So I haven’t updated in a while… sorry. 2020 is… 2020. I have not had the energy to do all of the posts that I’ve been thinking of doing. But! I have started a TikTok, because that seems more manageable. So if you want to watch me put on makeup while talking about makeup, feminism, etc., please check me out at @thefeministlipstique or https://www.tiktok.com/@thefeministlipstique/
Being a discussion of how you shouldn’t stan for brands and influencers.
“Women are complicated. Women are multifaceted. Not because women are crazy. But because people are crazy, and women happen to be people.”— Tavi Gevinson
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Cray Cray Gevinson. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is kind of freaked out by makeup stans.
So repeat after me:
Brands are not people and Influencers are not our friends.
Brands are not people and influencers are not our friends.
Brands are not people and influencers are not our friends.
Brands are not people and influencers are not our friends.
That should hopefully do it. Just make sure you repeat that to yourself basically every time you dip your toe into the makeup world. It’s important to keep this in mind, as that’s the best way to avoid a parasocial relationship.
Parasocial relationships have become kind of trendy to talk about. Philosophy Tube discussed it in terms of his own experiences and fandom in general, Whitney Hedrick and Julia Mazzucato both beat me to talking about it in the beauty industry by a few months, damnit. But the first (and still definitive) voice on the idea is Shannon Strucci. Her multi-video series on parasocial relationships is a deep dive into parasocial relationships with both fictional characters and real people.
Now this post is going to get kind of in-depth and wide-ranging, so I’m going to start with a quick FAQ for those who want the tl;dr.
Q: What is a parasocial relationship?
A: According to the psychologists that coined the term in 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, it is a one-sided relationship that media users form as a result of exposure to media personas.
Q: Okay… what exactly does that mean?
A: It means that viewers form a one-sided relationship with media figures like movie stars, YouTubers, or even personalized brands, where they start to feel as if they know the figure/persona, and start behaving, for good or for ill, that they are real friends. The persona may try to cultivate this feeling for social or financial profit by trying to seem more “authentic,” by calling their followers by a communal pet name, or by emphasizing how close they feel to their fans.
Q: Is that a bad thing?
A: It definitely can be. For the viewer, it makes them a lot more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by the persona. For the persona, it increases the likelihood that their fans will ignore boundaries and start behaving in inappropriate ways, including stalking, sexual harassment, and hate mobbing.
Q: But Cray Cray Gevinson, don’t you have to try to cultivate parasocial relationships in order to get readers?
A: I absolutely do! Parasocial relationships are a pretty inevitable aspect of interacting with any sort of media. But there are better and worse ways to handle them, which we’ll talk about soon!
The Longer Version: YouTube Influencers
YouTube is basically tailor made for developing parasocial relationships. Influencers are speaking directly into a camera– they’re talking to you. They are responding to comments, answering messages, opening gifts from followers– you can almost reach out and touch them. They have chatty vlogs where they talk about their lives. And they’re so “authentic” and “relatable.” they’re super real people, just like us! You watch them almost every day. You have constant access to hundreds or even thousands of hours of their content. You know their likes and dislikes, you know what products make them happiest. You watch them so often you’re certain that you know them, that you would get along so well if you met them in real life. You might even decide to send them gifts, or buy products if they do a collab, or use their affiliate codes.
These parasocial relationships would develop on their own by the nature of YouTube. But YouTube works hard to make sure that these parasocial relationships develop. And that they are monetized. YouTube works off of a mysterious formula known as the Algorithm– the way that YouTube uses data to decide what videos to support, what videos to hide, what videos to monetize, etc. The main purpose of YouTube is to make people watch more YouTube. So they want creators to make that happen. They reward constant content, and constant engagement. Thus they create mechanisms to get that– creators ask for you to like, comment, and subscribe– all signs of engagement and consistent watching, and all things that viewers are more likely to do if they have a parasocial relationship with the creator.
So, as Shannon Strucci points out, YouTube encourages influencers through the steps of curating parasocial relationships in their creator lessons, including telling influencers to make their audience feel loved and to use special lingo or names for their audiences to make them feel like part of an “in-group.” It’s why James Charles calls followers “Sisters” (and there is a whole ‘nother level of discussion of gender identity and appropriation and gender stereotyping going on there that I don’t have time to talk about right now). You see this in general fandom as well– it’s why we end up with group names like “Trekkies” or “The Beyhive,” why catchphrases end up on merch. It’s a way to form a group identity based on a mutual appreciation of a figure. You’re now part of an in group. You get the jokes. You’re cool.
The Longer Version: Brands and Companies
The whole parasocial relationship thing gets even weirder and more fraught when it comes to brands and companies. Because no matter what Citizens United tries to say, corporations aren’t people. But they work really hard to pretend to be. Brands want that sweet, sweet loyalty and cash the same way influencers do, so they do the same things. They interact with fans and consumers, they try to have a human-like social media presence (Wendy’s dunking on people). They even develop a brand ethos or company reputation that essentially serves as their “personality.” Maybe they’re the chill, bohemian, all-natural brand. Maybe they’re the sweet, ultra-girly brand. Maybe they’re the super cool punk rock brand. Depending on the market share they’re trying to corner, they’ll pose themselves in different ways. The intention each time is to get consumers to view the brand as an enlarged individual, rather than a faceless entity. They want potential buyers to ascribe motives and intentions to the brand’s actions that are more pure and good than “making lots and lots of money.” (Which is their primary motivation, no matter what other intentions they also have.) YouTuber Amandabb has a really good video on how makeup brands in particular try to humanize themselves, as well as the ways they utilize the energy of fans to essentially do PR for them.
Parasocial Relationships: How they can be Neutral or Good
It is very normal to form parasocial relationships with people and characters– in some ways, it is unavoidable just due to the nature of media. And they aren’t always a bad thing. Shannon Strucci uses the example of Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers, two of the most pure human beings to ever exist. Even if our relationship with them was one-sided, it was not manipulative or malicious– while they needed parasocial relationships in order to have viewers, they did not try to exploit that relationship. (Or at least no more than any media figure needs to in order to maintain a viewership.)
Parasocial relationships can also end up being rewarding in many ways, for both the persona and the fan. Many media figures talk about how much it means to them to have fans, and how much they appreciate their interactions with fans. Shannon Strucci points to John Cena and his literal hundreds of Make a Wish fulfillments to talk about how much a celebrity or media figure can mean to a person. And it isn’t unheard of for fans and creators to actually become friends with each other– though this needs to happen naturally with mutual respect and admiration, not creepily, through cyber-stalking a persona. (We’ll get to that.)
As I said in my Q&A, even I depend on some forms of parasocial relationship. I’m showing you a part of my personality, but not my whole personality. I’m showing you what I think will be most appealing to get you to keep reading. And sure, that contains part of my actual personality and opinions, but a very carefully selected part. And I am trying to make you feel connected to me– even though I don’t know who is reading my blog, or how many people are reading it at one time, I keep referring to you as, well, you. I am implicitly creating the illusion of a one-on-one relationship, as if I’m delivering my snarky commentary individually to each reader. Part of me being able to blog successfully depends on building a following of people who will continue to read my work. I’m genuinely hoping that this parasocial relationship will never turn exploitative, and honestly, I’m hoping my readers will let me know if it feels that way. (Please, please, please never give yourselves a follower nickname. I will cry.)
Parasocial Relationships: How They Can Be Very Bad
Oh boy. So many ways. Just so… so many ways.
Let’s first look at who is most likely to form a parasocial relationship with a persona: a lonely person. Someone who does not have many “real world” connections is the most likely to be drawn in by a persona, and to blur the lines between viewership and friendship. They’re the least likely to have someone watching out for them to make sure they’re not sinking too deep, and they’re the most likely to be convinced to do things like buying products in order to earn approval from their “friends” who are telling them things online. But 99% of the time, they are not your friends. You are Butters, and they are the girls who work at Raisins. They are interested in making you feel good as long as you have money to spend. And when you’re not useful to them anymore, you are alone again.
This, to me, is one of the big ones. If you’ve never heard of a “stan” before…. did you recently emerge from a time capsule, with no idea of internet culture?
The word stan comes to us kind of simultaneously as a mashup of the words “stalker” and “fan,” and as an homage to the Eminem song of the same name about a deranged fan who identifies way, way too hard with Eminem and decides to kill his pregnant girlfriend and then himself when Eminem won’t answer his fanmail. This gives us the basic idea of a “stan”– an obsessive fan who can alternately be beneficial or harmful to the object of their obsession. Saying someone is a stan carries a lot of connotations:
- That person will forgive their favorite persona for any indiscretion
- That person will constantly support their favorite persona emotionally and monetarily
- That person will connect a large part of their personal identity into their favorite persona
- That person will react very poorly to any criticism of their favorite persona
- That person will fight on behalf of the persona who probably doesn’t even know who they are.
The first three are the parts of stan culture that can arouse some actual sympathy and empathy, if not outright pity. (Also lots of frustration, but still.) No matter how scandal-prone a persona is, no matter how many horrible things they’ve done, no matter how much they show that they don’t care at all about their fans, a certain number of hardcore stans will still support them, and even work to re-integrate them into the larger popular culture. There is no single better proof of this than the fact that Trump’s approval ratings are not at 0. (I was formerly a politics and pop culture blogger, you can take the girl out of the blog, you can’t take the existential screaming out of the girl.) Stans will buy all the merch, all the collabs, all the products, from their favorites. They’ll pay hundreds of dollars for vaguely promised meet and greets. I’ve even seen stans give money in livestreams along with messages like, “This is my last five dollars but what you do means so much to me I want to give it to you!” It’s horrifying.
And of course, the more emotionally wrapped up in a persona a stan is, the more the persona’s ups and downs become the stan’s ups and downs. They are sad when their favorite persona is sad, or happy when their favorite persona is happy. They start caring, a lot, about the personal lives of their favorite persona– who they’re dating, where they’re living, what is happening with their children, etc. And they open themselves to immense amounts of disappointment and turmoil when something the persona does is disappointing. As Shannon Strucci puts it, “I would hate to be so emotionally tangled up in the lives of people I don’t know that their pain, or controversy, or racist opinions, had a significant impact on my emotional development or my psychological well-being.” (We’re going to talk a little bit more about this over-investment when I get to the discussion of the downsides of parasocial relationships from the persona’s side.)
