When I think about my relationship with makeup, I see it in flashes.
There’s me, wearing green eyeliner in middle school — on my lower lash line, no less. I’m researching the best concealers for dark circles, courtesy of midterms. I’m waiting in line to buy $50 foundation to cover up acne scars. I’m being told by a smiley salesperson that this lipstick will change my life.
As I suspect is the case for many, if not most, women, makeup has been a constant in my life. Chances are, it’s a relationship that begins young, and one that possibly never ends.
Maybe you start by experimenting. You somehow acquire a shimmery lip gloss, and you put it on in the bathroom and like the way it looks. Over time, it escalates. You buy more and more products, which spill into more and more drawers.
You’re repeatedly told that this is time and money well spent. With makeup, you can cover up blemishes and emphasize your best features. Trends like strategic highlighting and contouring can even make you look like a different person. Can anyone really argue that makeup doesn’t make you look better?
From beauty secrets to commercialization
There’s a revealing scene in the pilot of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new show The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, which takes place in the 1950s, in which Midge — played by Rachel Brosnahan, who’s since won an Emmy for the role — and her husband, Joel, are going to bed.
Midge lies very still, waiting until Joel falls asleep. Then, she jumps out of bed, and heads to the bathroom. Only then does she put her hair in curlers, remove her lipstick and false eyelashes, and slather on cold cream.
In the morning, before the alarm goes off, she wakes and rushes to the bathroom again. She carefully washes her face, unwinds the curlers, applies her makeup, and heads back to bed, where she stretches and pretends to yawn as if just waking up.
It’s clear from other instances in the show that Midge is someone who cares very much about appearance. But here, the viewer understands that it’s not enough for her to present her best self to the world. She is ashamed of the work she must do to feel pretty. There is no one, not even her husband, around whom she can be her truest self.
This attitude, one of beauty as secret, could not be further from that of today. Social media, especially Instagram, has created space for the meticulous audiovisual documentation of all things cosmetic. Hair being cut, hair being dyed, eyebrows being waxed or threaded — hours of footage and thousands of pictures are available at the click of a hashtag.
Since its humble beginnings as a simple way to share photos, Instagram has become increasingly commercialized, and the beauty sphere is no exception. Established brands have begun to seek out collaborations with makeup ‘influencers.’ When Kim Kardashian West was gearing up to launch her new cosmetics line, KKW Beauty, she made the rounds on Instagram and YouTube, surrendering to the brushes of users like Desi Perkins and NikkieTutorials.
The rise of Instagram as a common area for the beauty-obsessed has led to the prevalence of ‘Instagram makeup’ or ‘Instagram face,’ which refers to a generally recognizable look — that of the razor sharp eyebrows, overly contoured and highlighted features, matte lips, and more. “Is Instagram Makeup Making Us All Beauty Clones?” pondered a Cut headline in 2016.
Women and makeup
For women, wearing makeup serves a variety of purposes. Fourth-year student and former Sephora employee Katrina Li said that makeup boosts confidence and helps you feel prepared to face the world. Though the beauty industry often attempts to lean into this psychological motivator, branding itself as an agent of female empowerment, it tends to mask its inherent commercial intentions.
Li told me that she was initially drawn to the environment created by Sephora’s female staff. But while it appeared that the brand was actively practicing female empowerment in its stores, she realized this was something of a front when she began to interact more with the corporate side of the company. The higher rungs of the organization were still, typically, male.
“This is… women in their field, excelling, doing their best,” said Li. “But then when I saw that they weren’t necessarily excelling because the top positions were still held by men… it kind of loses the magic a little.”
Li said that since she stopped working at Sephora, her attitude toward makeup has completely shifted. She was previously mandated to wear a full face of makeup every time she showed up to work — employees were provided a list of the minimum amount of products they had to wear. When wearing makeup was treated as a requirement and used to refer customers to potential ‘life-changing’ products, it lost some of its appeal.
Li no longer wears a full face everyday, and she instead focuses more on her skin. When she does wear makeup for a night out or special occasion, it’s still hard to feel completely secure. As soon as she’s done with the routine, she is worried the look will somehow be ruined: “I look stunning, but what if this lipstick smudges?”
