the skin we're in

The Big Lie of #NoMakeup

Photo: WIN-Initiative/Neleman

The Skin We’re In: Because sometimes beauty really is skin deep.

First came “no makeup makeup,” the phenomenon of wearing cosmetics so light and pretty that they’re nearly imperceptible. And now we have simply “no makeup,” which ups the ante so that you can’t wear any makeup at all.

Of course, going about your life with no makeup on isn’t new. Loads of us just call it, you know, life. But no-makeup as a beauty trend has been percolating since at least 2014, when the Times noted that hashtagged #nomakeup selfies were becoming popular among celebrities and Slate wondered if we were entering an age of “cosmetic normcore.” I’d always found the trend irksome, but it wasn’t until I read this April New York Times article about brides going without makeup on their wedding days that I realized why.

One of the women in the story got married without a drop of foundation on her face — but she also flew her aesthetician from L.A. to Italy for the wedding, along with 70 skin-care products. If it wasn’t confirmed before, it is now: When we say “no-makeup beauty,” we’re no longer talking about leaving the house right after a shower. We’re talking about leaving the house after weeks of being massaged and lasered and filled and smoothed by a coterie of dermaroller-wielding experts.

It’s technically not a lie to say this trend is about wearing no makeup, but who wants to win on a technicality? Cheaters and chancers and, in this case, fellow women involved some sort of imaginary beauty arms race to look as pretty as possible in a way that feels somehow more authentic than using product. It’s makeup modesty chic. It’s women performing no-makeup, and I’ll tell you why it rankles.

Going truly no-makeup involves little to no beauty work. It’s liberating in that it literally frees up your time and money. This new no-makeup does the opposite. Dermatologist appointments clog your calendar while serums and acids empty your wallet — way more, ironically, than just applying the makeup you’re now supposed to scoff at.

This version of no-makeup suggests that taking meticulous care of your face is somehow more virtuous than using bronzer or blush, because it’s more authentic. The idea is that a glow imparted by highlighter is fake, whereas a glow imparted by a lifetime of denying yourself refined sugar is real.

But as Elizabeth Jaikaran unwraps in a blog post on Brown Girl Magazine, this rhetoric dovetails uncomfortably with the criticism of makeup in the dark misogynist corners of the internet, where it’s derided as being deceptive. (Think of the “this is why you take her swimming on the first date” memes.)

And for all that it claims to reward honesty, the no-makeup trend discourages being honest about the effort it takes. Carolina Ramirez, a student and part-time autism therapist from Miami, Florida, says, “I feel like as women, we aren’t allowed to look like we’re trying. Everything should seem effortless.” You know that college friend who pretended to wing every exam, while secretly hitting the books harder than anyone else? No-makeup beauty is like that — you’re never supposed to admit how hard you’re working.

Moira Guthrie, a business analyst from Albuquerque, New Mexico, likens the pressure to look perfect without wearing makeup to Valerie Steele’s concept of the internalized corset “for when women stopped wearing corsets but were expected to stay thin and small-waisted” anyway. Adherents swap foundation for lasers, mascara for lash extensions, brow pencil for microblading, because while we’re technically allowed to be makeup-free nowadays, we’re still bound by a figurative beauty corset that keeps us busy with, in Steele’s words, “disciplinary regimes” — the ones that are behind virtually every fantastical celebrity #nomakeup selfie on Instagram. (You know the corset exists because when a woman dares go without it — like, for example, Mary Beard — there’s an inevitable backlash.)

The Journal of Consumer Research  did a meta-analysis in 2017 that says as much. “Consumers judge women who engage in certain types of extensive beauty work as possessing poorer moral character,” the researchers found. “These judgments occur only for effortful beauty work perceived as transformative (significantly altering appearance) and transient (lasting a relatively short time), such that they emerge within cosmetics and tanning, yet not skin care or exercise.” The sort of beauty work available to the masses? Tacky. The sort of expensive, behind-the-scenes upkeep needed to achieve this new, idealized no-makeup? Acceptable, even aspirational.

It’s a status thing. “it’s definitely a bit of a privileged phenomenon,” thinks Guthrie. The cost and accessibility of maintaining this new no-makeup look alone makes it accessible to only the very few. Sara from London admits that it was hard for her not to judge friends who used makeup instead of invisible beauty work that’s so ubiquitous in New York. “I could see a dermatologist for just a small co-pay and so I basically went to him once a month for any minor issue on my face and used any prescription products he thought I should try. When I moved back to the U.K. I saw friends loading up their faces with bronzer to hide blemishes and I definitely looked down on them and felt superior.”

This quest for authenticity among a certain set comes via teams of doctors and aestheticians who laboriously create “real” natural beauty. Your no-makeup beauty dreams are just a doctor’s chair away in this newly medicalized landscape, which treats less-than-perfect bare faces as fixable medical complaints (if you have enough time and money) rather than culturally-motivated desires.

In other words, this invisible beauty work is a feature, not a bug. In a world where anyone can buy name-brand, quality beauty products (or damn good dupes), having the time, connections, and cash to see the best quasi-medical skin-care professionals instead is the ultimate beauty status symbol. It’s a humblebrag that perfectly fits our pursuit of authenticity and realness in a carefully curated digital world.

“I’ve seen friends try to make themselves into something they’re not,” says one of the women in the New York Times article. “They plastered on foundation, and to them that might look pretty, but not to me.” Words like “plastered on” are nothing if not judgy. The subtext is clearly negative. But what’s more real about having daily facials than, say, putting on lipstick? Is it less real to wear mascara than have someone tint your lashes? It seems we think so.

So am I just no-makeup shaming? Nope.There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing whatever beauty treatment you like, or wearing whatever makeup you like, or loving skin care. After all, as Amanda Hess points out in her recent piece about beauty-standard denialism, “striving for beauty is ultimately a rational choice in a world that values it so highly, and converting that pressure into fun or communal experiences is its own form of resistance.” Pretending like the man behind the curtain doesn’t exist is exhausting. And it sure isn’t resistance to the beauty pageant we live in.

The Big Lie of #NoMakeup