When top makeup pro and YouTuber Lisa Eldridge declared that social media is the best thing that’s ever happened to makeup, the guffaw from most of her peers could be heard in space. Lisa (whose tutorials have turned her into an online phenomenon) argues the likes of Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube are inspiring people to play with looks from cultures around the world, but most of the makeup artists I speak to in the business are not so charitable.
“Don’t get me started,” says Kay Montano, MUA to the likes of Nicole Kidman and, along with actress Thandie Newton, the woman behind the sassy, life-affirming ThandieKay website. “I despair about the influence of social media, because as a source of beauty reference, it’s so incredibly generic.” Terry Barber, Mac director of makeup artistry and newly minted Honorary Southampton Solent University Doctor of Design, echoes that. “You’d think social media would’ve opened our eyes to the widest variety of beauty ideas and ideals imaginable, yet what we’ve ended up with is an all-pervasive, formulaic ideal of faked perfection.” But is trying to attain ‘perfection’, fake or not, necessarily “really unhealthy,” as he insists? And if it is, why are so many women so invested in it?
Getting the Barbie look:
“There’s nothing wrong with using makeup to look pretty,’ says Terry. “Obviously, that’s the main reason the stuff exists. What I have a problem with is the mass aspiration to look like a dead-behind-the-eyes, Stepford-ised sex doll. There are millions of other ways to look beautiful, but you wouldn’t know it if you’re a dedicated follower of social media makeup.” I admit that to my own eyes, the excessively sculpted, blow-up lipped, lego-browed look that pervades our feeds strikes me as something out of a porno – not the most empowering image women could choose to project. “It’s a boorish heterosexual male fantasy of what a hot woman looks like,” says Terry. “Of course, that archetypal ‘pin-up’ look has always been popular – from the original Vargas Girls through to Brigitte Bardot and Pamela Anderson.“
“It’s a boorish heterosexual male fantasy of what a hot woman looks like”
But we used to understand they were caricatures – perfectly drawn or cinematically lit fantasy girls who couldn’t really be emulated and were not to be taken that seriously. Now, because it’s the look that gets the likes, everybody wants it - not just in doctored snaps but in real life.”
“Unfortunately, it takes either an accident of birth or tons of makeup and possibly plastic surgery to try and fit that mould,” he continues. “This idea that beauty is all about total transformation and unachievable perfection is a rod that too many women beat themselves with. From what I can see, it makes them lose sight of their own beauty and how to enhance it.”
Kay feels equally bemused about the situation. “Growing up without the internet, I had a far greater variety of people I admired, both pretty and not. I most wanted to be Anna Ford or Moira Stewart, news readers who spoke nice and looked elegant. My biggest role models included women from my community and were accomplished in ways that had little to do with their looks. I get it: online, attention and instant popularity are everything, and a certain type of ‘easily fuckable’ beauty is what garners the likes, not to mention the money for the lucky few. Of course lots of young women will emulate it; God forbid, in the digital universe, you divide opinion. You’ll lose all your virtual friends! But for women of my generation, it’s hard to swallow. We fought not to be objectified and to define ourselves as more than sexual beings. So this feels as if girls are voluntary racing back to the dark ages.” Are things really as bleak as all that? Or is this just grumpy old Generation X hating on sexually empowered young women having fun with makeup?
"For women of my generation, it’s hard to swallow. We fought not to be objectified and to define ourselves as more than sexual beings.”
“Give women some credit: I think they increasingly wear makeup for themselves, not men, and it just so happens that Kylie Jenner’s look is en vogue right now,” says Lucy Sheridan, a life coach at ProofCoaching.com. ”Mastering elaborate looks is also a form of escapism that moves us closer to our idols, which is something we’ve always tended to want to do.”
A post shared by Kylie (@kyliejenner) on May 30, 2017 at 10:31am PDT
“There’s a competitive aspect as well,” says psychologist Honey Langcaster-James. “There’s kudos (and, again, money) in showing off the skills needed to do transformative makeup. So to an extent, yes, this is a case of young women just having fun. The snag is, if re-modelling your face becomes a way of life, the implicit message is that you’re not good enough as you are. A discrepancy develops between the real and the transformed self, and these days, I see that a lot in my practice.”
Plus, of course, it’s far from just ourselves we’re competing with. “Online comparison culture is an epidemic that’s warping our collective identity as women,” says Honey. “Comparing yourself to others is a natural way to understand identity. But now we’re trying to emulate, on a mass scale, women whose lives and looks have nothing to do with ours, let alone that these lives and looks aren’t actually real.” It’s an exercise that’s doomed make you feel worse about yourself. “Browsing frenemies’ feeds is an addiction for many of my clients,” says Lucy. “As with any addiction, they are looking to fill a hole that stems from feeling ‘undeserving’ or ‘not good enough’. The curated and filtered lives of others give them a ‘fix’ that unfortunately provides the wrong sort of high.” The confidence-sapping powers of comparison culture may be reflected in a recent survey. The 2016 Philips Global Beauty Trends report revealed that only 26% of UK women consider themselves to be beautiful, compared to 93% of Indian women.
