Lauren Downing Peters

Fashion, Identity and the Body

Bare Faced, Glowing and Dewy

What does the “no-makeup” makeup trend say about the paradox of modern beauty?

Posted Sep 17, 2016

My girlfriends and I share an iMessage thread called “The Pink Ladies” in which we spend an inordinate amount of characters (and emojis) musing about our new favorite beauty brand, Glossier (pronounced like dossier). As enlightened, city-dwelling, late-twenty-something feminists who work at start-ups, law firms and universities, our preoccupation with the beauty brand is slightly incongruous, to say the least. However, Glossier – with its ironic pink-but-not-too-pink packaging and “cool girl” marketing strategies – has become the centerpiece of many of our conversations, and something of a brand obsession.

But why is this? And what does it say about the paradox of contemporary beauty?

The brainchild of Emily Weiss – founder of the immensely popular beauty blog, Into the Gloss – Glossier touts a beauty philosophy centered around “what girls need in real life,” and creates “the new essentials” of the contemporary toilette. From serums to scrubs, the product range is decidedly minimalist and skin-focused, and is a “makeup brand” only in the most generous sense of the word.  Rather than eyeshadow and lipstick, Glossier sells glow – or the elusive dewy, almost verging on sweaty, complexion of a preteen that has been popularized by Korean beauty trends that arrived stateside over the past year or so.

Everything about the brand is minimalist. In their marketing campaigns, fresh-faced, odd beauties with freckles and wild eyebrows look on with soft smiles and enviable curls. They are modern “it girls,” gamine, racially-diverse, cool and a bit rough round the edges – wearing little more than eyebrow gel and soft pink lip stain…and, of course, their own luminous skin.

These are the girls are we want to be: evolved beyond the tyranny of traditional makeup, but effortlessly beautiful. It is a paradoxical kind of beauty.

In many ways, Glossier’s brand ethos is the quintessence of what Naomi Wolf has described in a new introduction to her hallmark text, The Beauty Myth, as an emergent, pluralistic “fifth wave” of feminism in which beauty is a wholly mutable concept and in which women may choose which beauty regimens to adopt in reclaiming the terms of their embodiment.

Yet, as we sit hunched over our MacBooks (with bagels and coffee) eagerly anticipating new Glossier morning product launches, it can feel as if we have evolved little beyond Wolf’s original 1991 definition of “the beauty myth” as “always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.”

Indeed, beyond that fresh-faced glow, these are the products we want to have in our medicine cabinets and makeup bags. As artist Barbara Kreuger famously said, "I shop therefore I am," and Glossier's packaging is effortlessly minimal verging on effervescent. Employing what could only be described as a “playful Scandinavian” aesthetic, white plastic and friendly sans-serif fonts abound on tubes and tubs that are too pretty to put away. It is the not-pink-pink, bubble wrap pouches in which every product comes and free stickers that really get us, however. These freebies are a nostalgic wink at Bonne Belle Lip Smackers and Barbie – or the stuff of 90s girlhood. By buying into the Glossier brand, you become a part of their "squad" or "girl gang," every flash of not-pink-pink signalling your membership to an enlightened, privileged club of natural beauties.

This conversation would not be complete without mentioning the recent fervor that has surrounded singer Alicia Keys’ decision to forego makeup at her performances and at red carpet events. Simultaneously lambasted and celebrated by hordes of online armchair critics, the debates swirled around the tyranny of makeup versus female authenticity. In truth, however, Keys is participating (perhaps inadvertently) in this new “no-makeup” makeup trend, in which it has suddenly become permissible, if not desirable, to go out looking well-rested, but a bit sweaty. Indeed, perhaps some of the ire she has drawn emerges from the fact that she is empowered and privileged enough – both facially and financially – to disengage from the commercial beauty culture to which many women are subjugated in order to adhere to contemporary beauty norms. 

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