Real Life is Boring: Self-Care with Arabelle Sicardi

by Sara Black McCulloch


I’ve been following Arabelle Sicardi’s work for a long time. As a writer and beauty editor at Buzzfeed, her writing always hits me simultaneously in the heart and gut, no matter the topic: beauty politics, feminism, queering the beauty industry, bodies, robots, anything — I remember I’m a human being with feelings.

I wanted to talk to Arabelle about self-care after I read the way she writes about bodies and rituals. Arabelle’s strategies, as you’ll find out, are about survival and resistance. They’re also a way for her to gauge her body and recognize it. An element of self-care I want to emphasize is that preserving yourself isn’t necessarily preventative. Self-care isn’t going to erase problems, bad days, or burnout. Self-care is a way to strengthen you so that you can get up and fight back as hard as possible. Self-care doesn’t happen when you’re feeling the effects of a breakdown; self-care is something you do as much as you can before its onset. Bodies, by design, were never made to last, and that’s ok. The point of this is to not punish your body. There’s a huge difference between trying to make yourself someone you’re not and allowing yourself to become the person you want to be.

What does self-care mean to you? How do you define it for yourself?

Self-care means, for me, just checking in with myself in whatever capacity that requires. Sometimes it means just looking in the mirror for an extended period of time and remembering that I am not just a brain. I am a person with a body I have to take care of and acknowledge. I have so much body dysphoria as I get older and I don’t look at my body a lot. I look at it as a means of…it’s just like this thing that I use to wear the things that I love; it’s not a thing that I inherently give a shit about. Bodies are unreliable narrators. Having a chronic illness has led me to see my body more as a nuisance, something I have to negotiate, so self-care for me is checking in and letting myself know that it’s ok, you don’t have to love it all the time. You can make yourself comfortable and do what you need to do to make yourself feel more content with what you have.

Right now, I’ve started working out on a regular basis because I need a way to check in with my body. It’s unpleasant; I’m not one of those health freaks that loves sweat. I’m not. I mean, god bless them. I started because when I was diagnosed, I stopped exercising immediately. I had been an extremely active swimmer and gymnast. I’m exercising more, because I’m in remission now.

You wrote a great post on chronic illness and how you create a narrative for yourself when you’re at the doctor’s office, waiting for tests. Creating a narrative for yourself is important because so much of the time, other people are creating one for you. How do you self-care during those moments when you’re back at the doctor’s office?

I just finished this post on hospital glam and when I was talking to the person I interviewed, we talked about how we have really bad relationships with our doctors because we actually make self-care a huge priority on the days we go to the doctor. And some doctors don’t really get it and they don’t see the humour in that or something, which dehumanizes the whole situation because then you recognize that they see you not as a person feeling insecure; they see you as like…something on the page that needs to be fixed. So I’ve been dumped by doctors before and I’ve had really bad experiences with them because of how I dress or how I look. They treated me very poorly because they didn’t really understand it.

I have these days where I have to go in…I tend to do normal drag for them. It depends on the context of the appointment. Sometimes I have to get X-rays and tests pretty regularly, so on those days, I’ll wear super fancy, bougie-ass lingerie and just make them deal with it, because if I’m going to have you feeling me up and, like, putting all these stupid things on me, you’re going to need to deal with my Agent Provocateur. But on other days, I’ll wear sweatpants and stuff, and sometimes I still wear lingerie, I just need something a little bit more private. I’ll really pay attention to what perfume I use. I used to go directly from school to the doctors in like, whatever get-up. I used to dress pretty wild when I was in high school, and they would give me shit, but now I’ve kind of toned it down — not directly in response to that, but just because the way I dress has changed and now it’s more about my mental space and the secret stuff no one else can see, so it’s gotten better.

Can we talk about perfume? You’ve mentioned Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent before, and I want to know how scent can be self-care?