Those last two characteristics are the biggies for the whole “this is kind of creepy” column. Because stans will fight you, on the internet or in person, for the honor of the persona they favor. They react about the same way they would react if you’d insulted their mother or their best friend, and soon you’re getting called out to the dueling grounds because you said that someone that, again, they do not personally know, is problematic. If this blog ever gets a following, I’ll probably one day be dealing with the stans of figures like Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson, because I’m stupid/brave enough to call them garbage human beings (which they absolutely are, and we’ll talk about them more in a future post). Both figures essentially have an army of stans (many of them young girls) who will throw down with anyone who dares to criticize them. Stans can essentially be mobilized as an army by their favorite figure, whether that’s in the direct “Hey, attack this person” way, or the indirect, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest” sort of way. Armies of stans have threatened, harassed, and doxxed creators who criticize a figure they hold dear. It gets genuinely terrifying, to the point that people within the YouTube community are warned by other YouTubers to not criticize certain figures so that their lives aren’t ruined.
Because brands are now trying to people, the stan relationship with brands can be just as toxic as it is with influencers. If you have ever seen anyone go to the mat over iPhone vs. Android, or seen the absolute horror show that is the conservative right’s attempts to “own” the left by eating Chik-fil-a, you understand what corporate stans are like. All the same characteristics apply– brand stans will forgive their problematic faves for anything, will buy everything a brand puts out, and will connect their identity to a brand. And more frighteningly, you see the brands getting really, really canny about exploiting and weaponizing their stans. In the Amandabb video I linked earlier, she talks about how the makeup brand Anastasia Beverly Hills basically was able to turn their fanbase into a free promotional campaign, saving them likely millions of dollars.
But one of the best/worst examples of a brand exploiting a stan army I’ve seen recently is the fight between Disney and Sony over Spider-Man. When I first heard that Spider-Man might be removed from the MCU because contract negotiations had failed between Disney and Sony, I was kinda sad, because Tom Holland has been my favorite incarnation of Spider-Man (or at least he was, until I played the Spider-Man PS4 game) but I shrugged and said, “Welp, guess that is what you get for tying the main story arc of your movies to a character you were borrowing. Sucks to suck.” And then the internet lost its mind, and fans threw a fit, and pressured Sony into capitulating. It was hailed as a victory for the fans, but it was actually a victory for Disney, who had gotten the stans to do their work for them. Let me repeat: A multi-billion dollar company (Disney) was able to weaponize the parasocial relationships fans developed with their content in order to manipulate contract negotiations with another multibillion dollar company. And the fans were fighting on the more powerful company’s side. Disney literally could not have bought a better weapon for their contract deal, and they learned that they can manipulate the public into acting as their enforcement arm. So…. that’s not good.
Bad Times for Personas
Parasocial relationships can also be harmful to the personas as well as to the viewers. And not just in the “Being a celebrity is so hard, let me play the world’s smallest violin” kind of way. In the “Might need a restraining order” kind of way. Making your viewers think they are your friends seems like a great idea when you’re monetizing their affection. It seems like a much worse idea when they’re tracking down your house and coming to visit unannounced, making unwanted comments about your body and your life in general, and taking your actions very, very personally.
In a recent video, Philosophy Tube/Oliver Thorn talks about parasocial relationships, including their many benefits, and six types of “weird” fan. The weirdness can be harmless but annoying, like the “Advice Guys” who ask for advice on very specific, individual problems, or the “Debate Champions” who “…demand you spend your time and attention curing them of their pedantry, which is impossible.” The weirdness can be emotionally crushing, like the “Therapy Needers,” people who need legitimate mental help but are unable to find or afford it in their normal lives, so they seek it from a persona. The weirdness can be dangerous and harmful, like “Stalkers,” who do everything from requesting pictures to buying presents to offering to do unpaid work to showing up at a persona’s home, “Horny People,” people who send graphic text or video, solicit sex at in-person events, and seek personas out on dating apps then lie about not knowing them, and “Hate Mobs,” who we will talk about in a second.
The problem comes about due to a failure of boundaries, or at least a failure to recognize boundaries. Most of us are aware that we can ask for attention, or hugs, or whatever, from our close friends and family, but that it’s rude to stop a random person on the street, hug them, and tell them about all of your mental illnesses and how watching them is the only thing that keeps you from committing suicide. (Most.) But that is exactly what some stans will do with their favorite YouTuber. Because to the stan, that isn’t a stranger, it’s their friend. Their friend who has no idea who they are. Their friend who has just been accosted by a stranger and been made responsible for said stranger’s mental health and continuing existence. Many creators talk about how exhausting it can be to be approached in public and expected to be their online selves in a real-life setting– to be “on” and respond the way that their fans expect, lest they be labeled an asshole or bitch when they acknowledge that yes, they appreciate their fans but really they were just trying to get some takeout after a long day, and no, they don’t want to take a picture.
The hate mob aspect is probably the scariest aspect of stan culture, both for personas and for society at large. While it is a characteristic of stans that they often put up with whatever their favorite persona does without ever criticizing them, that doesn’t mean that the stans don’t have a breaking point– and when they break, they break hard. Because again, to the stans, the persona is their friend. They have not just been mildly disappointed by someone they watch on YouTube– they have been betrayed by their friend. The emotions are a lot deeper, and a lot darker. Thorn talks about a recent hate mob that came after him regarding a controversy largely centered around his friend and fellow content creator, ContraPoints. Despite not being the main figure in said controversy, Thorn got tons of hate, including death threats, being encouraged to commit suicide, and being doxxed. He said that people went through his videos where he talked about his mental health to find specific words and phrases that would hurt him the most. He explained that these former fans were more venomous than the neo-Nazis and transphobes that have attacked him for his progressive ideas.
More venomous than neo-Nazis and transphobes. For a controversy in which he wasn’t even the central figure Holy hell.
What Does it All Mean?
It means that all of us, viewers and personas alike, need to be careful, need to have good boundaries, and need to be media literate. There is no harm in enjoying someone’s work, finding someone’s work meaningful, or even feeling connected to a community because of someone’s work. But there is obviously a lot of harm in over-investing in an influencer or a brand, and either being exploited by them or being creepy towards them.
Remind yourself, frequently, that personas are just that– personas. They are the artificial version of a person or thing that you are getting to see.
Do not invest a significant amount of emotional energy into supporting, protecting, defending, etc. a persona.
Do not lose sight of the real world community outside of a persona and their fandom.
Do not allow yourself to feel personally responsible for the financial success of a persona or a brand.
Do not become overly invested in the real lives of the personas you admire. Don’t try to find their house, their family, their place of work, etc.
React in rational, situation-appropriate ways to the behavior of personas and brands.
Above all, always remember: Brands are not people and Influencers are not our friends.
Cray Cray Gevinson.
Being a discussion of some weird and shady things to look out for.
“At 70 years old if I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the word ‘f—k off’ much more frequently.”— Helen Mirren
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Lacrimosa Mirren. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is trying to figure out if makeup brands think we’re stupid.
Last time we talked about the things that beauty brands do that make me mad. Today we’re going to talk about the things that make me just roll my eyes. These things are the more obvious, pathetic, money grabs. This one will come with pictures, because some of these you have to see to believe. (Also I apologize, because I am pretty sure I got a lot of this information from watching YouTube videos, and I have watched so many of them at this point that I can’t remember what comes from where. It’s highly likely that I got stuff from Whitney Hedrick, Abby Williamson, Nisipisa, and Smokey Glow.)
There is probably no more unbelievable phrase in cosmetics than “Limited Editions.” “Limited Edition” is the (usually) false claim that the company makes to ensure you rush to buy something instantly, that you take part in the secondary market to buy things at ridiculous markups in order to be able to tell investors, “Our palette is so popular that people are buying it at a 400% markup!” Most of all, it is a way to test the popularity of a product without having to do any of that difficult stuff, like “advertising” or “making it good.”
The fact that brands like to do “limited edition” launches that aren’t limited edition is an open secret in the beauty community that brands pretend doesn’t exist. Charlotte Tilbury deadass did a “24-hour only” launch of an eyeshadow palette and media breathlessly went with that talking point, before admitting at the veeeeeery end of the article that actually, after the 24 hours, the palette would be available again in about two weeks.
I don’t have exact statistics, but based on anecdotal evidence I’d say the majority of makeup that is advertised as “limited edition” becomes a regular or semi-regular part of a brand’s collection about 60-70% of the time. I’ve only been paying close attention to makeup and makeup releases for about 7-8 months, but in that time, there’s only one “limited edition” makeup release that I can think of that hasn’t become part of a permanent rotation, and that’s the Star Wars collection from Pat McGrath. And I mean… look at it. It’s pretty and all, but nothing exciting. The only makeup or packaging that resembles Star Wars beyond the very, very superficial of the outside packaging is the R2-D2 lip balm, and that’s mostly because they bothered to put a red dot on the tube. Also, that is a goddamn $40 lip balm. No. No I say.
Pretty much every other time in recent memory, “limited edition” has been code for “artificial scarcity,” a deliberate ploy to take advantage of people’s FOMO. And even when products aren’t cycled into normal rotation immediately, they can be cycled in again even years later. Or “limited edition” means more about the packaging than it does the product.
The related issue to “limited edition” is “limited quantity.” This is when brands launch something they know full well is going to sell out almost instantly, yet still only produce it in a limited quantity just so they can pump up the hype, mysteriously promise future restocks to further pump up the hype, and also have the social cachet of saying, “we sold out in X minutes!” Colour Pop released a Sailor Moon collection that sold out in less than thirty minutes, then were vague about when the restock would occur. Same thing with the Jeffree Star/Shane Dawson Conspiracy palette.
Basically, if you see any makeup launch marked as “limited edition” or even “likely to sell out,” take a really deep breath before you go insane over it. Think it over. How likely is it that the item is really limited edition? What about the product is making you want it so badly? Do you really need it right now, or can you wait until the buzz dies down? How sad will you be if it really was limited edition and you missed out?
Don’t let your FOMO rule you, friends.