A tribe called friends:
Our competitive, individualistic culture isn’t helping us feel any prettier. “In the West and any westernised, commercialised society, the pervading message is that you would be great if only you had this or that, so there is a sense that there is always something lacking ” says Honey. “Obviously, it’s a message that’s rammed home a thousand-fold on social media. The latter is also a main contributor to our increasingly isolated lives, where many rely on one-way ‘relationships’ with people they don’t even know. Inevitably, the only ‘feedback’ is that the rest of the world is sexier, prettier, more liked than you.”
In contrast, Sharmadean Reid, MBE, the 32-year-old entrepreneurial powerhouse behind WAH Nails, grew up “as part of a wide female family network. In Jamaican culture, kids are told continuously that they’re beautiful just as they are; that’s why the women in Jamaica are so sassy! Actual, physical social networks and tribes are so important. If you’re not surrounded by loved ones who offer continuous support and affirmation, you’re going to look for completion in all the wrong places.”
A post shared by Sharmadean Reid (@sharmadeanreid) on Apr 12, 2017 at 8:33pm PDT
“I’m not down on caring about your looks,” she continues. ”Beauty gives you a head start; it makes people pay attention. It’s important. But it is a state of mind, not a prescription from a tutorial. Using makeup and fashion to express who you are, in a way that’s true to you, is a means to communicate your identity and find your tribe. It’ll help you find likeminded people who will propel you in life. THAT is using beauty in an empowering way.”
It’s a point makeup artists emphasise as well. “Being young used to be about pushing against the establishment, creating your tribe, celebrating your individuality,” says Terry. “That’s where true style and creativity came from. There’s massive potential for counterculture and diversity online, but not if followers and likes are our reason for living. Social media should be about expressing genuine points of view and daring to provoke discussion. It should be about displaying a personal style that speaks to you and the people you like – your actual friends. Trading on how sexy you look is not empowering, no matter what Kim Kardashian says. Empowered beauty is an extension of how smart you are; it’s about collecting influences, rejecting ‘perfection’, and feeling completely comfortable in your skin.”
“Trading on how sexy you look is not empowering, no matter what Kim Kardashian says.”
And – hallelujah – trickles of individual thinking are seeping into mainstream culture as we speak. In last month’s issue of Cosmopolitan, we looked at how gender fluidity is influencing beauty. “It popularises that idea of not conforming to what mass culture dictates,” says Terry. “I see an ‘unpretty’ generation of models coming through. They’re mundane-looking; they’re not, and they don’t want to be, sex goddesses. That type of transformation has become mass, and that’s never cool. What’s hot now is not trying. Normal is the new subversive.”
A post shared by Alicia Keys (@aliciakeys) on Mar 31, 2017 at 1:43pm PDT
If you want to see how beautiful that can be, just look at Alicia Keys. Sick of the way the entertainment industry tried to make her fit the 'foxy, skinny, perfect’ mould while leaving her feeling increasingly insecure, she wrote on LennyLetter.com (Lena Dunham’s feminist website): “I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.” She now performs in freckles, free from makeup and looking impossibly young for her 35 years. “I hope to god it’s a revolution,” she says. Me too.
Kate Moss photographed by Bruce Weber for Vogue US June 1996
Fashion Editor: Brana Wolf
Hair: Thom Priano Makeup: Kay Montano
“Finally, on our last day, the crate was opened in a field north of Saigon. It was in the middle of nowhere and reminded me of our ranch in Montana. Brana, Nan, Kim (our guide) and Terry unpacked the dress, which was so huge that it needed all of them to carry it and dress Kate. The sun was about to go behind a grove of trees, when all of a sudden this elderly Vietnamese farmer with a white beard, dressed in his pajamas (which incidentally matched Kate’s dress), walked toward us from out of nowhere. Kim politely asked him where he was going, and he calmly said that he was ‘walking across this field to say goodnight to my grandchildren.’ She then asked him if he would mind posing with Kate, and he bowed his head in an elegant gesture. His grandchildren came out in the field and couldn’t imagine their grandfather being photographed in his pajamas with this beautiful young girl. He left us just like he came, just disappearing into the softness of the evening.”
I assisted the wonderful make up artist Kay Montano for Flaunt Magazine, photgraphed by Yu Tsai. The pictures came beautifully taken in a cemetery in Stoke Newington. It was great working with Kay. She did a beautiful job and I learned lots from her. She also loved my ghetto nails that she had to tweet about it haha!