Well, scent is a really intimate thing, and it’s not visible. It’s a kind of mental space and it does trigger your memories in ways that textiles or whatever might not. I’m a huge romantic when it comes to #aesthetics, so for me, perfume is always bridging somewhere between my memories and my dreams, without revealing this to other people. The cool thing about scent is that nothing ever really smells the same way on other people. I can always recognize when someone’s wearing a specific perfume because it gives you a specific jumble of notes, but the way the smells come to you, the order might be a bit different — like the length of the time something wears is completely different from person to person. It’s a very intimate experience even if it’s ready made for you.

Perfumes are always going to be different and unexpected, and it’s this nice, quiet, inside joke with yourself because it’s just your body. It’s quiet and you’re going to be with yourself all day, and people might come and go, but you can always just check in with yourself and smell your wrists and see how your body is doing with that perfume.

Does perfume help you establish some kind of connection to your body? To remind yourself that it’s there?

Definitely, because otherwise, I would not give a shit. I like perfume because of the ritual of picking it out and then seeing how it progresses. You have to touch yourself in ways that looking into a mirror…sometimes looking into a mirror can trigger me, but I don’t have to look at myself to just be able to smell, so it’s nice to be like, “Okay, [sniffs wrist], things are going to be alright. I’ve got Tuscan Leather on.”

What does your self-care routine look like and does it change on a regular basis?

It changes pretty much all the time because my self-care is so tied to my my job: because I am a beauty writer, testing out things is both an obligation and a pleasure, which is a wonderful privilege. Right now…actually, when I was super-depressed, I had a very intricate, long-winded routine because I couldn’t get out of bed. It took me eight or nine hours to get out of bed on any given day, so I would listen to rain sounds on my phone and go through two podcasts and then I would use hand moisturizer and work it into my hands and just be like, yes, this is all I need, because I am and always have been obsessed with hands. Then, I pick out my perfume for the day, take a shower, and put on perfume. Sometimes I would unintentionally skip class because I was just so focused on doing my makeup so it didn’t look like I was crying. Or, I would just do my makeup and then take a selfie, because if I have a selfie, it means I’m still here. By the time I’d be done with all that shit, class was over.

Painting my nails is super important when I’m stressed out. I used to change my nail color every day. I’m obsessed with nail care, fingers, and hands, and holding myself. It’s probably why I really like fabrics a lot. I like going into expensive stores and even vintage stores and just seeing how things are constructed and the quality. I don’t like a lot of designers, but I appreciate craftsmanship, so sometimes I’ll go to Jeffrey, which is this bougie store, and I’ll look at how Lanvin is constructed or Céline or J.W Anderson because everything is so perfectly placed. It’s kind of like going to The Container Store, because it’s just so calm and everything is as it should be, and you know that they took their time and every possible thing has been considered. One of my most common things is that I’ll go to Sephora — I never pass a Sephora without going in. It’s physically impossible for me to not go into a Sephora. I can’t do it.

Is it because everything in Sephora is ordered? When your mind is reeling, you know it’s this place where everything has order to it, so it helps in a way?

No, because there are so many different Sephoras here and their structures are all different. They’re usually madhouses here. There are some that are very quiet, but I’m not in those ones. I’m in the one at Union Square or SoHo, and those are always pretty crowded. What I do like about them is that I can inventory my collection against their collection and see what’s out and see the order and compare things. That kind of mundane inventory of mental space is just stress-free and smug and that makes me feel better. I have no guilt!

What I really like is that Sephora is a place where femininity is prioritized. It’s one of the few places in a public venue where you should be playing with makeup and presentation in ways where anywhere else, in public, it’s weird and people would look at you. If you do your makeup on the train, people will stare at you and give you side-eye like, get it together. In Sephora, you’re the weird one if you’re just looking and not doing something because everyone else is creating.

