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How Feminism Plays into the Opposing Makeup Trends We're Seeing Everywhere Right Now

While one dominant trend promotes natural beauty, the other revels in the idea that women can do whatever they want with their bodies.
A Glossier campaign photo. Photo: @glossier/Instagram

A Glossier campaign photo. Photo: @glossier/Instagram

Fifty years from now, when people look back on the beauty trends of the 2010s, I figure they'll think of hair in some sort of loose, undone waves. That part's easy. But when I start to consider widely popular makeup, things get a bit murkier. How will future beauty historians be able to reconcile the two dominant makeup trends of our time — minimalist, no-makeup makeup and over-the-top, more-is-more Instagram makeup — into one overall aesthetic for posterity?

These opposing makeup philosophies have both become equally pervasive in beauty culture. One dominates everyday life, while the other rules the largest form of modern media. For every "melts-into-your-skin" cream blush that one brand launches, a full contour palette from another follows closely behind.

But a closer look at these seemingly contradictory beauty trends reveals that they're actually two sides of the same coin: Both of them are, at their core, about feminism. The notion that women can choose to adorn themselves — or not — however they want to is the common thread.

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No-makeup makeup's rise — popularized by millennial-bait brands like Glossier and Milk Makeup — reflects a certain sort of freedom for women, releasing them from the centuries-old mandates that they "enhance" their appearance with layer upon layer of makeup in order to adhere to a narrowly defined "feminine" norm and become pleasing to the male gaze. The minimalist routine also aims to free up women's time; if they're spending less of the day focusing on molding their appearance to fit into a societal definition of "beauty," they have much more freedom to do other things.

Then there's the heavy-handed, contour-obsessed Instagram makeup — popular on the feeds of YouTubers and bloggers, as well as among brands like Benefit, Anastasia Beverly Hills and ColourPop. It's worth noting that this look, though often credited to social media, pre-dates the photo-sharing app. "It's actually the makeup style of Sam Fine or Kevyn Aucoin," says makeup artist Ashunta Sheriff. (Hannah Faulkner of Beauty Dummy also points out that it's a derivative of drag makeup.) This style has made a home for itself on Instagram because it's so impactful on camera. "The thing about that style of makeup is it photographs really well," says Kathryn Margaret Rose of Beauty Dummy. "That's the point."

This type of look often requires an hour or more to create, and yet, it, too can be viewed as a feminist act: The time a woman spends making herself up is time she focuses completely on herself, making it a woman-first routine. Not to mention, Instagram makeup is more like an art form, helping to cement the idea that women should have freedom to express themselves however they desire.

"I believe in empowering women to feel and look their best," says makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury. "Because everyone wants and deserves to be the best version of themselves." Tilbury built her brand with the direct purpose of sharing the power of makeup, something she takes advantage of daily. "No one has ever seen me without makeup on — not even my husband," she proclaims proudly (and speaks about often). Even though she doesn't wear what one would consider full-scale "Instagram makeup," this choice to wear an entire face of makeup constantly holds the same powerful, self-aware idea. For Tilbury, the choice to wear makeup is something over which she has ownership. "It's the face that I want to present to the world."

"I know for me, when figuring out the makeup look, the conversation focused on using makeup more as a statement and a mode of self-expression, than as a way to please other people," makeup artist Pat McGrath, who is known for creating bold looks with flashy colors, textures and finishes, told Allure when discussing the makeup at the Fall 2017 Prada show. The three different options she created for the runway were intended to make the models appear "independent and strong."

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A look from Benefit's Instagram feed. Photo: @benefitcosmetics/Instagram

A look from Benefit's Instagram feed. Photo: @benefitcosmetics/Instagram

Policing women's bodies — and the ways they are adorned — has remained one of the most persistent, universal forms of sexism throughout much of modern history. More so than men, women are told what's appropriate and inappropriate for them to wear, held to specific expectations of appearance and judged on the basis of their appearance. This includes makeup. 

This idea of expressing one's natural beauty has come into the forefront of pop culture over the past couple of years. For instance, Alicia Keys has been one of the most outspoken celebrities to encourage this idea, often forgoing makeup altogether for public appearances and on her album cover. In an essay for Lenny Letter, the singer wrote about the first time she went makeup-free for her album art, saying, "I swear it is the strongest, most empowered, most free and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt." After embracing the #nomakeup movement, she experienced some criticism for discriminating against those who enjoy wearing makeup. She set the record straight, tweeting, "Y'all, me choosing to be makeup free doesn't mean I'm anti-makeup. Do you!" And that, in essence, is the point of both of these trends: Do you, no matter what "you" looks like.

These trends that sit at opposite ends of the spectrum show off the variety of options women have to express themselves. Almost every woman can relate to someone telling her she's wearing too little makeup, whether outright or in some subtler form of, "you look tired." Then there's telling a woman she's wearing too much makeup. But the fact of the matter is that a woman's makeup — or choice to forgo cosmetics at all — shouldn't be up for comment. Today's trends are a direct rebellion against this type of policing, using the extremes of "too little makeup" or "too much makeup" to show that women can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

The beauty industry, like much of society at large, is currently in a state of flux when it comes to women's issues. "The modern beauty industry is moving more toward artistry and self-care as opposed to the past, when it was mostly based on shaming and making women feel less-than," explains Faulkner. "As long as it makes you feel good and it's your choice, it's feminism," agrees Rose.

Not only are these feminist faces of minimal or Instagram makeup a celebration of female freedom of choice, but these extremes also create a place for women to open up and support one another. "No matter what the actual makeup techniques are, it's just amazing to see women lifting each other up," says Rose about the encouraging online makeup community.

"The fact that the beauty industry is geared towards women makes it inherently a feminist concern," says Rose. This means it's important the beauty industry strives to keep women's interests in mind. "I believe the makeup industry is the forefront of change," says Sheriff.

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