Repackaging Old Products to Get Them to Sell
Now this one doesn’t bother me too much as long as brands are kind of honest about it. I understand the need to get rid of old inventory, especially when you are selling something that expires, like makeup. But whereas a lot of companies will have a sale or do something else to reduce stock, makeup companies will instead slap a sticker of a snowman on something and call it part of the holiday collection. If you see a “new” collection with a shade that looks a lot like one in an “old” collection, you’re probably right. And again, as long as brands are upfront about this, I don’t mind too much. It’s often necessary to update package to keep items looking fresh, and if you already have a good shade range, why fix what isn’t broken? But if brands are trying to sneak one past customers by adding some flair to a product that was a dud, it pisses me off.
Turning One Trick Ponies Into Beating a Dead Horse
Urban Decay’s Naked palette. Tarte’s Shape Tape concealer. NARS’ Orgasm blush. Once, these were all innovative products and runaway successes. Now they are Rambo: Last Blood where an original good idea has spawned so many sequels and product tie-ins that you not only don’t understand what is going on, you are kind of retroactively mad at the original good thing.
NARS thinks we’re all still teenagers who giggle and shiver at sex words, and has just released the Orgasm X collection, which I think is the one where the Orgasm blush tries to kill some kids on a space station. There are 12 different spinoffs of the Naked palette now. 12. And Tarte has slapped the word “tape” onto basically everything they make so that there is an MCU-style universe of related “tape” products, including the original concealer, a foundation, a matte foundation, a glow wand (whatever the hell that is), a body makeup, a travel size concealer (I thought concealer already WAS travel size, but shows what I know), a pressed powder, a setting powder, a hydrating primer, a “pore and prime balm” (not sure how that is different from a primer), a setting spray, a moisturizer, a travel size of basically everything else I just said, a “tone tool” (It’s a big ol’ brush for the body makeup), a primer stick, and a Christmas ornament. I am not even slightly kidding.
Now, reportedly, at least a few of the Naked palette follow-ups are ok, and I’m going to be willing to guess that Orgasm X, for all it’s 90s-tastic attempts at edginess, will be fine, because NARS does good blushes. I’ve heard most of the shape tape follow-ups are trash, but haven’t experienced them personally. But the fact that these brands are trying to trade on the success of their initial products this long after the original, and with this many variations away from the original (try to tell me that the original Naked palette and the Naked Cherry palette are even slightly thematically related. Go on, I dare you) is both tiresome and shows a lack of faith in the products they’re actually producing. NARS shouldn’t have to call every other product “Orgasm” in a desperate bid for our attention if their new blushes are good. Urban Decay should try to sell us a red-tone palette without lying in our face and telling us it’s related to their original neutrals palette. We’ve moved on, and it’s time for them to do the same.
Weird Brand Tie-Ins
Look at this bullshit. Look at it.
Natalia Romanova did not get stupidly killed in a gaping plot hole only for her corpse to be desecrated this way. No. This is the Ulta tie-in collection for the upcoming Black Widow movie. I could have designed a better, more character accurate collection with five minutes, six colored pencils, and a napkin. This is trash. This is Ulta trying to get rid of extra makeup shades by slapping a red hourglass on it and hoping we’re foolish.
And this isn’t even the worst offender. The world of makeup and brand tie-ins is…. weird. At its best, it’s a good product tied to a quick hit of nostalgia. At its worst, it’s only nostalgia. Or stuff that can’t even be nostalgia because it hasn’t come out yet, and I don’t know who it is for. Pur Cosmetics and Colour Pop seem to be the worst offenders (pretend I knew how to put the umlaut above the “u” in Pur cosmetics). These are a random assortment of the brand tie ins the two brands have done in the recent past. None of them have good reviews, none of them have been tied to their pop culture reference in thematically appropriate ways, and none of them give me faith in humanity.
THE GRINCH. THE GRINCH Y’ALL. AND IT DIDN’T HAVE GOOD GREENS.
And Colour Pop had the option to make a Sailor Moon palette with the colors of the Sailor Scouts and they didn’t take it. Seriously, someone in the makeup industry hire me.
Now, not all brand tie-ins are completely pointless, and some brand tie-ins seem well thought out and actually make my fangirl heart go pitter patter. But those are few and far between.
Smokey Glow has a video about makeup that is a gimmick, and I have been personally victimized by one of the items on her list. I always have a really hard time with eyeliner. I very carefully follow eyeliner tutorials, trying to get that perfect, rockabilly cat eye. Then I look up, and BOOM. I’m the Winter Soldier.
So when I was shopping for new eyeliner and found that they’d come out with a new “pizza roller” design that was supposed to help you apply eyeliner more precisely, I was like, “This is an amazing idea, that obviously has come from makeup brands that care very much about us. And just look at all of those definitely accurate advertisements showing their precision and wonder. What could possibly go wrong?”
Everything. Everything could go wrong. I would show you what could go wrong with the one I BOUGHT with MY OWN MONEY, except I CAN’T because I threw that piece of trash in the GARBAGE where it belongs. These things are absolute garbage. The eyeliner doesn’t get on the wheel evenly, so your eye basically has the same effect you’d get if you ran your bicycle over some wet paint and then continued down the road. Sure, there’s color SOME of the places your wheel drops down, but not all of them. So you try to fix it. And then the plastic hits one of the crinkles in your eyes and skips it like Bart jumping a cliff on his skateboard. So you try again, and then too much comes down, and it’s all uneven. And so you try again, and just about when you think you’ve gotten it, you realize that the eyeliner you started with at the beginning is basically already gone because in order to work with the wheel this formula has to basically be food coloring in water.
The other, newer gimmick I can think of are the Kaja Beauty blush and bronzer stamps.
The idea is that the product is trapped in some… inkpad nightmare zone at the bottom, and the applicator is a foam stamp in a cute shape like a heart, star, or moon. (Someone call Lucky Charms, there may be copyright infringement going on.) So you are able to stamp a cute shape on yourself and be Instagram ready. And if you want to spend $25 of your hard earned dollars on the ability to do cheek stamp of a star in your bronzer… you do you boo. But if you want to buy a product that actually works as… you know… blush or bronzer… this is a terrible idea. It’s hard enough to apply makeup evenly without stamping overlapping stars all over your face. Are you kidding me?
Gimmicky/Weird Palettes and Palette Shapes
What do you do if you want to release a palette, but you don’t trust your own products to stand on their own merit? You release a wacky palette or a wacky-shaped palette.
The worst offender for this is probably Glamlite, who if they didn’t have weird food-based palettes, wouldn’t have palettes at all. (Almost literally.) But almost every makeup brand has dipped their toes into this category at least once. Sometimes the results are reportedly actually good makeup, like Too Faced’s Chocolate Bar. Sometimes they seem forced and have shitty makeup, like Too Faced’s White Chocolate Bar. Sometimes the concept is cute, but storing them would be absolute hell, like I Heart Revolution’s bunny-shaped eyeshadow palettes they released for Easter.
Seriously, I’m not punking you.
In general, all of them are attempts to make you break one of the cardinal rules of makeup: Don’t buy makeup just because the packaging is pretty. Packaging should be functional and of appropriate quality. At its most aesthetically-driven it should be an excellent accent or nice bonus for the makeup inside. But it should never, ever be the main reason you buy a product. As Whitney Hedrick explains in multiple videos that I do not have the energy to track down, makeup expires. Unless you are literally wanting to use that makeup package as decoration (and even then, there are probably cheaper ways) you should not be buying makeup just because it looks pretty in the packaging, because it’s going to go bad on you.
Beauty Boxes/Mystery Boxes
Speaking of expiration dates, let’s talk about beauty boxes and mystery boxes! Luckily we seem to have passed kind of the heyday of both the beauty box idea and the mystery box idea, but they are definitely still around, and tempting us with their promise of potential incredible deals and endless samples. But I’m going to destroy the mystery a bit, and tell you exactly what is in those boxes:
Products that are close to expiration
Products the brand couldn’t sell so they have too many
Four samples that don’t work for you for some reason
One sample that may work for you for some reason
Random tchotchkes you probably don’t need
If most of these products were good, they wouldn’t be in a beauty box or mystery box. And you’re almost always going to have better luck with a product that you choose for yourself, in a shade or formula that works well for you, than with a random sample that you have very little control over. And that’s without getting into the multiple scandals or kerfuffles surrounding beauty boxes and mystery boxes, like Jeffree Star’s misleading advertising and faulty products, or the fact that Boxycharm fairly clearly counterfeits some of the products in their boxes, puts in expired or close-to-expired products (there’s a Smokey Glow video about this, but I forget which), and even conspired to use duped makeup with Storybook Cosmetics.
I get the excitement that Beauty Boxes and Mystery Boxes can bring. It can feel like winning the lottery, only with blush. I also get the whole “enchantment of the unknown” that can be exciting. I, too, used to be obsessed with getting crappy jewelry out of vending machines, certain that one day I would get the Big Prize. But I promise you there are better things to spend your money on in order to get that excitement without getting fifteen 1/2 ounce bottles of lotion that you’ll never remember to use.
Advent Calendars and Bundles
Advent Calendars share basically all of the problems with mystery boxes and beauty boxes, only 25 times over and with more green and red. Again, there is no good reason to spend money on an advent calendar instead of on products that you know you are interested in. Again, you’re going to end up with a ton of things that you didn’t actually want, and that will probably ultimately end up wasted.
Bundles, again, are similar. You’re more likely to end up with full-sized products, but they’re trying to get you with the idea of how much money you’re saving without thinking about the fact that you don’t want half of the stuff that is in it. “Wow, this stuff that is normally $50 is only $30, that is such a good deal!” you say to yourself, looking at the $10 lipstick that is the only part of the bundle that you actually like. It’s a trap, don’t fall for it.
Again, none of these things are mortal sins, just weird or annoying brand habits to keep an eye on as you’re on your makeup journey. Join us next time, when I talk about how brands and influencers are not your friends!
Being a discussion of some of the more unsavory aspects of the beauty industry.
“Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian.”— Emma Goldman
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Queen’s Blood Goldman. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is still harping about the fact that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
I’ve said that a couple times now, and it’s probably a nice thing to explain what exactly I mean by that, and how much of it is joking– or at least, not fully accurate. The basic idea behind saying, “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is to say that all products and services are accompanied by some element of unethical behavior or consequences. (This is one of the major plotlines of a season of The Good Place, which is the reason that The Good Place is a miracle of a show and we must make everyone watch it.) It is not so much that we are all horrible people and we are incapable of wanting to consume ethically– it’s that we’re boxed in and don’t really have a choice. Spending money is a Plinko game where every ending slot includes something horrible.