Also, it’s a perversion, because I go to Sephora to gaze at girls creating things and I think it’s the greatest place in the world because all these people love lipstick and it just makes me so happy! I didn’t really have a lot of sleepovers or a large group of girls to hang out with for a really long time in childhood. I didn’t get a coven until Rookie, because my first couple of girlfriends ended up being total mean girls and traumatized me for a lot of time, so I like going there to remind myself that if nothing else, you can always talk to a girl about makeup. They may not like makeup, but you’ll have something to talk about because you can talk about them not liking makeup. It’s just a thing that’s foolproof and that’s very comforting to me.

My makeup project Most Important Ugly was…I came up with in Sephora, actually! Like, the questions I asked everyone. It was this series of interviews I called “Therapy Sessions in Sephora” because I came up with it when I was having a panic attack there. I wrote down those questions for myself as a way of dealing with my own anxieties and finding a route in which I could find solitude and recognition in myself, so I asked people these questions to figure out how appearance and identity intersects for them.

Can you talk more about monstering and why it’s so important?

Girl Monstering was the actual name of my last photo exhibition, but I don’t like how it connotes…I just wish I could change the name of the girl monstering tag! Monstering is this space between mythology and female experience, or the experience of the other in general because we’re so marginalized, and there’s so much to do with our terrors and anxieties that we’ve become, in other people’s eyes, these horrible creatures if we do one thing or the other. So monstering is my way of navigating that pigeonhole and making it a place of relief instead of punishment. Because I totally don’t care if people find me uncomfortable, I find if I’m upsetting someone because of the way I look, then fuck them, like that’s great. I’m doing a great job. It’s a place of navigating the experience and finding a way of connection. I love mythology. I could just think about cyborgs and mermaids and whatever. I love it because it’s like…real life is boring. [laughs]

How can transformation factor into self-care?

I’m always looking to explore the mundane in new ways. That’s why I find bodies and what we do with them so interesting because no one ever really has the luxury or the time to think about these things, but as a writer, that’s my job. I get to navigate that.

For transformation, I’ve gone through chapters of my identities quite publicly. Monstering was my way of navigating anger about catcalling and being forced to deal with the male gaze constantly, because if I was going to have to deal with it, I wasn’t going to surrender to it. I was going to make them as uncomfortable as they made me. I’ll be the monster that they’ve forced me to be. I use makeup to transform my external self into a barrier between myself and “the gaze.”

Then I really got into robots and stuff because I was experiencing so much dysphoria. I was definitely in this post-innocence phase because I was assaulted, so I didn’t want to get in touch with my body because it just fucking repulsed me. Like, what does this serve? It’s just a chalice of pain. Take it away. I couldn’t be present because I had to get passed it, so I created a narrative where I was passed it. Cyborgs are post-innocence, that’s what it is. Cyborgs don’t remember, and they don’t remember that part of themselves. They’ve just been reformulated.

Yes, transformation is very important for me because the narratives I build help me survive and I can only build them through the means that I have: writing, writing about them and creating a nice thing with my body and checking in with it. I’m not a good illustrator or physical artist — I can’t create the monsters in my head myself through any other means, but I can with eye shadow, or with the keyboard. That’s what I have. That’s what I’m going to work with. I need it and so I do it the way I have to.

Can we talk about “acne cures,” and how people feel the need to come up to you and offer tips? It never helps and only draws more attention to it.

Your flaws aren’t bad, they’re just there. People don’t bother me as much as they used to and maybe it’s because I give off that don’t fuck with me vibe. I do tend to wear makeup most of the time I’m out and it’s not because I don’t want people to say anything, it’s just that…BB cream feels nice, so I’m going to wear it as much as I want to. I do have to give myself one day off a week to not wear makeup because otherwise my skin will get really clogged and disgusting and that’s sad. Beauty is terror, I guess.