“No matter what, as a woman, you’re just constantly stressed and anxious about your looks, so it doesn’t matter what you look like,” said Li.
Carol Eugene Park, also a fourth-year student, has had both similar feelings about wearing makeup to improve confidence and similar experiences with the downsides of wearing makeup.
Last year, Park wrote a piece for The Varsity about her experience trying to fit into the Korean community while defying its typical beauty standards. “I was made to feel like an outcast,” wrote Park, describing how embracing her tan skin and curves had alienated her from her peers.
Park told me that she first began wearing makeup in secret, since her father forbade it until she entered university. She would apply her makeup on the walk to the school, then immediately head to the bathroom before class to fix any mistakes.
Park was insecure about her monolids and the way her eyes appeared in pictures. She explained that when she was growing up, she felt that Asian features were not accepted as beautiful. Makeup allowed her to adhere more strictly to western beauty standards, helping her to feel pretty.
She also said that she feels more respected and more confident when she wears makeup. Statistical evidence supports the phenomenon where women who wear makeup are perceived differently; a 2011 study by researchers from Harvard University and Boston University found that women who wear more makeup are perceived as more attractive, likeable, competent, and trustworthy.
The benefits of wearing makeup aren’t limited to the intangible. In 2011, Daniel S. Hamermesh, a Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, released his book Beauty Pays, which demonstrated that more attractive people actually earn more money than others. “We as customers, employers, and fellow employees prefer to be around good-looking people and are willing to pay for the privilege,” said Hamermesh in an interview.
On days when I don’t wear makeup, I don’t usually feel any anxiety about it. When I do, I try to tell myself that I should be able to exist in the world, that I should be able to be seen by others, without trying to make myself more ‘presentable.’
But now, part of me is forced to wonder if I would command more respect, more attention — simply put, more benefit — if I did.
I am not alone in this feeling. Nearly half of American women surveyed in 2012 felt either unattractive, self-conscious, or “naked” when not wearing makeup. But perhaps that is beginning to change.
Slowly but surely, the overdrawn looks of Instagram makeup have begun to cede space to another industry on the rise: skincare.
Skincare is celebrated for reasons that are distinguished from makeup. The general notion of caring for or protecting your skin gives the pursuit of flawless skin a quasi-medicinal reputation, as opposed to using makeup to cover up its flaws, which could be seen as avoiding insecurities.
Of course, skincare is not a new phenomenon either. Like makeup, it has a long history, one that dates back millennia. Ancient Egyptians connected it to religious purity; Ayurveda, an Indian form of alternative medicine, prescribed plants for their anti-aging properties; Babylonians stored ointments and cosmetics in carved seashells.
Regardless, while skincare is nothing new, it is fair to say that it is currently enjoying a swell of popular appeal that has been only been accelerated by the internet and social media. Sales of prestige skincare in the US reached $5.6 billion in 2017, a nine per cent increase over the preceding year.
Women are no longer limited to the dubious advice of magazines and drugstore salespeople to glean knowledge about improving their skin. Sources like the subreddit r/SkincareAddiction have democratized the information process, allowing women to communicate more freely on issues related to skincare. Finally, here is a place where the science and secrets of skincare can be revealed, where women can understand the effects of pH balance, moisturizers, and acids on skin.
r/SkincareAddiction now has over 400,000 subscribers, a number that has grown rapidly in the last year. It is full of advice on treating conditions from ordinary acne to skin conditions like rosacea and eczema, and it even has its own vernacular. YMMV: your mileage may vary, meant to caution users that what works for one may not work for another. HG: holy grail, meant to refer to a must-have product.
A number of companies have risen to capitalize on skincare’s popularity, including the Toronto-based DECIEM, founded in 2013. To call the company’s growth since then rapid would be an understatement. It now has nine lines, with three more on the way, and offices in multiple continents.
The Ordinary is among DECIEM’s most popular lines. When it began selling through Sephora in December 2017, the entire supply was sold out within a week. The business strategy behind The Ordinary is simple: offer pure versions of traditionally marked up and diluted products at bargain prices.
