“Internet big sister” Jude Chao on how a passion for skincare led her to share more about mental health, wellness, and the art of real living with her debut book and sheet mask line
‘Skin Care for your soul’ and sexy radishes
“Internet big sister” Jude Chao on how a passion for skincare led her to share more about mental health, wellness, and the art of real living with her debut book and sheet mask line
Chao is a longtime friend of TaiwaneseAmerican.org. In 2019, she shared some of her favorite Taiwanese beauty products for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month; she’s also interviewed fellow Taiwanese American entrepreneur Annie Wang (Glowie Co.) on how they’re both championing Taiwan-made beauty products in an industry that has only recently but rapidly welcomed Asian skincare products, primarily from Korea and Japan, into their fold and onto their shelves.
While she started her blog and social media presence in 2015 to share her passion and expertise on skincare, as with many other influencers, Chao’s platform has evolved to reflect her personal growth and deepening relationship with her followers. In a recent Instagram caption reflecting on being called an “internet big sister,” she writes that “the skincare community has always felt to me like a huge group of friends… and when my friends connect with something I share, it inspires me to keep going in that direction.”
That direction has allowed her to branch out from skincare – once her singular refraction point for talking meaningfully about confidence, wellness, and self-care – to other means of reflecting honestly about our individual needs and how to address them.
Chao’s debut book, Skin Care for Your Soul: Achieving Outer Beauty and Inner Peace with Korean Skincare, delivers on its title promise: it is a tactical guide to developing a skincare routine for glowing, clear skin. But it is emphatically not a directory of products, nor a longform advertisement in disguise. In the introduction, More than Skin Deep, Chao writes that her mother, diagnosed with cancer at a young age, maintained a disciplined skincare regiment as an “expression of optimism… and a way of asserting who she was, even when illness threatened to take that away.”
Chao’s own experiences with adult depression and anxiety affirmed this framework of self-care: that beyond any improvements to appearance (which were necessarily gradual and therefore a true test of patience and endurance), the key function of a skincare routine could also be practice in self-reflection, self-care, and self-affirmation. She is clear to note that skincare is not a substitution for professional therapy or psychiatric care, nor does she condone the predatory, capitalistic implications of so many “wellness brands” (in fact, she devotes an entire chapter to warning about the manipulative and exploitative marketing tactics rife in the beauty industry). Instead, Chao is pragmatic and wise in the way of big sisters, pairing thoughtful advice with stern reminders that while perfection may be widely advertised, it is not a realistic or reasonable goal. (Unlike most big sisters, however, she is also readily forthcoming with niche expertise, like the extraction process of snail mucin or the limitations of federal regulation in beauty products.)
In addition to her debut book, Chao is also launching her own skincare brand, Love, Jude, featuring “a line of sheet masks special enough to stand out from the crowd and affordable enough to use all the time.” The masks are “extra juicy” and, to our delight, made in Taiwan, “not just because we’re Taiwanese, but because almost all the masks we’ve really loved have come from Taiwan.”
We were so thrilled to have Chao join us again at TaiwaneseAmerican.org to share more details about Skincare for Your Soul and Love, Jude.
First of all, congratulations on the book! I know you’ve always been a writer, but how was putting this book together different from your past experiences as a beauty blogger, and even a tech journalist?
Thank you! It was a completely different beast. I’ve been a little bit spoiled by working almost entirely in short formats—Instagram captions and 1,000-1,500 word articles have been my bread and butter for years—so planning and executing on my idea for an entire book on a more or less singular topic forced a huge change of pace. Pretty much every point of the outlining and drafting process involved a ton of self doubt. I wasn’t sure I had enough to say to actually fill the pages; I wasn’t sure whether I’d organized my thoughts clearly or effectively. The thing is, I’m used to writing for an audience I already know. Most of the people that I engage with on my social media have a pretty established knowledge base and can kind of pick up wherever I start.
In the end, I reminded myself of college writing’s focus on defining terms, and I reminded myself that I’ve routinely cranked out 3,500-word blog posts on very specific topics. And once my editor cleared my outline and validated that it does make sense, I found the writing went much easier than I expected it to, even during the summer of 2020.
The experience was a lot lonelier than my usual writing life. It took months to draft the book, and I didn’t share any of it with anyone but my editor, so I didn’t have that instant feedback and gratification that I get from blogging or social media. I found myself having to take a lot of leaps of faith that what I was producing worked.
Beyond people who are already skincare enthusiasts, is there a particular audience that you’d love this book to reach? How could a meaningful skincare routine impact their life?
So, something I’ve learned over the last few years is how rare it is for people to value and prioritize their self care. I don’t necessarily mean the fun bits, like getting a massage, spa day, and all that stuff, but the deeper level of committing to practicing self discipline to improve something about yourself that’s truly for yourself.