I want to wear makeup all the time and when I don’t, I get super obsessed with the lack of it. The concept of “natural look” and the “healthy glow” is just so fucking horrible to me, and so the fact that I don’t already naturally have that artificially made glow just gives me more neurosis, so I’ll just look in the mirror and go: “Look at those congested pores. Look at the redness. You need to tweeze your eyebrows. You have blackheads, you should scoop them out even though you know it’ll make them worse. You know that toothpaste is looking mighty good for that acne right now even though it’ll give you a chemical burn?” You just go into a K-hole of hatred, so it’s like, you know what? I’m good.

Do you have a skin care routine?

Right now, I’m focused on getting my skin back to a “better” place. My acne is so linked to my chronic illnesses because of hormones and stuff and it’s going to be impossible for me to have perfectly good skin. Good skin means that I’m not…sick anymore? For so many people, acne is linked to bad hygiene and illness and all these shitty things and so I recognize that. I don’t mind my acne, it’s just that because I have so many neuroses. If I have a large breakout, it makes everything else worse because I will pick at my zits in my sleep because I won’t allow myself to do it while I’m awake, so it’s a conscious thing I have to work on.

I have an eight-step skin care routine right now, so I spend my time on that. I started giving myself facial massages and it made me feel so much better about myself. I don’t think a lot of people spend enough time washing their face — they just get it wet and they put on the cleanser and they rinse. It doesn’t take more than a minute. That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. It’s supposed to take a little bit more time than that. And my facialist always yells at me because I used to do that and it just congests your pores, so now, I spend at least three to four minutes washing my face because it’s this check-in time too. You have a method with the lymph nodes and all that stuff. It’s a way of accepting my neuroses and taking pleasure in it a bit because I tend to touch my face a lot and scratch it when I sleep. Washing my face is a temporary permission to go wild.

How do you know you’re becoming the person you want to be?

I do these things because I have to survive, but survival isn’t progression — it’s the standard you need to keep. It’s like treading water, so if I don’t do self-care, then I’m just going to be stuck in my own head and detached from my own body. The way I progress and my perception of myself is completely mental. My personal appearance…I mean, I guess my hair color changes a lot…but I’ve liked the same things obsessively since I was 14 or so. I’ve had a very distinct sense of self since I was a teen girl. I’m lucky for that because I knew exactly what I wanted to do and what I loved and had people who supported me when I was becoming a teen girl (who would have otherwise been very insecure). I had those things since the beginning and they have not changed; they’ve only gotten stronger, bigger, better, and larger. It’s not about transforming into a new person, it’s about transforming into the person that I already know that I am. When I say I feel like I’m “clawing out of a shell,” it means that I’m stuck. I’m not at a point that I want to be, of course, but I know that I’m somewhere beyond all the bullshit, so I just have to unblock. I’m already there, I just have to let myself get there mentally.

Does being in touch with your feelings help?

I don’t really think I’ve cried out of stress or anything since…I cried a lot before I was assaulted and then after I didn’t cry because of it and I didn’t cry during it. I tried watching The Notebook a couple of months ago to cry because usually that movie destroys me. I just fall on the floor sobbing. It’s embarrassing. It didn’t really make me cry. I feel like I cried during a really difficult edit that was horrible and it didn’t really make feel better — it was just this thing I had to do. Crying doesn’t make me feel better. What makes me feel good is just lying on the floor face down, in the dark, listening to Beach House and smelling candles. I think it’s why I’m still so fond of perfumes. You can just concentrate all of your presence into your nose and that’s it. You don’t need to think about anything else. It’s like, “Well, what does this smell like?” That’s your only thought. It’s very calming.

Do you believe in catharsis?

Yes. I totally get catharsis when I’m writing a first draft or describing a perfume for the first time. It’s rare now because I’m writing more difficult stories and none of them are entirely pleasant. I don’t experience it when things are published. It’s rare now because I don’t think writing is easy but it’s there.

I find the most joy when I’m watching someone I love put makeup on or get dressed. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me.

What makes it beautiful to you?