DECIEM is perfectly poised to exploit the democratization of skincare. Its scientifically labeled formulations appeal to consumers looking to utilize the knowledge they have gained from forums like r/SkincareAddiction, and it is cheap enough to justify purchasing multiple products at once.
But buying multiple products for cheap is not the intended endpoint. DECIEM refers to The Ordinary as its “gateway” brand, the primer before customers move on to its more prestigious and more expensive lines.
Alongside DECIEM is Glossier, whose branding relies heavily on palettes of millennial pink and racially diverse models. The models have dewy skin, light blush, slightly tinted eyebrows. They’re supposed to look ‘barefaced,’ but as Li pointed out, they’re all already beautiful.
It may seem like Glossier promotes a natural, minimalistic approach to beauty, one without traditional markers of a ‘full face,’ like a bold lip colour, or full contour and highlight. The reality is that Glossier is not attempting to erase these beauty standards; it is attempting to replace them.
On Glossier’s website, there is a video of none other than its CEO, Emily Weiss, demonstrating how to use one of the brand’s products with the most cultish following, the Milky Jelly Cleanser, of which a 177 millilitre bottle retails for $22.
At first, Weiss appears barefaced, showing the viewer how she uses the cleanser on wet skin in the morning. Later, the video cuts to her with makeup on. To demonstrate how gentle it is, she rubs the cleanser over her closed eyelids, dark eyeshadow and mascara smearing all over her face.
Taking makeup off is usually an isolated activity, one that accompanies the transition from public to private. Not only does Weiss make this private ritual available for public consumption, it’s the publicity itself that is meant to entice its audience to use her brand.
Like Instagram makeup, this represents a profound shift in the public attitude toward beauty: your hard work shouldn’t be a secret.
Self-care or skin-deep?
As is often the case with industries in which women comprise the majority of consumers, skincare has begun to receive its own backlash, being dismissed as shallow — literally skin-deep.
Writing for The Outline in an article entitled “The Skincare Con,” Krithika Varagur argues that the ‘New Skincare’ boils down to consumerism, a quest to acquire and display precious ingredients, to demonstrate to others that you are improving yourself.
“Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist,” writes Varagur. “The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money.”
Varagur is correct to point out that the modern skincare obsession often has an consumerist bent. Among the various types of posts on r/SkincareAddiction, for example, is the ‘shelfie,’ meant to display the products a user has accumulated in some aesthetically pleasing way.
Those shelfie-posters who have shelled out for prestigious brands like Drunk Elephant or Sunday Riley receive reactions of awe and jealousy. For reference, a 30 millilitre bottle of the ‘luxury’ Marula oil costs $90 at Drunk Elephant, compared to $9.90 at The Ordinary.
Varagur and other opponents of New Skincare are also quick to dismiss it as a method of what is now popularly known as ‘self-care.’ But for many women, this seems to be the main objective.
“Skin care, at its best, is about taking care of yourself,” writes Rachel Krause of Refinery29, “not about a massive industrial scheme working to bamboozle an entire society of vain, unsuspecting wannabe Dorian Grays into emptying their wallets at the prospect of perfect skin.”
In an interview with Vulture, actress and host of the beauty podcast Glowing Up Esther Povitsky made this point explicit. “Ultimately, I know that most skin-care products are not going to change my life,” said Povitsky. “I’m not bothered by people thinking skin care and makeup are stupid. They just don’t understand.”
In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino connects the recent growth of the beauty industry to the current tumultuous political climate. There’s “something perversely, unexpectedly hopeful about skin care in today’s political context,” writes Tolentino. She goes on to reference Audre Lorde, who in 1988 wrote, “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
My instinct is to be skeptical that Lorde would place sheet masking into this same category of political warfare. But the truth is that how you choose to execute self-preservation is, by nature, an individual choice.
Your skin is a kind of armour. It is your choice to beautify it, to tame it, or to heal it. “Sweatpants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on / That’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong,” raps Drake in “Best I Ever Had.”
If this is truly the case, it would certainly be convenient, especially for our current skincare moment. But should we be punished if it’s not?