In a makeup tutorial recently posted to Instagram by fashion designer Marc Jacobs, he encourages viewers to believe that makeup provides a way to be more yourself, not less. The video features a half-quirky, half-deranged Jacobs ranting about his haters, proclaiming his love for Diana Vreeland and asking, why not play with makeup just for the fun of it? “Why not get dressed? Why not parade around in your underwear? Why not enjoy this time that I have, and why not be me and be unafraid to be me?” Five minutes and thirteen seconds later, he begins finger painting his eyes with Marc Jacobs beauty products until his face is transformed into a smokey, glamorous, and messy canvas. Later on, he comments, “perfection is an ideal, beauty is an ideal, and beauty comes from just doing it, just expressing yourself and enjoying it.”
Jacobs here is more perceptive than he realizes, I think, about the means through which the beauty industry targets women: these beauty products are for your enjoyment and expression. They are made in service of your needs as a modern woman. The eye cream, the bronzer, the hair dye, the workout classes. This is an endless investment in the best version of yourself, an investment you make daily “because you want to.” This is beauty.
My quarantined self would suggest otherwise.
It would be misleading to say that I have broken off ties with the beauty industry in my time of social isolation. Like others in the privileged position to stay home and self-isolate, I allow my hair to get greasy, I have no idea where my mascara is, and I have not picked out an outfit with a stylistic vision in weeks. I’ve mostly not even worn pants for weeks. But this doesn’t cancel out the fact that I repeatedly refresh Instagram and occasionally fall into thirst traps leading me to sparsely designed websites that attempt to sell me lipgloss in the name of “self-care.” I also sit on YouTube watching makeup tutorials with a religious devotion that in small moments, after two hours of the automatic reloading of video content, transforms into a glitteringly transcendent experience. One tutorial after the next, I watch as people contour their faces like a paint by number and then rub a beauty blender over the lines as if trying to get a stain out of a carpet. It seems vaguely painful but also oddly satisfying.
My normal routine in the morning at school isn’t horribly taxing. I wake up earlier than I would like in order to shower, because my curly hair does not do well when slept on. I use about 10 sprays of hair product. I pick out an outfit, trying on a few shirts if I have time. (I almost always land on an oversized sweatshirt, which both provides the illusion that I don’t care, and hides my body’s curves.) Then I put on some mascara and I’m out the door. It’s a 20-25 minute process. I “like” getting dressed in the morning at school, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is an adherence to patriarchal authority. (Like, I love my mascara, but I’m not sure about why I bulk order it as if when it runs out my essential food supply will be cut off).
Quarantine, however, has forced me to confront the ways that “doing it for myself” is an attempt to justify the participation in behaviors that are actually oppressive. Being at home without the pressure to be beautiful has explicitly reminded me that I don’t use most of my beauty routine as a means of expression and enjoyment. It’s more like a chore I’ve come to dread that I justify by saying “this is for me.”
The New York Times recently published an article about women’s changing beauty rituals during the pandemic. “I think about putting on lipstick, but then I ask myself: why?” said Deborah Mitchell, a media and marketing consultant in her 50s. “Only the people at the supermarket are going to see you. And now that we have to wear masks, they’ll never know it’s you.”
She highlights the social aspect of her beauty habits, making it seem arbitrary. When the social world is taken away, the reasons to wear lipstick dissipate.
For others, that performance of femininity is integral to identity.
“Beauty for me is 100 percent performance of my blackness, my queerness, my femininity,” the article quoted a Ms. Frazier, 31, saying. “A worldwide pandemic will certainly affect that. But it doesn’t eliminate it.”
In an article for Cosmopolitan titled “Why Is the Internet Trying to Make Me Feel Bad for Wearing Makeup RN?”, Ama Kwarting tracks the change in her mood after deciding to put on makeup.