It’s just an intimate routine and I value intimacy. It’s why I like beauty stuff so much. Intimacy and femininity are obviously so tied together because they’re both subjected to the private sphere of our lives and so when you get to see how someone presents themselves, or the process of them becoming who they want to be — it’s a privilege. No one gets dressed randomly in the street, you do that in the safety of your own home when no one is looking, so when you get to see that happen, that’s a form of love, even if it’s a complete stranger. It’s just a little bit of love. I don’t even care about sex or anything, I just want to see people button up their shirts. It’s the prettiest thing.

What do you do when you need to self-care? Is there someone or something you turn to?

I’m really obsessed with ASMR videos, actually. They’re important to me because they’re just fantasy. You don’t have to be present in your anxiety. They speak at a very specific, quiet pace and it’s very tactile. Everything that they do is meant to make you feel tingles and make you feel safe and happy. It’s just very calming. They’re the greatest things on the internet. When I was really triggered a couple of months ago, I was rendered incoherent and I just stopped talking and communicating with people. I was just on my friend’s bed, face down, like a sad, goth log and she put on my favorite ASMR video that’s just this roleplay of a viewer going to a spa and it’s an hour and a half long and I just turned my head a little so I could watch it with one eye and then I took a bath with my friend and we just sat in the water together and didn’t talk. We were just there. It was nice.

Apart from videos, Audre Lorde is very important and I’ve been thinking about her a lot because of her writing on The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. There’s this one point she makes on the intimacy between women and how it’s redemptive because we’re not allowed that in patriarchy and it gives me a lot of comfort. I see what she means when I think about my relationship to makeup and to other girls. Makeup is very queer to me and the fact that it’s about identity and creation and never quite getting exactly what you want — like, it’s not quite there all the time. Queerness is just kind of positive failure, so that’s something I think about more and more. I like Kathy Acker a lot, too. I also just love reading women writers. I’m lucky that my best friends are great writers. Bhanu Kapil is probably my favorite writer. If you read her Incubation: A Space for Monsters, it’s like “I see you, Arabelle. I see you. I see where you’re coming from.” Women writers are my favorite people in the world.

Do you read a lot of body horror?

I do, but not as much as people might think and not as much as I’d like to. When I read something, and I really like it, I tend to get obsessive and I read it over and over and over again until it becomes a part of my brain and my stem cells. I do love reading it and it’s not because I see myself in it, but it’s a great distraction from my own terror.

Like taking a bath for me, sometimes it’s about letting go. I never see it as purification, necessarily. I see it as actively acknowledging my own filth. There’s this specific difference between purity and beauty and it’s very troubling to me. I never want to be pure or good because “good” is a subjective term based entirely on someone else’s power politics and shit. I will just not have that. “Pure,” “natural” — all that shit — when it comes to beauty and self-care, I will have none of it. Give me the science, the filth. My favorite perfumes right now are filthy. I’m looking into one that’s based off our blood types and another one based off dirt, cum, and oranges. Those are the things I am contemplating as beautiful objects, so it’s never about purification.

Do you talk to other women about self-care?

Totally. That’s the premise of my art. I just want evidence of our labors. When we talk about these things, there’s this unspoken tension between class and race in there and I like talking about them and verbalizing that tension because if we don’t talk about them it doesn’t mean that they’re both not there. So much of beauty is fucked up and connected to all these various oppressions so I like talking about beauty because it’s also a good way of acknowledging all those privileges and both those connections. It’s very important. When I want to talk about beauty, I’m very careful about who I want to talk about it with. I find the most pleasure in solidarity and that the most fruitful conversations come from finding other people of color, other queer people, trans people, because we care so much, because so little of ourselves is seen on the other side. It’s just the way we survive. We’re mindful and deliberate with something that people would expect to be very vain. Beauty is a privilege, but it’s also a very necessary means of survival. It’s rebellion for so many people.

Previously: Self-Care and Survival

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. Mute her on the Internet here.