Let’s take an example from food. You decide to go vegan, because you watched one too many documentaries on Netflix and you are sick of playing into the industrialized farming complex. Ok, cool. First step, you decide to switch to almond milk instead of cows’ milk and palm oil instead of butter. Then you find out how much of an ecological disaster almond farming is, and palm oil, well… orangutans were cool while they lasted. So you go to your local Wal-Mart and buy a ton of kale. Well, first problem, you’re shopping at Wal-Mart. There’s a ding right there. Second, that kale had to travel thousands of miles on a truck because you live in a barren wasteland, so the carbon footprint of that kale is insane. So you say, “Let’s try a different source.” So now you’re shopping from a local organic farm. That’s got to be better, because it’s organic and local, right? Well that organic farm utilizes under-paid immigrant labor, and the “organic” pesticides they use are actually present in more dangerous quantities than traditional pesticides, so on top of being underpaid the workers are being constantly exposed to hazardous conditions. (I have some problems with how we talk about “organic” farming, in case you couldn’t tell.) So you decide to buy your kale from a booth at the farmer’s market, but surprise! That cutesy local farm is actually a front for a large corporation that buys up small farms and has them continue to operate under their original names so that people feel better about their life choices. Also, that small “local” farm is actually from two states away, but they know you live in a food desert so they haul themselves out every week because getting your town to buy fresh produce is like shooting fish in a barrel, creating a new carbon footprint!
You get the idea– no matter what you try to do, you don’t have an ethically pure option. Follow basically every product back to its source, and you’ll find the exploitation, abuse, or even destruction of people, animals, and/or the environment. Probably multiple times.
It’s more fair to say that there is no ethical production under capitalism– it isn’t as if the average consumer is saying, “This kale would taste better if an immigrant without healthcare or worker’s comp protections got paid $2.00 an hour to harvest it” or “I’d only like to consume this product if it is laced with orangutan tears.” We just don’t have any choice. Getting excess value out of labor means that, at some point, the labor is being screwed over. And we as people don’t get to opt out of the system, at least not fully. I don’t get to tell my landlord, “I’m sorry, but I’m no longer paying rent because you’re exploiting my human need for shelter.” I also don’t get to stop needing to eat just because there’s no fully ethical way to purchase food. We all have limits on how much food, clothing, etc. we can all produce for ourselves, so short of living on a self-sustaining commune or actually doing a Heckin Revolution, we are stuck with consuming under capitalism.
So what we’re left with is an attempt to navigate capitalism and consume as ethically as possible– not completely ethically, because again, that’s impossible. But we need to try to shop within the boundaries of an acceptable moral range and more importantly, within the sort of comfort level that we can live with. And I absolutely understand that this is a tall order. Especially in the US, where hyper-consumerism has been tied to All the Good Things, from supporting our country to soothing the emptiness in your soul. (I have had to stop myself from stress shopping so many times during the pandemic.)
I want to make it clear: my intention in telling you all of this (and telling you everything that is coming up) is not to make you feel bad or guilty, though that may be a side effect of what I am saying. I’m not trying to make you decide to run off and live in a commune, or throw up your hands and say, “Well if there’s no ethical consumption then fuck it!” I believe in making informed choices, and I know all of this can be very overwhelming, so I’m hoping to share information in a digestible way with all of you. I do personally think that there are better and worse choices to make, and if you’re one of my close friends I may have a Very Special Episode-type discussion with you, but I’m not the arbiter of Everything That is Right and Good. I am a millenial who absolutely raced her dog for a piece of Pop-Tart that I dropped on the floor earlier today. I absolutely do not have all of the answers. I just want us to be able to muddle through things together.
Top Ways Brands are Unethical
As we start to navigate through the ethics of the beauty industry, I want to start with the broad strokes of unethical behavior in the beauty industry. These ethics violations range from the small (using excess packaging to make you think you’re getting more product than you are) to the big (systematically excluding people of color from makeup lines). The list below is not in alphabetical order or order of pearl-clutching inducements– I don’t think it is my job to form a scientific ranking system of unethical habits. Instead, they are in the order in which they popped into my brain.
Hyper-Consumerism is probably one of the cardinal sins of the beauty and influencer industry. A lot of people blame Colour Pop and its frequent palette releases (it’s called the “fast fashion” of makeup, and that’s not supposed to be a compliment) for making every other brand up their games and start releasing more and more product, but it’s a comprehensive problem throughout. Makeup brands are constantly releasing products and constantly chasing trends. There are entire Instagram accounts and YouTube videos/channels that do almost nothing but showcase and talk about the upcoming releases of various brands. A video that does the weekly recap of upcoming products can last an entire hour. A lot of influencers and gurus will use hyperbole in reviews, utilizing words like “obsessed” and “need” to discuss products. Brands, influencers, and fans all talk about buying things as if they have no free will, like they were passing an Ulta and a troll demanded they pay a toll in the form of buying five new highlighters. People will pay extra for something because of its packaging, will buy products they don’t really want just because they are on sale, because it has a brand tie in they are nostalgically fond of, because it was a collaboration with someone they liked, etc. There are also all sorts of tricks that run off of FOMO, a lot of which I’m going to discuss in my next post because they’re tacky and I hate them, but they aren’t my main focus for today.
There are definitely people who are pushing back against this hyper-consumerism. Drag queen Kimberly Clark popularized Anti-Hauls, or videos that talk about products that people are planning not to buy for various reasons. (She’s also a singer and her version of “Midnight Radio” manages to start off even sadder than the original and I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT IS POSSIBLE.) Whitney Hedrick has some really great videos on tips to keep you from buying makeup you don’t need.
In Britain, there are strict advertising standards that mean brands have to be able to substantiate all their claims, avoid practices like “using a flawless-skinned 24-year-old as the model to sell an anti-aging cream” or “using fake eyelashes to sell mascara,” post-production airbrushing or photo manipulation that is liable to lead consumers to have inaccurate perceptions of the product, etc. In the US, our advertising standards seem to be “Don’t use cartoons to sell cigarettes and include a small print warning about drinking responsibly at the end of the ad about how alcohol makes you sexy and rich.”
I genuinely cannot believe what advertisers get away with when it comes to cosmetics and skin care. Mascara ads will have teeeny tiny words in the bottom telling you that the model is using “lash inserts.” Also known as fake lashes. They can’t even get the promised results of the mascara in their own damn commercial. Skin creams that promise to remove dark circles, puffiness, signs of aging, pores, or basically having skin. They’ll be advertised by a twenty-something model who hasn’t gotten her first grey hair or wrinkle yet, and the ad will have small words telling you “results not guaranteed.” Makeup can legit promise you a “flawless” appearance. And that’s without even getting into the incredibly shady things, like “not using the shade they say they’re using on certain models,” (Anastasia Beverly Hills), darkening white models’ appearance to make it seem like their products work better for darker skinned women (Becca. Also Stila. Twice.), or just…. straight up selling “Skin lightening” lotions, complete with misleading advertisements (Nivea, what the many levels of fuck?). Basically, there is an extra level of advertising fuckery that is reserved for screwing over customers of color. Which is a uh, theme of the beauty industry.
Unethically Sourced Ingredients
I’m not going to belabor this point too much, because I’ve mentioned it at least twice before, in my cruelty free and vegan post and also briefly when I talked about the Claire’s asbestos/talc issue. But it does bear repeating: it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to get beauty products that are 100% ethically sourced. In our complicated global community, it can be hard even for producers who are interested in doing so to fully backtrace the source of their ingredients, let alone for consumers to try and accomplish the same. And most producers don’t want to know. If you want to get really depressed but have a teensy bit of hope at the end, you can read this article about the impossibilities of ethically sourced ingredients, especially mica and palm oil, but then also gives us some hope about how blockchain might help us get better transparency in the beauty world.
I’ll admit, this one wasn’t even really on my radar until I saw Raw Beauty Kristi talk about her disappointment in Colour Pop switching from cardboard to plastic packaging for their 9-pan palettes and Samantha Ravendahl talking about how she was no longer accepting PR, largely because of the extensive waste that was the result of the packaging it was shipped in. I, of course, saw Kristi’s video just after I had bought five Colour Pop nine pans, and they sit in my palette holder, silently judging me. In general, we should be pushing the makeup industry, like all industries, to decrease their use of single-use plastic packaging, increase recycling efforts, and work with more environmentally-friendly shipping and packaging methods. This also links back to the hyper-consumerism thing a bit, in that there is a strong emphasis in the beauty industry to buy things constantly, whether you are actually going to like them or not. Those products that you get may or may not be returnable (we’ll get to that a bit more next week) and whether they are returnable or not, they are likely going to end up in the trash. In addition to being a waste of money, this is a waste of resources and an extra item going to a landfill that didn’t have to be there.
Terrible Shade Ranges/Shade Considerations
As I was saying earlier, the makeup industry has not been kind to customers of color. In basically every way. The first and most obvious way is the terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE shade range most brands have for things like foundation and concealer. I’ve already hyped Nyma Tang’s The Darkest Shade series, but I’m gonna hype it again. Customers of color have been considered an afterthought for decades. And it’s not just foundation and concealer– it’s even products like bronzer and eyeshadow. Bronzer is supposed to darken skin, which is hard to do if the darkest it goes is “slightly overcooked pizza crust.” And eyeshadows with the wrong undertones can look incredibly ashy and unflattering, or even not show up, on darker skin, which means anyone with darker skin who wants to wear the color will probably need a white or near-white eye primer in order to make the color work. One important method for changing this this is for makeup fans whose skintones ARE represented in a product range to be on the lookout for the overall range and reviews of the product. Darker skinned makeup fans have been left out because their needs and concerns haven’t been considered “profitable,” and enough white people shrugged and went, “Well, I got mine.” that most brands never felt the need to change.
