If you’re anything like me (female-identifying, has typed “foundation” into a search bar at least once, has a face), odds are you’re targeted with advertisements for trendy makeup brands on Facebook and Instagram with the persistence and suspicious accuracy of a telepathic door-to-door salesman. More often than not, these are ads for social media-savvy makeup brands such as Glossier, selling a promise of glowy, natural beauty in the form of $14 clear lip gloss.
The insidious stereotype that women who wear visible makeup are deceptive still exists today, which goes to show that cosmetics hold deeply entrenched cultural meanings. The author of “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty,” Nancy Etcoff, explains that by wearing obvious makeup, “there may be a lowering of trust, so if you are in a situation where you need to be a trusted source, perhaps you should choose a different look.” Performing traditional femininity is walking a thin line — having to care enough about your appearance to be taken seriously but not so much that you seem fake.
In the rapidly evolving social media marketing landscape, the idea of “realness” is a valuable commodity. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat promise a deeper, more personal connection with our favorite influencers and celebrities, with the implied promise that the content isn’t being filtered through a publicist. “Relatable” moments can be leveraged into higher social media engagement, which translates into actors being cast in more projects. Breaking that guise is a cardinal sin; celebrities suspected of engineering fake media spectacles, such as Taylor Swift, face harsh judgement in the public eye.
Therefore, it makes sense that a “makeup-free” themed photo shoot is often used as a rhetorical tool to signal a new, more serious phase in a celebrity’s career. Paper magazine’s spread on Christina Aguilera, titled “Christina Aguilera Is Back With a New Transformation,” features a cover photo of the singer, bare-faced and wearing a ring with the word “MOM” on it. The piece quotes Aguilera saying, “It’s a liberating feeling to be able to strip it all back and appreciate who you are and your raw beauty.”
A similarly themed video for Teen Vogue features Demi Lovato slowly removing her hair extensions and false eyelashes and wiping off her foundation in a defiant gesture of self-acceptance. She explains, “I think society tells us we need makeovers, but why can’t we embrace the beauty that we naturally have?” The message is clear: These women are bravely renouncing conventional beauty standards, even risking exposure or humiliation, in favor of a more genuine, wholesome image.
Realistically, would any of these women ever be at risk of being considered unattractive even without makeup? Being photographed without cosmetics is read as a bold statement against the restrictive beauty standards that women are held to. However, these women don’t look subversive or break any particular new ground; they’re still classically attractive and being photographed in controlled lighting to look a specific way: good. The message of self-acceptance and confidence is an undeniably positive one — the method is questionable.
This argument simplistically assumes that people wear makeup because of insecurity. That is not the case.
If someone feels most like themselves with blue eyeshadow and red lipstick, it doesn’t make them less authentic. Promoting inner beauty through these antiquated stereotypes makes the end goal of self-acceptance seem out of reach for the vast majority of people who don’t fit this narrow definition of “natural.”
Minimalist makeup brands that capitalize on this naturalistic fallacy have experienced blowback for the kind of faux-accessible marketing that leaves people feeling disillusioned rather than empowered. Kim Kardashian was called out on Twitter for claiming she “hardly used any makeup” when promoting her new concealer. You can now buy a “Too ugly for Glossier” hat for $22.
Despite claims to be a part of a new, groundbreaking generation of beauty campaigning, companies such as Glossier and Honest Beauty still have roots in old-fashioned stereotypes. We don’t need any more magazine spreads with puns about bare stripping down, and there’s nothing revolutionary or effortless about a flawless, bare face. We should celebrate beauty, imperfections and all, that isn’t contingent on a $3,000 skincare routine and puritanical notions of what we’re allowed to call “natural.” There’s beauty in being loud and overdoing it, too. As Dolly Parton famously said, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”