Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Courtesy of Kiehls
Dr. Michelle Henry is not afraid of a challenge, even it means questioning the ancient belief that the golden ratio of 1.6 represents pure beauty. The number was allegedly used by artists like Leonardo da Vinci to construct aesthetic masterpieces. Nowadays, it’s used as an objective measure of beauty by dermatologists and others. Some practices proudly proclaim that they use the golden ratio as a guide for lip-filler volume.
Not so for Dr. Henry, Kiehl’s new consulting dermatologist, who argues otherwise. Beauty doesn’t have to have rigid boundaries, she says, and there shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter approach, especially when it comes to different ethnicities and races. “There’s no need for me to sit at the table if I’m going to agree with everyone,” she explains. “I could stay home. So when I have a seat, I make sure my voice is heard. I stand up and speak up for those not heard.”
The Cut talked to Henry about the mantra she tells her mentees, the male quest for a Beauty and the Beast–worthy jawline, and why inclusivity means getting rid of “silly mathematical ratios.”
How has Black Lives Matter affected your business and work?
I’ve always invested in equality and social justice. There is lots of marginalization, whether it’s based on race, gender, class, age, or ability. I try to create a space where everyone feels safe. It is interesting and heartening in some ways to see the conversation accepted on a larger scale.
It’s allowed many people to feel comfortable having these difficult race conversations, because it is growth. A lot of laser and skin-care companies are invested and talking about these things openly. They’re saying things like, “Our studies don’t have enough Black patients or people with olive skin. Can you help us?” We can’t fix anything if we don’t feel comfortable about it. We now can talk about race with the same openness as we talk about something like Botox. I am on the diversity and inclusion boards for companies like Allergan, and we are having real conversations, and uncomfortable ones, that will cause change.
What has your experience been like as a Black woman working in dermatology?
Of course, there are hurdles, but great responsibilities that I take on eagerly. Only 3 percent of dermatologists are Black and even less are Black women. My patients fly all over the world to see me, and it’s because they trust me. I know how important it is to maintain that trust while making sure we offer them the best that is available.
My other great responsibility is teaching others. America is becoming browner, and no matter what part of the country you are in, you will have people of color. We need to make sure that people are medically and culturally competent and care for every patient, regardless of their color, age, or background.
Mentorship is another responsibility of mine. I went through lots of hurdles in medicine. When I was in medical school, I was doing my pediatric rotation, and had already matched in dermatology, but this woman in particular didn’t like that. A white male friend of mine and I both had to miss clinic because of an interview, but we made the same error and called the wrong one. We both were to be punished.
However, our punishments were different. He was assigned to write a 15-page paper and redo the clinic, but I was assigned to do that and give a talk to the entire pediatric department as to what I did was wrong. It was one of the first moments that it was so blatant that it was wrong and unfair. I knew I would have to explain to them why it was wrong and stand my ground. I talk to my mentees about situations like this — how to handle them with grace, talk to the right people, fight for what is fair and right, and not internalize them. I often tell mentees, “You are living life with a rain jacket on. Let things roll off you and keep your eyes on the prize.” You know who you are, your purpose, and you stay on track. Most of what people do is about them, and not us. It is about doing what’s right, sticking to your moral compass, and not internalizing as much as you can.
Where would you like to see the beauty industry go from here?
I like the direction it is going of being more inclusive. I feel like there is a lot of box-breaking on the commercial, scientific, and industry levels. For example, in our textbooks, we are breaking the “perfect” ratios we used to force others into, and that is going to have grand reverberations. Take a Black or Asian woman’s lips — sometimes they won’t have the 1 to 1.6, or whatever the classic ratio is. It might be 1:1, and that is okay and beautiful.
I stand on podiums and say, “My lips are 1:1, and look at all my beautiful patients and this model on Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.” Beauty is about harmony. It’s a social construct in some ways, and culturally influenced. But there aren’t rigid boundaries, and we have to appreciate other types of beauty. There is a pressure for those of us invested in diversity to make sure it happens.
We know the dangers that science can do, when it says this is pure and right and accurate. We’ve seen through history, with things like eugenics, the damage it can do. Science is becoming more inclusive, and getting rid of these silly mathematical ratios that don’t reflect the beauty of the entire world. We are going to see more inclusivity in all ways. That is very exciting.
Consumers are becoming smarter, caring more about the ingredients in their products, and demanding more. That pressure will make the industry better, so there will be better products, better lasers and devices, because consumers are demanding it. We are getting more innovative ingredients. That pressure is creating diamonds in our industry.
What was the biggest “no” you heard in your career, and what did you learn from it?
It’s hard for me to answer, and I know why. I don’t hear no, I hear, “Not yet.” I’m sure I’ve encountered countless nos, but I don’t internalize them. I pivot, I move.