This is very closely related to the issue of shade range. Amanda at the channel amandabb has a really great video about this topic. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that brands and influencers are doing things that screw black people over (having bad shade ranges, essentially wearing blackface, performing cultural appropriation, etc.) on purpose to drive outrage, get their product talked about, and raise their company profile. Which is sadly common in our current stage of capitalism/worst timeline. (Hbomberguy has a very good video about outrage marketing that you should also watch.) As you might imagine, I find this morally reprehensible, and it throws me into the same quandary I get about “feeding the trolls”: I don’t want to give them the attention they are craving, but I also don’t want them to get away with their foolishness. Amanda has some good suggestions for that as well. (That I’m not going to tell you because you should watch her video!)
Product Amount and Production Cost vs. Price
So I learned recently that the average restaurant has a 3-5% profit margin. (AKA, they make about $.03-.05 of profit out of every dollar that is spent at their restaurant. In other words, their revenue minus their costs leaves about three to five cents of profit left over from each dollar.) A really good restaurant can get to around a 15% profit margin. You wanna guess what the average profit margin is for makeup brands?
SIXTY to EIGHTY PERCENT. That means that after accounting for costs, 60 to 80 cents of each dollar is pure profit. That is “fireworks sales” money. What this means in practical terms is that almost all makeup is dramatically overpriced. Like, “painting bricks with gold paint and selling them as gold” overpriced.
One of the ways that this overpricing happens is by playing fast and loose with product amounts versus price. If you’ve ever been poor, you’re already used to glancing at the “cost per ounce” section on price labels at the store. If you’ve never been poor, come with me on a magical adventure!
Most makeup products are labeled with the ounces or grams of product that they have. At one point I had a list of average amounts for products, but I can’t find it now and so you’re all just going to have to suffer in frustration with me. The point is, paying attention to this information is really important in terms of how much bang you are getting for your buck. A lot of brands will put small amounts of product into large, bulky packaging to make it seem like there is more product than there actually is. Or they’ll advertise their amazingly low prices without telling you that the reason their product costs half as much as their competitor’s is that they have half as much product as their competitor.
Now obviously, product amount is not the only indicator of value. If I get twenty grams of dollar store eyeshadow for $20, that is not necessarily a better value than the 10 grams of high end eyeshadow I got for $40– a lot depends on the quality of the shadow I’m getting. But if you’re comparing similar products, then this is a good way to help judge when you’re getting a good deal. And it’s just a good habit to get into for general shopping.
I talked about this practice in my cost/value post, but it really pisses me off so I’m talking about it again. I abhor private labeling, especially in light of what we just learned above about the profit margin. If you are unable to run a makeup company without buying wholesale, generic makeup, slapping your name on it, and reselling it at a dramatic markup? Maybe don’t try to run a damn makeup company. To me there is a world of difference between coming up with your own formulations and then depending on someone else to actually produce it, and taking makeup someone else has already made, re-labeling it, and passing it off as yours. And the latter practice makes me really mad.
Rainbow-washing is related to probably the more well-known practice of pinkwashing, where everyone from clothing companies to gun manufacturers to the goddamn NFL will start producing everything in pink in October for breast cancer “awareness.” At best, companies will donate a small percentage of sales to breast cancer research organizations. In the middle/purgatory category, it’s a soulless cash grab that assumes you will buy things just because they are pink so that you can performatively demonstrate that you hate breast cancer/ support breast cancer survivors. At worst, they use the color pink to sell products that are ironically carcinogenic. Or you know… guns.
Rainbow-washing is similar, only instead of turning everything pink, brands turn everything rainbow in honor of Pride Month.
Because we live in a very weird, capitalist society, it is in some ways a positive sign that corporations have decided to exploit Pride Month in order to make money, because it’s a sign of positive social change– it is now more profitable to try and cater to/exploit the LGBTQ+ community than to ignore them or even actively oppress them. So… yay then? Goodness we live in an insane timeline.
Like pinkwashing, at its best rainbow-washing serves in at least a small way as a method to raise funds for pro LGBTQ+ organizations. Also like pinkwashing, at its midpoint it is a soulless cash grab, and at its worst it is a soulless cash grab that exposes a company’s hypocrisy. Many corporations (not just makeup brands) will go all out in rainbow for Pride Month, and then donate to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and organizations, or have corporate policies that discriminate against queer employees.
These were all of my big issues. And these are my case studies in the argument that what we really need to be pressed about is the production side, rather than the consumer side. As consumers our jobs is to be as ethical as we can given the various constraints (time, money, energy) we have on our lives. It should be the responsibility of the brands to be more ethical, but it takes public pressure and “voting with your dollar” to make that happen a lot of the time. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’re aware of these messed up business practices, and can make as good of choices as possible.
Join me next time, when I will finish up my overall makeup brand practices discussion with some topics that are not so much anger inducing as they are just weird/kinda shady/things to be wary of.
Queen’s Blood Goldman.
Being an attempt to explain what it means to be nice to animals.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”— Margaret Atwood
Today marks the start of the second miniseries of posts, The Rougueoisie. This miniseries is actually what inspired me to truly turn this into a blog, instead of just constantly fishing for attention on Facebook by posting selfies. (I still do that, I just also have a blog now.) In this series, we’re going to talk about the ethical dilemmas present in the beauty and makeup industry. There are… a lot. So many. I thought that this first post was going to get to be multiple topics in and of itself, and I think it will have to just be one. In this miniseries, we will be discussing problematic brands and YouTubers, product contamination, soulless corporate tie-ins, and even, occasionally, things that brands are doing well and people that I admire.
Let’s do this.
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Sapphire Siren Atwood. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is very upset that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and that is doubly true for makeup.
Basically every subgroup or interest can become a microcosm of everything that is wrong with capitalism. And makeup is that. All over. All the time. It’s just… wow. There’s a lot to cover. So let’s start with the first two concepts that are probably the most important and also the most divisive, “cruelty free” and “vegan” makeup.
Like a lot of terms that you think should have a legally-mandated definition, “cruelty free” does not have a legally-mandated definition, and any brand can claim to be cruelty free, even if they test on animals, without any legal repercussions. (There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism…) Instead, it has been left to a patchwork system of activists, consumers, brands, and certification organizations to decide what “cruelty free” actually means. When we talk about wanting makeup to be “cruelty free,” there are actually a few different levels of cruelty-free status that can be obtained. Because capitalism is complicated, and cruelty, like ogres, has layers. And like pretty much everything in the world today, it has a lot to do with China.
China has about 1.4 billion people, so it is literally the largest single-country market on Earth, and pretty much all brands would like to sell there for obvious reasons. However, it’s a little bit complicated for makeup brands. As Jen of Jen Luvs reviews explains in a video (that is legit the basis for basically the next three paragraphs) the Chinese government (with the exception of Hong Kong) requires that any makeup product that is sold to Chinese citizens undergoes animal testing (or is open to undergoing animal testing). So outside companies who want to sell in China have to pay a fee to the Chinese government to perform pre-market testing. Companies that actually make their products in China and then sell in China (which is a lot of them, honestly) can be made to undergo government-funded post-market testing if there is an issue, though in March of 2019 they stopped just performing post-market testing on randomly selected products. So a lot of whether a brand can fairly call itself “cruelty free” depends on whether or not they sell products in China. Which brings us to the Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness.
The Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness
At the bottom of the hierarchy, we have what I call the “I’m Technically Correct, Which is the Best Kind of Correct” level. These are brands that don’t test on animals themselves, but pay companies in China to test on their behalf. Basically every US and European brand can fit this very loose definition of cruelty free. Brands like L’Oreal, NARS, Benefit, Estee Lauder, and MAC (none of the French-named ones get their little accent, because they don’t deserve it and I am also lazy) all explain that they don’t test on animals in the production of their products (which is admittedly a step up from how things used to be) but that when required by law/regulatory bodies, *cough* China *cough* they allow outside companies to test their products using animals.
Then we have what I like to call the “Ignorance is Bliss” level. This is the level where the specific brand that you are purchasing from does not test on animals in the production of their cosmetics and also does not sell in China. But (and you knew there was a but) they are owned by a parent company that DOES sell in China. So any brand that is owned by one of the previously mentioned companies (and quite a few other companies) falls into this grey area. Examples of this level that Jen gives includes Too Faced (which you probably shouldn’t buy anyway, but we will talk about that later) and Urban Decay. I tentatively put Wet n’ Wild in this same category, for slightly different “ignorance is bliss” reasons. Their products are produced in mainland China, so they are not required to have mandatory pre-market testing, but they are subject to post-market testing if any of their products seem to cause any kind of negative reaction for a consumer. So as long as their products are carefully quality controlled and clearly labeled, everything should be fine. But there is the possibility that their products will be tested on animals if something goes wrong. (They got into a big controversy over this in 2019, as you already know if you have watched the video. They also say on their website that they are cruelty free, and have been given the PETA cruelty-free symbol, which is a Whole Thing we are going to talk about later on in this post.)
Finally we have what I call the “Morally Pure, as Much as a Cosmetics Company Can Be Morally Pure” level. These are cosmetics that don’t sell in China, don’t test on animals in the production of their cosmetics, and either have parent companies that do not sell in China or do not have a parent company. This is why it is really important that you pay attention, whenever you are able, to whether your favorite indie brand is being bought by a larger parent brand. A brand that was 100% on the up-and-up prior to being bought could wind up owned by a parent company that sells in mainland China.
Figuring Out if Something is Cruelty Free
The blog Cruelty Free Kitty is one of the most comprehensive sources to look to when trying to figure out if something is cruelty free or not. They keep lists of cruelty free and non-cruelty free brands, and also help explain what they mean by that. As explained by CFK, there are two main organizations/endorsements that signify that a brand is (at least claiming) to be cruelty free. The first is an endorsement from PETA, and the second is an endorsement from Leaping Bunny.
PETA, to the surprise of no one who as ever heard of PETA before, has a shadier endorsement system than Leaping Bunny. To get a PETA endorsement, a company “must complete a short questionnaire and sign a statement of assurance verifying that they do not conduct, commission, or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations, or finished products and that they pledge not to do so in the future.” And… that’s it. So if a company fills out a questionnaire and pinky promises not to test on animals or pay for animal testing, they get the endorsement.