This isn’t a criticism of people so much as it is a criticism of a society set up to make that deeper level of self care seem unrealistic or even selfish. For so many people, there’s just not much energy left after the daily grind of just trying to get by, pay the bills, take care of families and households, and find just a little time to enjoy life. Ultimately that daily grind becomes detrimental. It’s common to hear that your body and health will fall apart after a certain age, or that it’s normal for your life and interests and passions to shrink and wither as you get older. These things may be common and normal, but I don’t believe they’re inevitable and I definitely don’t believe they’re the way to a fulfilling life.
I recognize that I’m coming from a place of privilege when I say it’s important to carve out a little bit of time every day to do something for yourself, to work towards some goal that’s for your own benefit and no one else’s, whether it’s fitness, some creative hobby, or anything else, but I do think it’s more possible than many of us realize. And skincare is a uniquely well positioned way to ease into this. It doesn’t have to take much time—a few minutes in the morning and a few minutes at night. It actually doesn’t require a lot of initial investment, since there are some really great and budget-friendly brands producing really solid products these days. The rewards of it are visible and tangible. And since we do live in a society that values outward appearances, the confidence boost that we get from improving our looks can be very real.
Was there anything you really wanted to discuss in this book, but ultimately left out?
I originally planned to include a lot more discussion about online skincare communities. I’m a huge cheerleader for the Asian skincare and general skincare communities—I got my start by participating on Reddit’s skincare forums, after all—and I’ve seen so many people benefit so much from them. It’s not just about having a pretty much endless resource of product reviews and feedback from real consumers, but also about the connections we can make and the friendships we can form. Those side benefits can be just as great for someone’s mental health and sense of joy as the products themselves.
Ultimately I decided not to write as much as I wanted to, for a few reasons. One is that I don’t want to set the expectation that if you want to get serious about skincare, you have to engage with these communities. They can be great, but the fact is that for every person who does end up doing so and enjoying it, there are probably 25 others who really just want to figure out which cleanser they need and move on. That’s just as valid.
The other main reason is that as great as these communities can be, I do recognize that they can also become detrimental for some people. Like any other corner of social media, it’s easy to fall prey to the lure of likes and fame. It’s pretty common for people to start a skincare blog, Instagram, or Youtube channel out of a genuine passion, but then get caught up in the numbers game. The self-imposed pressure to pull in more followers and more engagement can lead to a lot of frustration and burnout. And, again, it’s not at all necessary. So in the end, I decided I’d rather just leave it at making readers aware that these communities exist and can be beneficial. Where people take it from there is up to them, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.
What’s something that really frustrates you about the beauty and wellness industry? Why was it important to devote so much of this book towards resetting expectations?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop being frustrated at the constant manipulative and downright deceptive marketing in the beauty and wellness industries. Overblown claims and falsified results are everywhere. And it’s really, really easy for people—especially younger people—to fall for it. There are all these viral skincare videos where they show a close-up of skin with very exaggerated textural issues, then apply some product and wipe it off and the skin looks completely smooth and perfect afterwards. If you don’t realize it’s all editing, you can get scammed so easily.
The expectations this kind of marketing sets then trickles down to influencers and consumers. People feel they need to present equally flawless results in order to get attention, so they start doctoring their own online images. The AI photo editing apps out now are terrifying, they’re so convincing. It all creates this vicious cycle of totally unattainable expectations and the disappointment and continued consumption that follow.
I would like people who read my book to come away from it with a more realistic idea of what’s attainable and what’s pointless to aspire to. Feeling that it’s possible to achieve total perfection tends to make anything short of perfection feel like failure. It robs us of the genuine satisfaction and pride we could otherwise feel at the progress that we do make.
Okay, so let’s talk about your forthcoming skincare line. First of all, what’s with the sexy radishes?
Oh my God. I wish I’d know back in the day that I’d be called on to explain myself about this!
Some people might know that one of my very, very good friends is Chel Cortes, who founded the indie skincare brand Holy Snails. One of the foundational elements of our friendship is inappropriate, juvenile humor of the eggplant emoji and oddly sexy Japanese vegetable variety. So when she stumbled across a Japanese blog that showed pictures of a very large, plush, seductively posed daikon radish, she sent me the link right away…and surprised me with the large version of a sexy daikon plush not long after. The sexy radish made it onto my social media, and for some reason, it just stuck. It’s a part of my lore now!
Also, I still use the sexy radish body pillow. I have sciatica, and when my back is feeling sensitive, I like to sleep with my leg up on it to relieve the pressure on that nerve!
What are you proudest of? What’s the most constructive feedback you’ve gotten?
Ever since my original essay on depression and my skincare routine came out in 2015, I’ve connected with so many people from so many different walks of life who share a similar experience of depression and were inspired to use tools like skincare routines to help manage it. Similarly, I’ve connected with so many fellow Asian Americans who share my excitement at Asian brands and products gaining recognition and popularity in the West. I strongly believe that we find our best path in life by following the doors that open and the pursuits that bring us into the greatest connection with others, and I’m so proud that I made it this far and have been able to affect so many people just by being open about my own story and my own passions. There may be an alternate universe version of me somewhere, who followed a more standard and stable course in life and may not have found the fulfillment and purpose that I have today. I’m so grateful every day that that’s not the reality I live.
