Dear Demi Lovato,
It’s Monday, which means that somewhere out there you are about to scrub your face clean, gaze into the screen of your cellphone and snap a selfie for the world—or at least your 29 million Instagram followers—to see. #NMM (#NoMakeUpMondays), is a hashtag you pioneered way back in January, when Donald Trump was still a reality TV sideshow and Saint was a title for religious figures. At the time you proclaimed that we women “deserve to show the world our beauty and our confidence!!!” Since then you have started most work weeks by posting a fresh-faced selfie, making you the reigning queen of what has become a massive movement.
You can’t swing a thigh high boot around the Internet these days without hitting a famous beauty who has taken part in the cosmetics-free craze: Beyoncé, Jessica Alba, Cindy Crawford, Christie Brinkley, Eva Longoria, Miley Cyrus, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and various members of her #squad, most of the Kardashian Klan, a smattering of Real Housewives, and the high priestess of personal branding Gwyneth Paltrow, who offered up this before and after glam-ification split screen selfie several months ago. Goop—is that woman just like us, or what?
A photo posted by Gwyneth Paltrow (@gwynethpaltrow) on
Civilian women have followed suit. To date the #nomakeup hashtag has been used by more than 10 million Instagrammers, making it by far the most popular expression of cosmetic rejection, though certainly not the only one. Other oft-employed options include #freshfaced, #justwokeup and the oh-so-chic #sansfards—a French translation used to imply sophistication. Hashtag politics aside, though, the point is that a group of (mostly) women larger than the population of London, England, have bought into the message that by posting our cosmetic-free faces for the world to see, we are somehow liberating ourselves from the shackles of superficiality, rejecting the patriarchy, dousing traditional beauty standards in gasoline and lighting a match… all of which sounds pretty amazing. But is that really what the #nomakeup movement is about?
To be clear, we’re very happy you’ve worked through—and have been vocal about your struggles with—disordered eating. We’re glad you’re trying to help other women accept themselves. We are! But here’s our issue: the very idea that the no makeup movement asks us to define ourselves based on our cosmetic choices speaks to a pernicious notion around what society sees as female value. (Coming soon: a male empowerment hashtag encouraging dudes to tweet their real bank statement/height/penis size). The fact that women are supposed to qualify that we are not caking our faces speaks to a sad reality regarding baseline expectations.
It isn’t just on social media. Every day now, we read a new headline about how so-and-so female celebrity has—OMG!—appeared in public without her war paint on. The way the media covers Jennifer Garner’s frequent makeup-free grocery runs, you’d think she’s about to win a medal for bravery. Here at FLARE, we featured five up-and-coming Canadian models going barefaced in our March 2015 issue along with the coverline #wokeuplikethis. (The Internet swiftly let us know that, um, of course these models look amazing! They’re all under 21, not mention professional models! Fair enough.)
Have a listen to this recent episode of This American Life, documenting a new normal wherein grade school girls post selfies to their social media accounts and then refresh every ten seconds, counting likes and waiting for their friends to leave comments like “so gorgeous” or “OMG stunning” or flame emoji, lip emoji, hand clapping emoji. This—as the three young interviewees explain—is how today’s tweenage girls interact. Commenting on each other’s appearance structures their relationships and fills up their schedules. It’s how they bond and also how they bicker, since the failure to post a “sooooo pretty” type affirmation on another friend’s photo is viewed as an act of aggression.
It’s not the tyranny of makeup that women need to fight back against, but the tyranny of appearance. And when we post #nomakeup selfies, we’re replacing one beauty standard with another. Scratch that—we’re actually upholding an almost identical beauty standard. We’re just making it a lot harder to achieve by telling the women of the world that not only are they supposed to look like Goop or Rih-Rih or the ethereal goddess running across a field in your J.Crew catalogue—now they’re supposed to do it without the assistance of makeup.
We’re not trying to dump all over women who happen to have won the genetic lottery. You, Demi, have the sort of unfathomable porcelain and ruby red beauty that makes us wonder whether your mother lived in the woods with the Seven Dwarfs. You have a face that could launch a thousand ships (or a Devonne by Demi line of skincare products—cough, cough). For most of us, though, there is nothing very natural about the so-called natural beauty we see celebrated on social media.
Making a #nomakeup selfie goes something like this: Chin tucked, cheeks sucked, lips “ducked.” Now click, click, click, click, click, click, click. Scroll through at least a dozen snaps to find the most flattering option, then zoom it, crop it, and apply a filter that could make Angela Merkel look like a Hawaiian Tropics model. Which is all assuming that a typical #nomakeup photo poster is even telling the truth. Given the recent onslaught of YouTube tutorials and magazine articles instructing women on the secrets to achieving the “no makeup” makeup look a dubious side eye seems in order. (Don’t even get us started on Adele’s “no makeup” Rolling Stone cover. This is what Adele looks like with no makeup.)
Professional hypocrisy exposer Amy Schumer nails the absurdity of natural beauty worship with her hilarious parody music video, “Girl You Don’t Need Makeup.” In it, Schumer plays the role of a pretty girl whose boyfriend tells her she doesn’t need makeup…and then he sees her without it. (“I didn’t realize that your lashes were so stubby and pale/Just a little mascara and you’ll look female.”) In particular, it’s a parody of the One Direction song “What Makes You Beautiful,” but it more broadly calls B.S. on the accepted wisdom that appreciating or rewarding natural beauty is somehow less superficial than appreciating or rewarding any kind of beauty. By the end of the video Schumer’s face is covered in more makeup than most birthday party clowns.
Last month Kim Kardashian revealed that she sometimes sleeps with her makeup on, and that she loved the idea of a husband who never once saw his wife’s cosmetic-free face. Our first reaction was to view Kim’s endorsement as horrifying and depressing, but on second inspection there is, perhaps, something oddly refreshing about her level of transparency. Because, sure, Kim sounds like she’s quoting directly from The Rules, a horrible ’90s dating manual that came out before you were old enough to cut your own food, but at least she isn’t attempting to wrap superficiality in the flag of female empowerment. Concealing bags and blemishes with a good foundation is one thing. Concealing the truth is arguably a lot worse.