My relationship with beauty is complicated. I can look in a mirror and oscillate between utter self-loathing and a delusional God complex all within 10 minutes.
Deep down I know that beauty is merely a subjective, nebulous and fleeting concept. It’s culturally specific, personal and certainly more than skin deep. The beauty industry, on the other hand, is a strictly capitalist venture, strategically manufacturing insecurities in order to sell ‘solutions’.
But to be human is to sit at the intersection of contradictions. I’m critical of the industry while simultaneously participating in it. Although I try to live a meaningful life, a stupid amount of my time revolves around beauty at its most superficial level.
Of late I’ve become increasingly fatigued with beauty or, at least, trying to perform ‘natural beauty'.
Around 2014 the beauty industry underwent a seismic shift to embrace a ‘natural’ look appealing to young, socially conscious consumers. It was marketed as an equitable approach to beauty under the universalising adage of ‘your skin, but better’.
Millennial makeup brands like Glossier popularised this trend, offering an alternative to the fuller coverage aesthetic of the 2010s. We swapped foundation for aqueous skin tints, glitter for ‘lit from within’ dewy highlighters, purchased BB creams, CC creams, barely-there concealers and translucent setting powders to top it off.
The cardinal rule remains; skin first, makeup second. The former is essential, the latter a choice. And if you choose to wear makeup, it should be minimal.
I spent most of 2019 and a good part of 2020 trying to master the ‘no make makeup look’, à la the easy, breezy, beautiful Glossier girls on my Instagram feed. Despite my best efforts to appear more effortlessly 'pretty’, I was never quite satisfied with the results. At one point, my dutiful layering of dewy skin products made me look like an over-glazed donut with eyes in the middle.
While I was initially seduced with the industry's embrace of an authentic, your-skin-but-better aesthetic, the more I tried, and failed, to master ‘no makeup makeup’ I wondered whether this was another capitalist scam masquerading as progressive?
Ironically, the process of achieving this look is a scrupulous task. It’s not literally about wearing no makeup which, of course, is a perfectly good option should you so choose. Rather, it's an elaborate illusion of applying makeup in a strategic yet minimal way to optimise your pre-existing features.
It’s supposed to enhance, not alter, making you appear more ‘naturally’ beautiful. Ironically, the process requires numerous products carefully layered atop one another giving the appearance of minimal cosmetic intervention. And that’s not accounting for the meticulous skin care routine required before you even touch your tinted moisturiser.
I took more time trying to ‘optimise’ my natural features than sticking cheap rhinestones on my eyelids with some bold eyeshadow and calling it a day. The various YouTube tutorials instructing users how to get ‘no makeup makeup’ are prescriptive, paint-by-numbers routines that end up erasing your facial idiosyncrasies turning you into a gaussian blur.
There are many ways to look expressive, but apparently only one way to look ‘natural’. It’s subjugation to the social norm, not creativity.
I wonder if, at a deeper level, the fixation on making women adopt a ‘no makeup’ look parallels how we’re so often expected to move through the world: effortlessly, dissolving into the background, not making a spectacle of oneself.
It’s as though we’re locked into a perpetual paradox of doing the absolute most to show the least. The goal is to look pretty and consumable, with no sharp edges poking out. Brands like Glossier sell women this aspiration, that with a single dot of blush and a smudge of concealer, you, too, can become a dewy-skinned darling about these streets.
As Rina Nkulu writes: “If a Glossier girl is a real girl, a real girl is a Glossier girl; soft and wet, dusty, pink and light blue and barely there. An amalgamation of mood-boarded parts; parted lips and wet faces, hair slicked back. Her skin peachy or pinkish or golden brown. A Sofia Coppola-style romantic 'look' - upper class, languorous, near translucent pale, and absent of any conspicuous work.”
In my teenage years I took comfort in the fact that the women I saw in beauty campaigns had faces so divorced from mine that comparison was futile. They were models and actresses. They had to look like that, and it was okay if I didn’t.
Now, it’s interesting how we’re fed beauty ideals through the lens of ‘normality’, arguably creating a warped perception of what ‘natural’ beauty is. In lieu of photoshopped magazine advertisements, brands like Glossier use Instagram to present a smorgasbord of ‘real girls’, playfully photographed up close and videoed getting ready from their sun washed Brooklyn apartments.
While many of these women are more ethnically diverse than what the industry has previously offered, it’s a carefully curated diversity, a diversity degustation of sorts. Their models all, by universal standards, possess the pre-requisite pretty face that requires little cosmetic interference.