(Also, I’m proud to have brought regular sunscreen and sheet mask use into the lives of so many people!)
The most constructive feedback I’ve gotten has to do with privilege. There are people who have taken the time to respectfully point out statements I’ve made that come from a place of privilege I hadn’t considered before. The most recent one had to do with a post of mine dealing with my definition of healthy skin, and the commenter asked me to consider the privilege inherent in defining it as skin that is “free of disease.” I had meant conditions like skin cancer, but this person (who is a friend) asked me whether that also means that I think people with chronic skin conditions like rosacea are shut out from having “healthy skin.” I have at other points been called up on my definitions and suggestions for health and fitness as well. And although I’m not anywhere close to a perfect person, and I do bristle when I’m confronted harshly, feedback that’s posed to me civilly does always give me something to reflect on and improve in the future. We’re all growing and learning all the time, and I’ve been glad to have certain blind spots in my perspective pointed out.
We love that you’re such a champion of “Made in Taiwan.” Can you tell us a little about the sourcing and development process?
It started with a stroke of luck! My partner Eric has a number of manufacturing connections in Taiwan, and when he realized that one of those connections is to one of the major sheet mask manufacturers in the country, he asked me what I thought about creating a sheet mask line. It’s been one of my dreams for years, so of course I said yes, let’s move forward and see what we can do!
He and our factory have been a dream to work with. The initial part of the process involved getting samples of other products they make so that I could gauge whether I thought they would be a good fit and figure out which materials, packaging, and formulation themes I wanted. They were extremely flexible and open—I was able to give them specs for exactly what I hoped to achieve. Since I’m not a chemist or formulator myself, my role in product development was to decide on the key themes, effects, and hero ingredients we wanted to include. Then I trusted their formulators to work with that and create the products that would fit my concepts. In the meantime, Eric worked on our packaging designs, which are so amazing and so very us. I also started reaching out to vendors and putting together our launch and marketing strategies.
I’m in California and the factory is in Taiwan, and we were working on this project throughout the early days of the Covid pandemic, so the development process was quite lengthy. After each iteration, our factory sent us samples, which we and some of our friends would then test. I’d send feedback, they would tweak the product, then repeat the sending of the samples until we all felt we got it right.
While it took a long time, it was also basically a dream come true. The last time I was involved in a project like this, the brand that offered to collaborate with me on a sheet mask wasn’t willing to make many changes to the formula they first offered. The product created for that earlier collaboration wasn’t anything close to my ideal sheet mask, and I pulled out of that partnership once I realized I wouldn’t be comfortable putting my name on that label.
This time around is an entirely different story. We all put in the time, effort, and investment to come up with masks that I am so proud to put my name on—the final products are my own ideal sheet masks. It feels great and I’m so excited for them to launch!
Finally, how can we encourage each other to engage more thoughtfully in practices of self-care?
I think there are two pieces to this question.
As we work to develop our personal practices of self-care, I think it benefits us most to be mindful of our motivations and our internal narrative. Our self talk, as therapists call it. To me, self-care isn’t something we perform to make ourselves more pleasing to others. That may be an end result and a nice side effect, but if our motivation is extrinsic rather than intrinsic, I think it runs the risk of becoming a source of additional stress rather than a way to manage and reduce it. Similarly, our internal narrative around our reasons for self-care should be considered. No matter what positive and healthy habit we adopt for our self-care, if we adopt it with a critical and negative attitude towards ourselves, it will again become a source of stress rather than a tool to fight it. Self-care looks different for every person, but what remains the same is that we practice it out of love and care for ourselves.
The second piece comes in when we choose to publicize our self-care practices—I’m thinking primarily of social media, but this applies in any online or in person interaction too.
There’s a fine line to walk between being honest and open, as we have the right to be, and framing our personal tastes and goals in ways that can be hurtful to others. When someone decides to share the progress they’re making in their weight loss journey or uploads a before and after photo displaying the results they’ve made in smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles or fading dark spots or lightening their overall skin tone, the way that they discuss these changes can send a message that they found their “before” selves (and therefore, other people who resemble their “before”) to be inferior to their “after.”
Ultimately, I think before and afters, progress photos, and expressing our joy at the changes we make to ourselves is a great thing. It’s inspiring to others and often gives us extra motivation to put in effort on ourselves. But it’s worth it to be mindful and careful about the language we use as we describe the aspects of ourselves we’re trying to change. In fact, taking some time to think through how others may interpret our stories can be self-care in itself, as it helps us practice more empathy and thoughtfulness towards others. In the social media age, anyone can have an audience, and having an audience does confer responsibility.