“Then one day last week, Mia Lardiere, Cosmo’s Snapchat editor, asked me to film a TikTok for Cosmo’s channel,” Kwarting’s article reads. “I decided, okay, since people would, you know, see me, I’d better put on some makeup. What started out as looking presentable for social media became an absolute game changer. My mood did a complete 180. I was instantly happier and calmer, and I suddenly had a more positive outlook on the future—all because of some concealer and pink eyeshadow. I finally felt more…me.”
Kwarting explains that her daily makeup application at this time doesn’t stem from vanity, as her internet trolls believe, but instead from a desire to control the things she can during a time when the world is chaotic. In other words, it’s an act of self-care.
“Because self-care looks different for everyone,” she wrote. “For some, it’s baking six loaves of banana bread, and for others, it’s piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. But for me, it’s putting on bright lipstick and pink eyeshadow—and yeah, I might also look f*cking pretty doing it.”
The vocabulary of self-care emphasizes the ways in which beauty products have become not only tools for enhancement, but also weapons of empowerment. Where we once bought makeup in the name of beauty, we’re now being sold makeup as if it were a panacea for all of the problems of life under late capitalism: it makes you happier, more productive, more extraordinary, and more authentic. This is evidenced in the success of beauty brands like Glossier and the industry of “natural beauty” that has developed in its wake. Make Makeup now sells you makeup with the language of freedom and choice: “We believe makeup and skincare should work around your life, your looks, your choices.” Em Cosmetics encourages you “to claim your power, share your art, and above all—rethink beauty” as you spend 25 dollars on blush.
Beauty in the time of the pandemic highlights this double-edged feature of “self-care.” On the one hand, it’s nice to put on mascara in the morning and feel beautiful and ready to go. On the other hand, the marketability of “self-care” disguises the ways that our use of beauty products aren’t really for us after all.
In her essay “Always be Optimizing,” Jia Tolentino writes about the ways that the female body is always framed as a financial asset that requires endless individual investments of money, technology, and culture in an attempt to become an idealized version of the self. And that project of optimization, significantly, is seen as “natural, mandatory, and feminist.”
“When you are a woman, the things you like get used against you,” she writes. “Or, alternatively, the things that get used against you have all been prefigured as things you should like.”
The desire to be beautiful, and the pleasure we get from trying to make ourselves beautiful, then, can be easily weaponized and used against us. Because a woman chooses to put on a face of makeup, it seems somehow less exploitative, even when those choices are inevitably influenced by patriarchal norms. But more than that, I think, it’s hard to understand how wearing mascara became an act of female empowerment.
Amanda Hess writes about this in relation to Amy Schumer’s 2018 movie, “I Feel Pretty.” The movie is about a woman, played by Schumer, who gets into an accident and wakes up thinking she’s become really hot. This empowers her to be a good human being, and she succeeds at work and in her personal life. She realizes that she actually did not change at all, and it was her self-confidence that propelled her toward success, not her looks. The corporate feminist message here is clear: feeling beautiful is empowering. Do what makes you feel beautiful. Hess writes, “But part of the conditioning of the ‘patriarchal ideal’ is to make women feel empowered by it on their ‘own terms.’ That way, every time you critique an unspoken requirement of women, you’re also forced to frown upon something women have chosen for themselves. And who wants to criticize a woman’s choice?” Whereas before women were beautifying to please their bosses and husbands, now women are motivating each other to pamper for ourselves. And something about choosing to do it makes it impossible to question.
It’s difficult to know how much weight to place on these individual politics. It seems like “the personal is the political” has become distorted to mean that the choice to pamper or not to pamper yourself is itself a political act. But on the other hand, I think there must be a way to practice radical cultural politics on an individual scale and have it be politically meaningful. In either case, there’s no world in which feminism should look like refusing to perform femininity but not fighting for paid maternity leave, reproductive rights for all women, and equal pay. Or in which self-improvement poses as political progress.
It’s funny to see the younger girls and women on my Instagram feed doing quarantine photoshoots all dressed up with full faces of makeup. The thing about performance is that it always requires an audience, and social media provides a space where an audience is always in attendance. It’s hard to “do it for myself” when I’m always actually doing it for you.
Jodie Kahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.