Leaping Bunny kicks things up a notch. The pledge that companies must make applies to both their own practices and the practices of their ingredient suppliers, and also requires signees to allow for independent audits to make sure that they are telling the truth:
“[a] voluntary pledge that cosmetic, personal care, and/or household product companies make to clear animal testing from all stages of product development. The company’s ingredient suppliers make the same pledge and the result is a product guaranteed to be 100 percent free of new animal testing. All Leaping Bunny companies must be open to independent audits, and commitments are renewed on an annual basis.”
Companies with either certification can put an icon on their products to indicate their cruelty free status. To make things more confusing, both endorsements involve rabbits. To make things even more confusing, PETA has recently altered their logo, so brands with PETA certification may use one of two different icons:
(Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the “vegan” aspect here in a bit.)
The leaping bunny logo is… a bunny leaping through the stars?
Now as you probably noticed, both PETA and Leaping Bunny (Though Leaping Bunny is more stringent) leave some pretty big loopholes open for the “Ignorance is Bliss” level of The Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness. Wet n’ Wild is, in fact, PETA certified, but as shown in Jen’s video, the makeup it produces in China is also sold in China, which means post-market testing could happen to the products. Since Wet n’ Wild isn’t paying for the testing themselves and isn’t testing on animals in production, they still qualify for the PETA certification. (From my reading, they would qualify for the Leaping Bunny certification as well if their ingredient suppliers were also cruelty free).
Another thing to note is that both the PETA and the Leaping Bunny certification are voluntary programs, not industry standards. Thus it is possible for a brand to be some level of cruelty free but to not have either certification if they decided for some reason not to pursue that certification. (Maybe it costs money? I admittedly did not do extra research into the process of applying for certifications, because I was afraid I’d be writing forever.)
That’s why my genuinely best advice to find something that is fully cruelty free is to check out the Cruelty Free Kitty site, as the companies that they list fit the top criteria of the Hierarchy of Cruelty Free-ness. You can see on their list whether a brand has a PETA certification, a Leaping Bunny certification, both, or neither.
Interestingly, products can be vegan without being cruelty free, and cruelty free without being vegan. That’s because most of the animals whose byproducts are used in makeup don’t fall under the normal umbrella that is covered by animal testing laws; namely, bugs and fish. There are also animal byproducts that don’t fall under animal cruelty laws because the products used would have also been used for other purposes/the animal was killed for purposes unrelated to makeup testing. I’ll explain some of the most common ones, with help from the Ethical Elephant website.
Some of the most common non-vegan products come from bees. Wax is often used as an emollient (aka a softening agent) an emulsifier (aka a stabilizing agent) and a film forming agent (aka a chemical that leaves a constant covering over the skin.) Honey is also a common ingredient for moisturizers, soothing agents, and humectants (aka something that reduces moisture).
Other bee products are also used in various ways, though I’ve personally not seen them frequently in products.
Lanolin is a secretion from sheep. It helps them keep their wool anti-staticky and healthy, and it is used for similar reasons in products. It’s used to prevent static, as a conditioner and emollient, and a surfactant (something that reduces the surface tension of what it is put into).
Carmine is one of the most common non-vegan ingredients in cosmetics (it is also referred to as cochineal, carminic acid, crimson lake, carmine lake, CI 75470, and E 120). It is a dark red color that is gained from grinding the shells of cochineal insects.
Ethical Elephant has additional information on insects and shellac, but this is becoming a super long post and I’m moving on.
Bone and Stuff:
Keratin, Collagen, and Elastin are all potentially sourced from animals, including from ground scales, horns, nails, and feathers. They are used for… sciency things.
Some lipsticks contain products from fish scales, and a very fun to say word, squalene, may be sourced from fish liver oil.
There are some other animal products listed on Ethical Elephant site, but these are the big ones (to me).
How to Tell if a Product is Vegan
The PETA certification, as you saw above, has an option for products that are cruelty free as well as vegan. There is also “Certified Vegan” certification of various types, which look like these:
Cruelty Free Kitty’s list of cruelty free makeup has a filter for 100% vegan brands, and if you have concerns about a particular ingredient, you can look it up on doublecheckvegan.com.
How Do I Do?
My own ethics with makeup on this one are… mixed. I have makeup from a number of top-tier cruelty free brands, but not exclusively. I didn’t know that Benefit pays for direct testing and I have a Benefit brow pencil and some foundation, because the lady who does eyebrow waxing at Ulta works at the “Benefit Brow Bar” and gets extra commission money if she talks customers into things and I’m very impressionable. And I have a surprising amount of products from the “Ignorance is Bliss” level of the Hierarchy of Crualty Free-ness. I actually have a number of Wet n’ Wild products, because they are some of the best cheap products you can find, and their liquid matte lipstick can go toe-to-toe with lipsticks that cost three to four times as much. I also didn’t realize that Urban Decay wasn’t an independent brand, so I have a few Urban Decay products. (I also looked up one of my other most loved brands, NYX, and found that they are also owned by a parent company that sells in mainland China.) And I’ve legitimately never paid much attention to animal products in makeup. (Except for ambergris. I don’t mess with ambergris because despite my best intentions, I did, in fact, read Moby Dick.) I’d like to think that I’ll be more careful in the future now that I’ve done this research. I’m the type of person who can “ruin” things for myself, and be unable to forget the bad thing I learned about products, brands, people, etc. and thus be unable to manage to do things guilt-free after the fact. I’ll admittedly probably not sweat ingredients like beeswax, but I’m going to try harder to pay attention to other animal-based ingredients.
At the end of the day, everyone has to decide what their own comfort level/ethics level is, and just go with it the best they can. But understanding what all of the aspects of cruelty free and vegan mean can help you determine your level.
Join me next time, where I tackle one of the other (dear lord there are so many) aspects of ethics in makeup.
Sapphire Siren Atwood.
Being an explanation of terms you may run into.
“You can be a thousand different women. It’s your choice which one you want to be. It’s about freedom and sovereignty. You celebrate who you are. You say, ‘This is my kingdom.’”— Salma Hayek
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Ma’Damn Hayek. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is trying to keep tabs on all of the terms these young’ns and their jazz music come up with.
Any sufficiently advanced sub-community will create its own jargon and quasi-language. And friends, Beauty YouTube is a sufficiently advanced community. Watching it can feel somewhat like watching a foreign movie where the dubbing isn’t 100%. What the hell is a GRWM? (How do you say that? Gra-worm? Grawm?) What is a cut crease, and why is it a good thing? Dear God why are we talking about baking our faces?
So that you don’t experience the same confusion that I did, I’ve put together a glossary of terms that you’ll likely run into. There are a couple of things to know before we get started:
- A solid portion of what is currently considered “beauty guru” lingo is actually originally “drag queen lingo.” Everything from contouring to baking has its origin in drag, because people who study performative femininity for a living are pretty damn good at it. If you can, do your research on drag history and drag jargon, because A, it is super interesting and cool, and B, US mainstream culture has a looooong history of taking things of interest from marginalized communities, rebranding them, and popularizing them. (Lookin’ at you, Kim Kardashian and your “Bo Derek” braids.) It’s very important that, whenever we can, we pay homage to the words’ origins and make sure that we are giving credit and context. I’m going to be doing my best to do exactly that, but I’m sure I’ll miss some, so if you see anything I’ve overlooked please let me know.
- Some of these will have definitions I’ve plucked from the internet, and I’ll link whenever that is the case. Others are things I’ve gleaned from just watching too much YouTube, so I am considering myself my own authority and you can’t stop me.
On with the list of words! A GLOSS-ary, if you will. (And even if you won’t. It’s happening. This is a GLOSS-ary now. Deal.)
Baking: Baking is a term that comes to us from drag, though going by her website you’d think Charlotte Tilbury had invented it. Baking refers to using translucent powder to set your makeup. The idea is that you put translucent powder over your whole face after foundation and concealer, and let it sit for 5-10 minutes until the heat from your skin has made the powder meld with your product, then you dust off the excess. Supposedly this makes your makeup creaseless and smudgeproof.
Baking is dark magic, and I have no idea how it is supposed to work. Robert Welsh says we bake too much, but I don’t know how to bake at all (either in this sense or the cooking sense, really). Try at your own risk!
Beat: One of the terms that comes to us from drag, “Beat” has started to have a variety of related meanings. It can mean having a face of amazing, meticulous makeup. It can also refer to the level of makeup application– a “full beat” is a full face of makeup. Having a “beat face” means you have a face full of stunning makeup.
Blend: You will probably hear no word in a makeup tutorial more than you hear the word “blend.” You blend everything. Blush. Eyeshadow. Highlighter. Lip liner. Contour. Foundation. All the Things. Blending is about evening things out and making things seem smooth and seamless. You blend your eyeshadow so that the colors don’t have strict lines. You blend your contour so it seems to be a natural extension of the light and shadow of your face, instead of warpaint. You blend your foundation so that it doesn’t stop at your chin and give you a bad spray tan effect. Depending on what you’re blending, the two best blending motions are either side to side or small circular motions. Watch a lot of tutorials, and figure out what blending techniques work for you!
Buff: Buffing is very similar to blending. It basically means to even out. It is usually used in association with foundation, where it basically means working the foundation into your skin in an even, smooth way.
Bullet Lipstick: This phrase definitely caught me off guard the first time I heard it. A bullet lipstick is a lipstick in the traditional, twist-up lipstick tube most of us think of when we think of lipstick.
Color Story: For a phrase you hear ALL THE TIME in makeup reviews, it took Reddit to give me the best definitions of color story. Color stories refer to the way that various colors in a palette work together to form a cohesive mood/create cohesive looks/work in harmony. This can refer to something like an overall tone or mood (a neutrals palette, a rainbow palette) or colors that work well together (bright pinks with some light pinks and light browns, etc.)
Component: As we discussed before, a component component is the term for the casing or tools that are part of a product–the palette of an eyeshadow, the wand in a mascara, the tube for a lipstick, etc.
Contouring: Contouring was made famous by drag, and then by Kim Kardashian. The basic idea is to use a mix of contour shades (shades darker than your skin tone/seem like a shadow) and highlight (shades lighter than your skin tone/seems like light) to seemingly reshape your face/add depth back to your face after using foundation and concealer.
It is also dark magic and I don’t know how it works.