In starting my practice, I encountered a lot of “no”s that made me uncomfortable. I need to be able to treat my patients the best way for them and that’s safe for me. Encountering those “no”s consistently for me made me make the big leap to launch a practice during COVID-19.
What do you wish more people understood about what you do?
This is especially pertinent with social media, people doing injections online and everyone being a skin-care influencer, but dermatology is a real medical specialty. We are caring for sick patients, some who are hospitalized.
I am a skin cancer surgeon, a Mohs micrographic surgeon. I treat patients with big skin cancers, melanoma patients, and I’m working with surgical and medical oncologists to co-manage them. I also see lupus patients or those with mycosis fungoides. Grey’s Anatomy upset the entire world of dermatology by first calling us “Dr. Pimple Popper.” Now we hold that name with pride, because Sandra Lee is a friend and I adore her, and she represents all that is good with dermatology. We want the world to know that we are a strong, important medical speciality. Although we don’t advertise the not-so-savory things we do, a lot of the things we do save lives and make us really proud.
What’s the wildest luxury-beauty experience you’ve ever had?
In my practice, I had a very decadent laser day to myself. I did laser resurfacing, Cool Sculpting, and laser hair removal. I had a true, real caviar mask in London, not artificial, like La Prairie, and was definitely well-hydrated. But the intense laser day was probably the most luxurious.
Has the way you think about beauty changed during the pandemic? How so?
It’s given me more time to lean into skin care and try new things and adjust things like retinol concentration. Sometimes it takes time for your skin to get accustomed to a stronger dose and might have redness or irritation. I had time to play around with my regimen and fine-tune it. I started trying at-home peels.
I use an intuitive skin-care routine. I wake up and ask it what it needs. It changes frequently, but the mainstays are — and this is a little naughty — I use retinoid morning and night, because I am acne-prone. I do struggle with hyperpigmentation, so I use it followed by the Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective to manage it and break it up. I like a good, rich cream and a hyaluronic acid serum, which I am always playing around with. Skinmedica has one of my favorite ones right now.
What, in your opinion, is the best affordable beauty product or products? Why?
I do love the Kiehl’s products. They have a long history of creating products which are safe, effective, with good ingredients. It’s always been a part of their mission. They’re inclusive, they’re not gendered, and it’s something everyone can use. Their products are inexpensive and they work. It’s something I really believe in.
Do you think of beauty as self-care? Why or why not?
When I think about skin care, I think about it as health care. But also, yes, how many moments do we have that really serve us? Whether it is applying skin care or makeup, it can be a meditative moment.
I am busy launching a new practice, and all my days are about billing and hiring staff, and sometimes my only moment is applying moisturizer at night. I cherish that moment. Do we need 14 steps? No, but if it feels good to you, and it is a moment you carved out and it makes you feel better, I absolutely believe it’s self-care.
What about eye cream? Is it “worth it”? And which one is your favorite?
I do. Ten years ago, I’d be like, Eye cream is face cream in a small jar. As I see more contact allergies around the eye, and as I’ve aged myself, I see that the first place people age is around their eye. It’s important to makes sure that area is hydrated and not dark. The eye area is the most prone to showing allergy and having rashes. It’s important that you use an eye cream that has been tested for safety. You want ingredients that are formulated safely to not only penetrate, but to be tolerated in that delicate eyelid skin.
Fill in the blank: When it comes to beauty, unfortunately, _______ is worth it.
I love skin care. But there is little that can compete with fillers and Botox. If you have deep, etched-in lines, there is not enough coconut oil on the planet you can put on your face to get rid of them. If you want to change those concerns, you have to use them.
Filler is a beautiful thing. It’s like sculpting and brings out my artistic desires, qualities, and talents. It is augmentative, restorative, and corrective. You can fix asymmetries in the face, fine-tune a face, sharpen or straighten, fix a deflated cheek, or sculpt a jawline. One of the most popular things right now is men coming in wanting that sharp jawline. I call it a Gaston jawline. I’m sure they are like, What’s Gaston? The staff and I know. Maybe it can be called the Ronaldo one now?
I specialize in not giving that humanoid look. I turn more patients away than many. My primary goal is to keep you safe and keep you looking beautiful and natural. Celebrities can spend endless money on, say, 15 syringes. Unfortunately, that will make you look quite abnormal. But for the average person, your filler amount is going to be very small, maybe a quarter of a teaspoon. It’s about making that tiny amount look like something.
Many of those people in the uncanny valley have done a lot of volume and done too much over time. They stand out because all the people with good work, you can’t see. All the work you see is the bad work. It’s a weird bias. There are people walking around everyday with good work that’s excellent because you don’t know, and that’s what we strive for. You can use filler for all sorts of things, including skin quality, and it is pricey, but absolutely worth it.
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