What Is Beauty In The Social Media Era?
This article was first published in July 2016.
We’re living in a #Selfie-ready world. It’s a world where YouTube makeup gurus become A-list celebrities and Kylie Jenner leaving her house without makeup on becomes headline news. It’s a world in which eyebrows are “on fleek” and faces remain “beat.” This is the era where à la Beyoncé: “You wake up, flawless” and “Post up, flawless.” In these Instagram and Snapchat times, what does beauty mean?
Social media has democratized beauty. Thanks to platforms like YouTube and Instagram, makeup techniques like “contouring,” “strobing,” and “baking” that were once the well-guarded tricks of top makeup gurus; have now become accessible to all. It began with drag queens. Writing for Cosmopolitan magazine, Jessica Matline notes: “drag makeup is all about recreating the bone structure, brightness, and lips of a woman’s face on a man’s.” In the 1990s, famous drag queen make up artists (MUAs) like Matthu Anderson, the MUA for Drag Race host and star Ru Paul, began to pass their contouring, baking and other techniques to their peers, who in turn used them on female supermodels (like Naomi Campbell) and celebrities (like Jennifer Lopez) to create dramatic looks. When Kim Kardashian began to post her contouring and baking selfies on Facebook in 2009, the trends exploded and trickled through social-media-famous-MUAs to the masses. Today, anyone with a decent Internet connection and relatively few makeup products can participate in the beauty zeitgeist.
I believe in the utility of makeup. Like a lot of women who came of age pre-YouTube, I learned about makeup from my mother first. She often stressed that used correctly makeup can be a great tool to enhance one’s natural features. As I grew into my adolescent body, makeup and other beauty products like hair dye and acrylic nails, became not just a tool for enhancement, but a means of self-expression. At varying points in my teenage years, I had blonde, blue, green, and red hair. In my early 20s, hot pink and lemon green eye-shadow palette were how the creative in me made peace with the conservative environment that was law school. Now, in my late 20s, I’m still pretty daring with my nail colors. And while I personally lack the patience to incorporate the current trending makeup techniques in my regimen, I have an appreciation for them, and on occasion, I’ll pay to have them done by a professional.
Makeup is empowering many women economically. Millennials with the right skills and savvy, no longer have to navigate the “safe” career paths (medicine, law, accounting, engineering, etc) their parents did, to arrive destination success. Take social media sensation Bethany Mota for example. Mota started uploading makeup tutorials and similar videos online in 2009. Today, her videos have been watched over 850 million times on YouTube, where she has over 10,000,000 subscribers. She has worked with brands like JC Penney, Forever 21 and Aeropostale. When President Barack Obama needed to reach a younger audience in 2015, he invited Mota to the White House. She is reportedly a millionaire, and definitely a celebrity in her own right. Did I mention Bethany Mota is only 20 years old?
Makeup is empowering women socially, too. Take another 20 year-old, Shalom Nchom aka Shalom Blac, for example. At age nine, Blac was burnt by hot oil in an accident at her family’s store in Nigeria. She lost most of her hair, and was noticeable scarred, even after reconstructive surgery. Blac was bullied by her peers and stared at by strangers, and as a result, she became suicidal. But at the age of 13, she began watching makeup tutorials on YouTube and practicing the techniques on herself and classmates. Today, she is a prominent MUA in the USA, and has been interviewed by magazines like Glamour. Blac has over 500,000 followers on Instagram; and her Power of Makeup YouTube video, in which she made up half her face, has garnered over 6.5 million views.
Still, I can’t help but wonder: is makeup consumption consuming the women of my generation? I love a haul video and a beauty vlog as much as the next woman. However, I cringe when I hear some vloggers apologize when they film without makeup on. When did a bare face become something to apologize for? Who pushed the notion that a woman goes from “0” with no make up on to “100” with a made-up face? Worst still, how many women are internalizing these messages?
In a recent essay for Lenny Letter, 15-time Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Alicia Keys discussed her own battle with this issue: “Every time I left the house, I would be worried if I didn’t put on makeup: What if someone wanted a picture?” she wrote. “What if they POSTED it???” Alicia Keys has since started a #NoMakeup Movement, vowing to officially stop covering up. “Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing,” she said.
While I am not suggesting that everyone surrenders their weapons of mass transformation, our culture is perhaps in need of more dialogue on what real beauty means. With our Face-books and Self-ies, the social media era has created a self-absorbed culture that is far too-often focused on the external.
I have a complicated history with (physical) beauty, but over the years, I’ve learned that a soul cannot be sustained by it. The poet Warsan Shire articulates this better: “It's not my responsibility to be beautiful. I'm not alive for that purpose.” Or like actress Lupita Nyong’o put it: “You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.”
So, what does beauty mean today? As the cliché goes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Over the years, my personal definition of beauty has expanded, and continues to expand. Beauty is my mother’s hands, willing to open and give everything in it, no matter how many times she has been hurt or betrayed. Beauty is my brother’s innocence and my cousin’s sweetness. Beauty is the sound of the rapturous laughter that comes deep from my aunt’s belly, through a mouth void of molars; it is the tingle my ears feel when they are blessed by South African house music. It is melancholy, too. Beauty is the memory of my then-toddler sister wrapping her legs around her neck and contorting her body into odd shapes—a gift that no doubt wasted in the developing world. Beauty is Châtelet-Les Halles at midnight and the Hudson River at sunset. Beauty is diverse and varied. Beauty is scars tattooed across the bodies of various friends—testaments to bodies that have pushed babies, healed from surgeries and survived accidents. Beauty is my stretch marks—testament to a body constantly under construction. And yes, beauty is eyelids that sparkle, and lips that glisten and eyebrows that are carved to perfection.
And sometimes, I stare at the broad flat nose on my face—an inheritance from my father—and I think: you are beauty-full. After years of craving a nose with a contour more acceptable in the first-world and post-colonial societies where my body took space; after years of hating it, praying to God to change it and begging my parents for plastic surgery to fix it: I look at my nose and say, You are beautiful. Because my face survived you. Because there is beauty in (seemingly) flawed things, too.