and fruit antioxidants to prevent cellular damage from free radicals and soothe the gut. Moon Juice's Beauty Dust, meanwhile, contains crushed pearl, rehmannia, and schisandra -- ingredients common to both traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, which are very hot right now, in part because the ingredients are unfamiliar and fit into the Coachella-desert-apothecary-in-a-hut-made-of-feathers-aesthetic currently dominating everything from fashion to housewares. Finally, HUM's Red Carpet supplements, which I sometimes swallowed with Dirty Lemon, are full of oils, specifically black currant and sunflower seed oils, and promised me "glowing skin and shiny fuller hair" in six weeks. It was like crushing up everything in a GNC and taking it all at once, and hoping all of the results would be good.
And maybe they were. Near the end of my week of beauty foods, I realized I hadn't had a single zit in a while. My skin really looked great. I didn't grow any dimples and my legs are still the legs of a 5ft 2in runner, which is to say, mostly thigh. But, when I got a manicure, the manicurist told me my nails were "incredible." This is not a compliment my normally weak, brittle nails have ever garnered before. Was I the tiniest bit prettier? It seemed I was.
I loved playing with my beauty foods, it felt like feeding a doll (if I give it the red powder, its hair grows longer!).
So which of the supplements worked, and why? Good luck figuring that out. Though the only coherent principle I could find behind beauty foods was that they were either 1) part of a foreign medical tradition; 2) an exaggeration of legitimate nutritional science; or 3) hand-removed from the pristine golden beaches of Tibet, there were so many ingredients on offer that at least some of them had to be effective. Just maybe not for the borderline-religious reasons ascribed to them.
"A lot of the ingredients are well-researched, whether it's by a university or proprietary research from the different supplement companies," says Alex Caspero, a nutritionist who consults for HUM. "They don't necessarily do one thing, but the one thing they do that's related to beauty is how it's promoted."
For example, in scientific studies, several of the ingredients in Moon Juice's Beauty Dust have shown evidence of positive effects. According to WebMD, schisandra berry may improve concentration, attention, and speed of thinking, and reduce markers of liver damage. Pearl powder seems to increase the speed of wound healing. Any or all of these effects would, in my opinion, make someone more attractive.
However, the abiding principle behind Moon Juice's line is founder Amanda Chantal Bacon's idea of Moon Kingdoms, which includes the idea of eating an "alkalizing" diet, based on a pretty unlikely-to-be-real claim that eating certain foods changes the body's pH in such a way as to make it inhospitable to disease.
"There's this theory, we call it 'alkaline.' Chinese medicine would call it 'hot and cold.' Most of the foods in the standard American diet -- a lot of animal proteins, processed fats, sugar -- are considered to be more acid-producing. And then fruits and vegetables and plant-based proteins, pretty much just a healthy diet, are considered to be more basic. Whether or not that's true is up for debate," says Caspero. "I look at those things and say, if you are cutting out sugar, alcohol, and heavy animal proteins in favor of fruits and vegetables, you're gonna feel better, so I don't think there's any reason to tell people not to do it."
In short: if sneaking beauty supplements into my diet requires me to drink a fruit and vegetable smoothie every morning, instead of eating a bacon and cheese sandwich, of course I'll look hotter, whether the supplements themselves work or not.
I lost 2lbs on the beauty foods diet. My skin looks great and I didn't faint or have a heart attack.
In Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism," he espouses the historic wisdom that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." It's more dangerous than knowing nothing, because it's very easy to convince yourself you know a lot. Something about the internet and health creates the perfect storm for shallow learning. It's very easy, for example, to tell yourself a story about why eating a standard healthy diet is working for you. It's also easy to learn just one or two things about an obscure ingredient from a faraway place and imagine that it provides fantastical, impossible benefits that you could in no way get from, say, an apple. Bacon's blog claims that "existing in an alkaline state is a key to maintaining a calm and joyful life." She could easily say the same thing about going surfing. Or smoking weed.
Still, I can't say I didn't fall for it a little myself. As I was getting a haircut toward the end of my beauty foods week, my hairstylist told me my teeth looked very white. White enough that she "couldn't stop staring at them." I've decided to credit the pearl powder with this, for no reason other than that pearls are also white (assuming they are white pearls, which I'm going to go ahead and assume).
"I don't think I've ever heard of anyone's teeth changing," says Caspero. "I had one customer come to me the other day and tell me the whites of her eyes were whiter, and ask me what supplement did that. I was like, 'I don't know. I don't even know if that is possible...'"
It was the pearl, is what I'm saying.
Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American poet who wrote the kind of inspirational quotes you often find on Instagram photos of women in workout gear, once said that "beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror." I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I think if you consider the naval-gazing of wellness culture, you can kind of see what he's talking about.
The supplements I bought just to write this story, which were by no means an exhaustive set, cost $250, and hardly any of them were made of actual food. I loved playing with them, it felt like feeding a doll (if I give it the red powder, its hair grows longer!). But also, they seemed impractical: how many bottles of Dirty Lemon Skin + Hair would I have to drink to equal a laser facial treatment and a great haircut? And wasn't eating a bunch of powders and pills and pre-mixed cleanses contrary to the idea of eating natural foods that is supposed to be central to the idea of wellness? I felt like I could go around in circles for weeks.
In the end, I decided I have the same problem with beauty foods that I have with boob jobs, which is that -- while there's nothing wrong with either -- the practices both prey on women's self-esteem, creating an arms race among those who believe their actions can create physical perfection, and who will do anything to achieve marginal improvement in something as fickle and fleeting as human beauty. It's already appalling to consider the outlay of money the upkeep of the modern female requires -- the hairstylist, the manicurist, the waxer, the facialist, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Are we supposed to do this in addition to all that?
Like Caspero says, if beauty foods encourage people to eat healthier, then who are we to tell them not to do it? I lost 2lbs on the beauty foods diet. My skin looks great and I didn't faint or have a heart attack. So my advice is: do it. Take beauty supplements. Eat Ayurvedic adaptogen truffles and lather your face with coconut oil and also drink it and use it as lube and buy a cactus in a macrame hanger. But also: make sure you know what you're sacrificing in order to have these things (chicken wings and the down payment on a house, mostly).
Beauty is pain, but it is also hope, and when you're dealing with hope it is often possible to get carried away. Point in fact: I'm half Italian, and hairy, and one time I got a Brazilian wax that was so hot it left red rectangles all over my bikini line. At the beach, it looked terrible, and I thought, why have I done this when I could have left well-enough alone and looked, while slightly unkempt, better for not having tried to force my will onto my nether regions?
The experience drove home to me the point that the march to physical perfection is a path of ever-diminishing returns, and that I have to know where to stop. So it is with beauty foods. Like the frontier families of the American West, I could walk and walk and walk until somebody died of dysentery, or simply stop at some halfway spot, where there is a river and some nice grass and a decent haircut and the occasional pedicure. While it may not be as devastatingly beautiful as the seaside cliff in California I'd envisioned in the first place, it's a very nice place to live.
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