Cruelty Free: I started defining this, and then things got… complicated. So I’m going to cheat and say I’ll define this one in my first post in my “Ethics in Makeup” series, starting next week!
Cut Crease: A cut crease is an eye look where the crease of the eye is defined or “cut” by having a contrasting eyeshadow look on the lid with little or no blending between the lid and the rest of the eye. It is usually achieved by doing the background eye color, then putting eye primer or concealer over the lid (or part of the lid for a partial cut crease) and then patting eyeshadow onto the lid.
Declutter: Declutter videos are usually videos where a YouTube beauty guru will go through their makeup collection and remove the products they no longer use, that are expired, or that they just didn’t like for whatever reason. Ideally, they give the makeup to a friend or loved one who will like the product, or send it to one of the charities that accept unused or lightly used makeup.
Depotting: Depotting is the practice of removing product from its original casing and putting it into a new, more practical or useful casing. This can be done to get rid of bulky outer packaging, or to combine favorite shades or products from various brands into one container so that all of your favorite or most-used products are in one spot. Please be super careful when depotting, it usually involves sharp things and fire.
Dewy: One of the two main types of “finishes” that face makeup leave on your skin. Dewy skin is usually a near “wet” look, with shine and radiance.
Doe Foot: A type of makeup applicator. Hypothetically, you will swear that a YouTuber is saying “dofa” for a solid three months before you figure out what the hell they are saying. It is used for cream or liquid products like concealer or lipstick. It is usually a slanted, fuzzy end of the applicator stick.
Dupe: As we discussed previously, a dupe is a cheap drugstore or mid-range product that are similar to a luxury product. Some dupes are just other products that are similar to the luxury product– other dupes are products that are intentionally made as cheap copies of the luxury product.
Fallout: Fallout refers to the extraneous powder product that goes where it is not supposed to when you are applying it. There are usually two types of fallout– fallout in the pan (fallout that gets into the casing or other parts of a palette when you are applying your brush to the product) and fallout on the face (fallout that goes somewhere on your face that you didn’t intend it). There are a few techniques to deal with fallout, especially with eyeshadow, that I will talk about… someday.
First Impressions: This is a video type where a YouTuber will put on products for the first time on-camera, and give their opinion of the makeup at the time they are trying it.
For the Gods: Two guesses where this comes from, and the first one doesn’t count. “For the gods” is a phrase to use when something is so amazing that it is worthy of being an offering to the gods or deserving of praise from the heavens.
Formula: As we discussed before, a formula is the name for the chemical recipe of the makeup itself. It is the chemicals and materials that give the makeup its color, consistency, etc.
Full Face of X: “Full Face” videos are ones where a YouTuber will do a full face of makeup that follows some sort of theme– a certain brand, a certain price range, all new makeup, etc.
Giving Life: Also from, you guessed it, drag! It basically means a product or look that is so good that it makes you feel amazing and full of warm fuzzies.
GRWM/Get Ready With Me: A Get Ready With Me or GRWM YouTube video is one where the YouTuber in question will do their makeup while talking about a topic. Sometimes it is their daily makeup, sometimes it is a new thing they are trying out. When I finally get the guts to do my own channel, I will be doing GSGRWM videos, or “Gender Studies Get Ready With Me” videos. Prepare yourselves.
Hardpan: Hardpan is when powder products develop a tough outer film that makes it hard to use and difficult to get to the product underneath. It’s usually the result of face oils or other substances mixing with the powder in the product. This site has a good definition and also a method to fix it.
Hitting pan/Panning: Hitting pan or panning a makeup product means that you have used enough of it that you have hit the bottom of the pan. Hitting pan means that you can see the metal (like getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop in one spot) while panning entirely means using up almost all of the product so that it is basically nothing but metal (like getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop from all sides. Which I can tell you, courtesy of a road trip where I finished my book too early, takes 2,856 licks.)
Holy Grail: Holy Grail products are the products that are the absolute favorites of a reviewer; the type of product they have been looking for their entire lives. The Holy Grail aspect is left to the seeker– it could be a shade of lipstick someone has been searching for forever, a primer that works better than any other primer they’ve used, etc.
Indie Brand: Indie brands are usually defined as makeup brands that don’t have a larger parent company or corporate owner. A lot of the time Indie brands are not sold in the makeup equivalent of “big box” stores like Ulta or Sephora, though some are sold in those stores. It isn’t unusual for an Indie brand to eventually be bought by a larger corporation.
J-Beauty: J-beauty refers to beauty products and routines from Japan.
K-Beauty: K-beauty refers to beauty products and routines from Korea. K-beauty is why we all have 12 step skincare routines now.
Low Buy/No Buy: Low buys and no buys are both attempts to decrease excess spending and hyper-capitalism. They are often associated with challenges, and YouTubers will perform them occasionally with various rules. Low-buys are usually spending or product amount limits for a set period of time (I’ll only spend $50 a month on makeup for six months/I’ll only buy one eyeshadow palette a month for a year) while no buys are usually promises to buy no products (or only buy replacement products) for a set period of time (I’m not going to buy anything besides replacements to my foundation for six months).
Matte: Matte is the other main type of “finish” that face makeup leaves on your skin. It is drier-looking, often almost powdery or velvety, and has little or no shine.
No Tea No Shade: Shade comes to us from the world of drag, and is explained in perfection by Dorian Corey, the coolest drag queen to ever have been revealed to have a dead body in her closet. Tea also comes to us from drag. We have stolen all the best words from drag. “T” or “tea” are stand-ins for “truth,” so phrases like “spilling the tea” mean “telling the truth” or “sharing gossip.” No tea no shade basically means, “no disrespect, but I’m gonna say something you don’t like.” On the other hand, “all tea all shade” means “I’m going to say something you don’t like and also screw you.”
Palette: The name usually given to a flat(ish) product containing multiple colors of product, like a painter’s palette contains multiple colors of paint. Palettes are most often associated with eyeshadow, but can apply to basically any makeup type.
Pan: The pan is the (usually metal) casing for a (usually powder) product. Palettes will often be discussed in terms of how many pans, or colors, the product has, like a quad/four pan, nine-pan palette, etc.
Parts of the Eye: I never took anatomy in high school (I couldn’t dissect a cat, it would crush me) and makeup makes me both glad I didn’t (I would probably have failed) and sad I didn’t (I would maybe understand makeup better if I had). There are, roughly speaking, eleventy billion parts of the eye to apply makeup to, and you will hear them referred to constantly. You can find a really good guide here for all of the upper/inner parts of the eye. But they’re still missing some! Because makeup is insane! This guide includes the lower eyelid parts.
PR: PR is the free product that YouTubers or other reviewers receive from a brand, for reviewing (or bribing) purposes. Some brands will only send new products they want reviewed– some brands will send PR for whatever reason (bribing reasons).
Project Pan: Embarking on a Project Pan means making a concerted effort to use up products that you already own instead of buying new makeup. It’s part of a larger effort among some YouTubers and influencers to tackle mindless consumerism. This site has some helpful guidelines on how long it would take, on average, to get through a few different products.
Serving Face: Also from drag! I bet you’re so surprised. Serving face usually refers to posing intensely in a photograph and looking amazing.
Shade Range: Most often used in reference to foundation and concealer, referencing the range of skin tones and undertones that the product comes in. Many companies are famous or infamous for having shitty shade ranges that discriminate against customers of color, either because they are clueless or because they are deliberately courting black outrage for publicity. YouTuber Nyma Tang made a series called “The Darkest Shade” in which she tested the darkest shades of various foundations.
Sheer Out: Sheering out refers to how products lighten/change color and blend into skintone as you blend the product. When associated with something like highlighter, it refers to how the product lightens and becomes less noticeable (turning from solid lines of shine into a soft glow). When associated with something like highlighter, it usually refers to how a color will change as it is blended (a black eyeshadow may sheer out into grey, for example).
Shop my Stash: A video where a YouTuber goes through products they already own and try out looks with their existing products, rather than trying to review a new product. The idea is to enjoy what a person already owns, rather than always looking for new things or more things.
Slay: I’m sure you know where this is from. Also, try to even think this phrase without also thinking, “Yaaaaas, slay queen!” Slay usually means you are doing something amazingly well, with the implication that you are in fact doing it so well that it is killing others physically or in spirit.
Snatched: This term comes from, you guessed it, drag! If something is “snatched” then it looks amazing/fierce/perfect.
Transition Shade: For a phrase that is used a lot, I see a lot of different definitions for it. Some people use it to refer to an eyeshadow shade used in a particular place (somewhat interchangeable with the term “crease shade”). Others use it to refer to basically a blending shade that helps bridge the gap between lighter and darker eyeshadow colors. It can also be used to refer to basically an “edge” color, where if you have one shade on your lids you blend it into a lighter shade on the edges where it fades into your skintone.
That’s all I have the energy to define for now. Did I miss something? Are there other terms that mystify you? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll attack them in a second edition of the GLOSS-ary.
Being a discussion of tools of the trade.
“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”— Virginia Woolf
(Trigger warning for this post– there is some discussion of animal cruelty in terms of sourcing fibers for “natural hair” brushes. If you don’t want to read about that, skip from the picture explaining the different parts of the brush to the header called “Types of Brush.”)
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Glitz Woolf. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is trying to learn how to say the word “spoolie” without giggling.
If you’re anything like me, you grew up knowing that there were exactly three (3) kinds of makeup brushes: there was the short thick brush for your blush, there was the short thin brush for your eyes, and then there was that double sided foam brush thing with the pointy foam on one end and the round foam on the other that you were absolutely going to tear at some point and wind up stabbing yourself in the eyelid.
So again, if you’re anything like me, when you started getting serious about makeup, you had the thought, “Who the hell invented all of these brushes and what are they FOR?”
There are SO MANY BRUSHES. And then there are also SO MANY OTHER THINGS you use to apply makeup. And it gets complicated. So let’s start with the basics.
Most of the sections about brush basics are based on/kinda shamelessly stolen from the fine people at the Hair and Makeup Artist Handbook, and specifically the article found here.