The algorithms will send you down a rabbit hole, like a black hole eats light, fuelling the imaginary audience in your mind that says your cheekbones could be higher, lips plumper, teeth straighter, skin smoother, eyes wider, brows sharper, hair thicker, waist slimmer and so on.
If you ever Google “natural beauty” or “naturally beautiful woman” your search will generate a grid of predominantly white, cis-gendered faces seemingly void of cosmetic interference. The more you stare, though, it becomes obvious that our definition of ‘natural beauty’ exists within limited aesthetic parameters: high cheekbones, full lips, wide eyes, long lashes, small noses and light/racially ambiguous skin tones.
Our beauty preferences aren’t built in a vacuum. They're manufactured and inherited via socialisation. And the further you deviate from being the young, thin, light-skinned, fox-eyed, small nosed, high cheek boned ideal, the more problematic this ‘natural look’ becomes.
And the scam is effective. Using makeup to touch up my face started feeling fraudulent. It’s as though there’s a looming moral judgement over women who use makeup as opposed to, say, getting microdermabrasion to improve their skin.
If we’ve come to idealise an appearance that shows minimal signs of cosmetic intervention, it’s logical that more women are exploring more enduring methods of facial enhancement to minimise the labour of applying makeup. I know fillers, extensions, Botox, microblading etc. aren’t natural per se, but they’re permissible because they adhere to the rules of the game; you can look more ‘naturally’ beautiful without the daily labour of putting ‘on’ your face.
Out of curiosity, I recently Googled "lip fillers + Auckland" and discovered at least eight clinics offering affordable dermal fillers within a three-kilometre radius. The prospects were tempting.
Admittedly, my only hesitation is the part of me that says my face is a reflection of my ancestors and I shouldn’t meddle. I don’t know if I’m potentially blocking my own bag with a self-imposed ancestral duty, but I haven’t quite got around it yet.
This, of course, is not to pass judgment on women who choose to get Botox, fillers, plastic surgery or whatever it is to modify their face. While I don’t wish to engage with different theoretical debates on ‘choice’, and whether anyone truly has any free will under capitalism, levelling our criticism at the individual dangerously errs into body policing.
Sure, no one is paying for shorter lashes, smaller lips, blemished skin or larger noses. And even if we know the ideal, ‘naturally beautiful’ face is deeply rooted in racism, misogyny and colourism, physical beauty is a potent social currency.
In a society where there’s enormous privilege attached to being physically attractive, I can’t blame anyone for doing what they need in order to feel more comfortable about moving through the world. That doesn’t mean we can’t interrogate this phenomenon with some critical nuance. Two truths can exist at once.
Acknowledging the class and race privileges involved is a good start, as well as unpacking why so much of our beauty ‘ideals’ are predicated on youthfulness or, rather, our proximity to death.
As Jessica Teas so brilliantly observes in her piece The Big Lie of #NoMakeup, “...[T]his invisible beauty work is a feature, not a bug. In a world where anyone can buy name-brand, quality beauty products (or damn good dupes), having the time, connections, and cash to see the best quasi-medical skin-care professionals instead is the ultimate beauty status symbol. It’s a humblebrag that perfectly fits our pursuit of authenticity and realness in a carefully curated digital world”.
Our hyper-visual culture enables us to scrutinise each other's appearances through a 14 x 7cm screen. There’s a reason why the iPhone front camera is our collective nemesis, and we apply selfie filters with instinctive reflex. Women, in particular, are expected to perform ‘beauty’ with a magician’s hands; concealing the process and appearing, whether in person or online, as though we simply woke up like this.
But the only way out is through. Once I relaxed my grip on having to perform prettiness, I began to cultivate some neutrality about what I saw in the mirror. It’s not self-love, but rather self-acceptance.
Physical beauty, like everything else, is fleeting. An industry rooted in capitalism can never truly be emancipatory. The standards are always set just beyond reach to lock consumers into a perpetual hamster wheel of needing to be more.
While social media might’ve perverted perceptions of beauty beyond repair, it’s also democratised the beauty landscape. I’ve found joy in women like Rowi Singh (rowisingh), Ali (@sweetmutuals), Kali (@kali.ledger), Monica (@glow_bymonica) and hundreds more who use makeup in bold, expressive ways. Using makeup as a vehicle for creativity is what made me love it as a teenager.
My adult preoccupation with trying to be ‘authentically pretty’ eclipsed my creativity making beauty feel mundane. To let go of externally dictated metrics of attractiveness, I’ve started using makeup more playfully. I recently purchased 250 stick on eye gems from Kmart and some garish shadows from the $1 store. Sure, I might look kinda tacky, but it’s fun, and fun is a fantastic form of resistance.
Fun beauty to follow: