The Politics of Makeup

27 July, 2017

Creative Director and Graphic Designer Sally Thurer (MTV, Missbehave) came to our penthouse library to discuss two recent trends in makeup application (contouring and strobing), and what each approach implies about the standards of self-empowerment.

How did you get interested in strobing and contouring?

I'm a graphic designer. I'm not in the beauty industry or anything. But these are thoughts I had, while shopping in Sephora, about graphic design and beauty and the politics of the messaging. I've been thinking about how these techniques are used in culture as a signifier of being woke or not being woke. And I'm using the word "woke" to be funny.

Contouring vs. Strobing

What's the difference between contouring and strobing?

Contouring is very a 2009 Kim Kardashian trend, where you carve your face. You paint fake shadows on your face, treat it like it's a surface, and paint highlights in order to change the way it looks. This has been thoroughly digested in culture. It's about treating your face like a canvas, creating a mask of makeup to change the contours.

Strobing uses the highlight aspect only. Typically it's about using very shiny or glittery makeup. When you put something shiny on your face, you can see the actual contours of your face. It's much easier to paint on fake contours if you're using a matte makeup than a shiny one, because shiny makeup enhances the real contours.

A MAC ad

Are there other makeup techniques that have caught on in the way contouring and strobing have?

Yes. Makeunders are big now as well. Demi Lovato, in 2015, decided to do a photoshoot where she's not wearing any makeup, at all. She was nude and used very flattening lighting. The politics of this are slightly complicated because she's publicly struggled with eating disorders, so this was pitched as her accepting her body how it is and displaying her bravery.

I interpret this as a power move, because she looks really gorgeous in these photographs. So there's a flip side. With this no-makeup look she's showing how naturally beautiful she is. She's not given any tools in order to enhance herself, so in a sense, she's flaunting her power.

Demi Lovato's shoot for Vanity Fair

Are there particular makeup lines dedicated to contouring or strobing?

Kat Von D (the reality show tattoo artist) now has a makeup line based on the idea of contouring and how it can self-actualize who you are. The philosophy is that you can use contouring to correct yourself, to change yourself, to treat yourself like an artist’s palette.

An idea behind contouring makeup is that it’s very disruptive. While it used to only be available to people who could afford to hire makeup artists, YouTube tutorials have made it infinitely more accessible. Kat Von D and other brands post videos online teaching women how to do these professional tricks to change themselves. It's really disruptive in the same way Über was. It's challenging the structure.

Kat Von D

What about on the other side of the spectrum?

There's Glossier. This brand is really about skin care, having healthy skin and not wearing makeup. I feel like that's almost a class move. Moisturizers, high-end skincare, and dermatologists are expensive, so unless you're actually blessed with great skin, you’re going to CVS and slapping on some foundation. Skincare is a higher class endeavor. This is really selling, and I think that class is an important part of this. And also, youth. These are naturally beautiful woman. There's been a lot of hysterical stuff online about how Glossier is just for women who don't need makeup, and do you even know if you're wearing Glossier when you're wearing it? Their packaging is not very designed, but it has this transparent shininess to it. It's not black, it's not opaque like other brands' packaging. When they do use makeup, it's to add extra shine to your face, this idea of strobing. It's the shine that you apply to your cheekbone (like their Haloscope product).

A Glossier Ad
Glossier products

Have celebrities embraced these trends?

Kim Kardashian decided to go to the 2016 Balenciaga show wearing no makeup. But even for her no-makeup look, she's actually wearing Glossier lip gloss. Her no-makeup look is a lot of really expensive moisturizer. The idea is that her complexion looks so good, because she was wearing enough spray tan already, that she didn't have to add anything additional. It's very shiny, all about shiny freshness.

Kim K no makeup look

Are you drawn to any makeup brands in particular?

Yes. My favorite is Milk makeup, which I find exciting because it's taken this idea of no-makeup and strobing and really elevating it to a really high place. They choose gorgeous people to model in their ads, but they're usually representing symbolically, a diversity. So everybody's beautiful, but they're all beautiful in different kinds of ways. It's not like someone who actually needs help being beautiful, it's somebody who's already beautiful. But they are committed to showing diversity.

They say "Style and beauty are not masks," it's all about this idea of transparency and showing your true self through your makeup. It's all about you shining through. When you’re in strobing makeup, you're showing who you truly are. But with the contouring makeup, there's a sense of equality. So if you're a trans woman, for example, and you wanted be perceived as a cis woman, you can use contouring makeup to realize how you want the world to see you. It's actually a tool to change how you represent yourself, where strobing relies on your existent image. If you're already beautiful, you'll continue to look beautiful. But if you're not beautiful, you'll have a hard time achieving that look using just strobing makeup.

An Ad for Milk

How have these techniques worked as trends within our culture today?

As a trend, contouring has been a professional strategy for doing makeup for a very long time. YouTube videos and Kim Kardashian doing demonstrations online teaching people how to do it was a huge trend in 2010. But people will continue to do it, if that's the look they want: a very high-coverage, very sculpted makeup look.

Contouring allows you to really change and attack the structure. But it's still conforming to a certain standard, a certain set of beauty standards that everybody's agreed on, whereas Milk makeup is actually challenging those standards in a more direct way. They'll show trans people, and it's not a trans woman trying to look like a cis woman. It's somebody fully owning being trans and showing a lot of pride for being trans. It's actually challenging those structures. Contouring allows you to conform to whatever standard of beauty you're trying to conform to, but Milk has the potential to redefine standards in beauty.

Words by Sally Thurer and The Editors.

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