Over the past few years, contouring and highlighting have been the dominant trends in women’s makeup, especially on Instagram and YouTube. Celebrities from Kylie Jenner to Nicki Minaj all endorsed the makeup style, which left their faces appearing smooth and sculpted. Recently though, a radical shift toward more natural and so-called “bare-faced” makeup has been emerging on social media. However, despite its intent, the new au natural trend may not end up changing women’s relationship with makeup at all.
In early October, Kylie Jenner posed with vlogger James Charles in a photo sporting little to no makeup on their faces. On his Instagram post, Charles captioned the photo: “Bare faced sisters. Video coming soon.” The photo featured him facing the camera with Jenner leaning against him casually, both of them with clear, smooth skin and few blemishes.
Jenner and Charles publicly displaying their bare faces is no anomaly, however. Recently, magazine covers have begun to display actresses and female singers with minimal makeup as well. Ariana Grande appeared on the cover of Vogue in “low-key” makeup, Christina Aguilera modeled for Paper Magazine without any cosmetics and Kerry Washington starred on the cover of Allure in a similar fashion. Jenner herself even appeared in Vogue Australia bare-faced, with her makeup stylist implying she only applied moisturizer to the 21-year-old socialite.
Many have praised the new bare-faced makeup trend as allowing women to fully express their raw selves before the world, breaking down rigid standards of beauty. In fact, fans have even lauded Jenner for her freckles, claiming they look “perfect.” In addition, some Twitter users have criticized Charles for supposedly drawing on fake freckles, with one user responding to Charles with: “It’s not bare if you draw on freckles.”
Charles and Jenner’s emphasis on their minimal makeup, on its face, looks like an act of rebellion against expectations of beauty. Western society traditionally expects women to apply cosmetics to conceal flaws in their complexion or accentuate their most attractive features. If a woman choose to forego such primping, critics — especially other women — will often dismiss them as sloppy or eccentric, someone odd and perhaps even threatening. Therefore, for a beauty icon like Kylie Jenner to embrace so-called “natural” beauty appears to be a major victory for women against unrealistic beauty norms.
In reality, with their new bare-faced photos, Jenner and other female celebrities are merely swapping out one beauty norm for another one. A woman still needs smooth skin, no major discoloration, curled eyelashes, full lips and a thin nose. Freckles are just a bonus. While Jenner might seem to be tearing down archaic concepts of femininity, she’s still reinforcing the expectations young women are expected to fulfill with their faces and bodies. In other words, she’s still expecting them to eliminate any physical peculiarities.
In 1974, feminist philosopher Andrea Dworkin argued that the standards of beauty that a society gives to a woman are what defines her physical freedom and her relationship with her body. Western culture’s dictates regarding how women should and should not look is an erosion of female freedom. In fact, Dworkin’s philosophy suggests that the emphasis on meeting beauty standards among women renders their body and face into objects of manipulation. Makeup and beauty companies can then gain a financial profit from this by convincing women, as a group, that they need to buy products and modify their faces to meet societal norms.
Even if Jenner decided to sport minimal makeup in her photoshoots, she and other celebrities are — maybe unintentionally — still communicating to women that they need to fit the mold. The mold perhaps is no longer the sculpted, contoured look of the past several years, but nonetheless it’s a mold free from major spots, scars and discoloration. Telling women to appear “naturally beautiful” boils down to telling women that they still fit social expectations of beauty, but that they should simply make themselves appear as though they are not actively trying to. Funnily enough, tutorials for natural makeup often describe the look as an “effortless” and “everyday” look.
Dworkin would look at today’s beauty trends and Jenner’s bare-faced photoshoots as a new method to restrict female freedom. Women are to look simple and natural, but cannot appear fatigued or have non-European facial features without makeup on. Inevitably, women have to grapple with these contradicting mandates, which requires investing time, money and effort. Even going bare-faced means buying eyelash extensions and maybe even plastic surgery, not to mention using Photoshop. The effortless look, in other words, requires quite a bit of effort.
To a certain extent, these beauty magazines praising bare-faced looks are simply commodifying a different variety of makeup, one whose goal is to look natural. In other words, although a young woman might no longer need to use 15 makeup products in the morning, she might still use five and will do so eagerly in order to fit into the new trend. Even if a woman does attempt to remove herself from the culture of makeup, the industry has still turned her unadorned face into a look. As a result, even her bare face is no longer her “bare face.”
Meanwhile, the brands who may soon advertise their products as helping achieve the bare-faced look will still be generating significant profit for themselves. Companies are in constant need of new products and new trends to keep themselves relevant and their revenues high. Contouring and highlighting were the fads of 2016 and 2017 that filled Instagram feeds and beauty stores. In 2018, the shift towards bare-faced, minimal beauty might not be a rejection of the makeup industry, but rather just an evolution of it.