A makeup brush is made up of three separate parts. There is a handle (usually made of wood, plastic, or the crushed dreams of ex-Project Runway contestants)and a metal connector part called a ferrule (my new favorite word/possibly a kingdom in a fantasy book). The part around the handle is usually held there by glue, and the part near the bristles (snap, spoiler warning for the next part of the brush) is sometimes pinched shut around the bristles and also usually held there with glue. Further spoiler warning, when we start talking about washing brushes later we are going to talk about WHY YOU DON’T GET THE FERRULE WET. Don’t do it. The final part of the brush consists of the bristles. (Damn, it doesn’t have the same impact since I ruined the surprise.) The people at the Hair and Makeup Artist Handbook are fancy enough that they inform me that the part of the bristles next to the ferrule is called the heel, and the part you use to apply product is called the toe, which are things I learned literally just now. The size, length, density, and softness of the bristles are the biggest factors in how the brush applies product, and usually determine what the the brush will be used for. Below is a diagram showing you the brush parts, that is admittedly just an excuse to say the word “ferrule” again. (Also I made the picture extra big on purpose, because we’re going to start talking about bristle types after this, and trigger warnings aren’t helpful if you accidentally read the stuff you were trying to avoid.)
Makeup bristles can be either synthetic or natural.
Synthetic bristles are made of (duh) synthetic materials like nylon or polyester. In general, they are less likely to shed, less likely to absorb makeup into the pores of the fiber, and less likely to get destroyed via washing or rough treatment. They are also usually cheaper than natural bristle brushes, by orders of magnitude. They are generally thought to be less soft than natural bristles, and obviously lose out on the whole “biodegradable” front. If a makeup artist uses both synthetic and natural brushes, they are likely to use the synthetic brushes for liquid, cream, or gel product applications.
Natural bristles, like Soylent Green, is made of people. (That’s a lie, I just thought it would be funny.) Natural bristles are what we used for makeup for centuries. If I were a better, more ethical blogger I’d look up the exact time we started to transition to synthetic fibers, but I didn’t do that. I’m gonna ballpark and say we started using synthetic material sometime between the Industrial Revolution and the 1970s. (This, my friends, is how you win at Timeline.) Natural bristles are made of animal hair, including, (according to the Hair and Makeup Artist Handbook folks):
“[G]oats, badgers, squirrels, weasels (“sable”) and horses (“pony”). Camel hair brushes are not actually made from camel hair, but a combination of several types of animal hair (including horse, goat and squirrel), depending on the desired softness and cost.”
In general, natural brushes are thought to be softer than synthetic brushes, but also shed more easily, mold more easily if not dried properly, absorb more product into the pores, and are biodegradable, considering they are made of biological matter. They are usually much more expensive than their synthetic counterparts because a lot of the labor for them is done by hand, and because it’s a lot harder to find 400 squirrel hairs that are the same color, texture, length, and quality than it is to mass produce 400 identical synthetic fibers. If makeup artists use natural brushes, they’re most likely going to use them for powder products.
Obviously, for many consumers the biggest difference between natural and synthetic brushes is the ethics of the brush. Depending on who you talk to, natural hair bristles are either totally ethically sourced from naturally shed hairs or are harvested via a pretty brutal process by farming and slaughtering animals. While I think that it is certainly possible that some brands use ethically sourced hair, my gut feeling tells me that this isn’t the case for most natural hair brushes. They are just produced at too high a frequency, with too much uniformity in the hair, to be the result of someone painstakingly collecting shed hairs.
I will be completely honest and tell you that (to my knowledge) I have never used a natural hair brush. I can’t speak on a personal level as to the differences between them and to the superiority of one over the other. But for a mixture of ethical and practical reasons (I already get enough shit for not being a vegetarian or vegan and don’t need more bad karma, I am pretty rough on my brushes during cleaning and don’t need additional problems, and I’m often cheap as hell) I have always used synthetic brushes and likely always will.
Now have a biiiig picture of lots of types of makeup brushes just for funsies/to spread out the end of talking about animal cruelty from the beginning of talking about makeup brush types.
Types of Brush
Here is where things start to get complicated.
There are a lot of makeup brush types. A lot. So many. In this explainer from a site called Dermstore, there are ten, plus a blending sponge. In this guide from Groupon of all places there are 20. In this video from Spankie Valentine TV (no I am not making this up, I swear to God) there are 38.
I was originally going to try to explain every single one and their uses, but I honestly think that is pretty well accomplished already by any of the things I linked. So instead I’ll try to explain which of the five million brushes I think are useful for a beginning kit (using the Grroupon list as a base):
Blending eyeshadow brush or eyeshadow brush: You want at least one eye brush with longer, less packed bristles to loosely apply eye pigment and do blending.
Angled liner brush: The main brush that a lot of people use for eyeliner is a tiny, whispy thing. I’m afraid I’m going to accidentally murder it. So if I’m putting on any cream eyeliners or using eyeshadow as a faux eyeliner I’m using this, though I also sometimes use this type of brush for things like concealer.
Smudge brush or packing brush: You want at least one eye brush with shorter, more tightly packed bristles that can pack on eyeshadow or smudge eyeliner.
Spoolie and/or brow and lash comb: A spoolie is the most fun thing to say other than “ferrule.” It helps you brush your brow hairs into place, and can help soften color after you’ve applied brow product. A lot of brow pencil things will come with a spoolie on one end automatically. I’ve also used it in the past to separate my lashes after mascara, because I basically went, “Well THIS seems similar to a mascara brush.”
A brow and lash came is the double headed axe/hammer of the beauty world– the brushier side is also used as a brow grooming product, and the comb side is used to separate your lashes after applying mascara.
Lip brush: This brush is originally intended to help apply lip liner or lipstick in a precision fashion. And I have occasionally used it for its intended purpose. But most of the time I use it as a concealer brush for any of my cream concealers.
Highlighter brush or contour brush: I admittedly use these pretty interchangeably. The contour brush is meant for more precise application, but if you’re either very careful or very bad at things (guess which one I am!) you can get fairly similar results from both. You can use these brushes for highlighter, bronzer, blush, and contouring.
Powder brush: Also known (to me) as “The big floofy brush.” You should probably have at least one large, fluffy brush to apply setting powder or foundation powder, or just to blend your face look after you’ve finished applying things.
Flat top foundation brush: This one is kind of cheating, because it can be a lot of different types of brushes. The main points are for it to have a flat top on the bristles, and to be fairly densely packed with bristles so that it works well with cream foundation and concealer.
Things That Aren’t Brushes
In addition to all of the brushes that exist, there are many things that are NOT brushes that people use to apply makeup, because they like to make my life difficult.
The most common thing you’ll find people using to apply makeup besides brushes is a beauty blender or beauty sponge. There are a lot of different shapes and sizes for these, too, and I….. do not understand most of them. Feel free to look at the guide here and try to understand things better than I do.
I use beauty sponges a lot, at least partly because I don’t want to wash my brushes as often as you should if you’re spreading cream product with them. I have an egg-shaped one, a teardrop-shaped one, and a pear-shaped one (I have also heard that one called an hourglass). At one point I also had one that was basically just an oval with two flat sides, and I have no idea where it went. In general, it’s good to have a sponge with at least rounded side for general application and one pointier side for detail application. I’ve been told that having at least one flat side is also good for foundation application, but again, I lost that one into the Neverwhere. Make sure that you get the sponge wet and squeeze it out before using it (so it absorbs less product) and make sure you are using bouncing motions instead of wiping motions when you apply makeup. (We’ll talk more about that when I finally start talking about applying makeup, which will be… someday.)
There are also microfiber sponges, but from what I can tell their popularity is about 80% due to undisclosed sponsorships and they are harder to clean, so I kind of ignore them.
Silicone Makeup Sponges
These things have caused So Much Strife in the beauty community. Some people adore them, some people (like my lord and savior Robert Welsh) hate them. They are usually discs of silicone, and the idea is that they can apply product without absorbing and wasting as much product. However, that does make things pretty hard to blend, so I prefer ones like this one from e.l.f. that has a flocked side as well for blending. Though to be honest I usually forget that I own this, and use either a sponge or brush for most things.
I think these mostly exist so that you can still feel like a luxurious, old fashioned lady picking up her powder puff and powdering her face. Ostensibly it is used to apply powder products and do some blending. Tati Westbrook released a set of puffs that kind of broke YouTube for a while as people debated whether they were pointless or not. The world is still undecided. I don’t have any poofs. I am distrustful of them.
Repeat after me: I will not spend $20 on a makeup sponge from Beauty Blender. It is a damn sponge, and there is nothing they could possibly do to make it worth $20. I can find equally good sponges for $1-5. Again, it is a damn sponge.
Good job. Okay, now that we have that out of the way, everything else is a lot more subjective. As we learned from the big post on cost/value, there is an insane range of prices for brushes and other beauty supplies. And I will be honest, I basically only have experience with the cheap stuff. 80% of my brushes and tools come from Wish. The other 20% come from cheap sets from Wal-Mart or discounted sets from Ross. The main criteria I usually had when purchasing these sets goes as follows:
Are the handles shaped like mermaid tails, unicorn horns, or crystals?
Are the handles and/or bristles multicolored and/or purple?
…. That was it, that was my purchasing criteria. As you can tell, I am a very discerning shopper.
I lucked out with this method and got a couple of fairly comprehensive brush sets this way. Their quality doesn’t seem to be amazing, but it is definitely higher than “the brushes you get in the eyeshadow or blush packets from CoverGirl,” so I’m calling it good enough. And it is hard to tell the difference between some brushes falling apart because they are bad products and some brushes falling apart because I don’t pay enough attention when I’m washing my brushes and I got the glue holding the ferrule on wet and it disintegrated.
If you’re not willing to trust your fate to Chinese mass production and insanely long delivery times like I did, I have seen beauty bloggers and vloggers recommend brushes from e.l.f., Real Techniques, and Sigma (in advancing order of cost… I think.)
Cleaning Your Brushes
Cleaning makeup brushes is incredibly important, and also an absolute pain in the ass. Cleaning your brushes frequently prevents the buildup of bacteria (fairly important for something we’re putting on our faces, especially in an age of plague), helps prevent color transfer between palettes (or on your face). This article from Allure recommends washing face product brushes once a week, minimum, and eye product brushes a couple times a month, minimum. Currently I try to wash all of my brushes once a week, and I kind of have a system.
I keep all of my brushes in a big glass jar that I bought from the crafting section of Wal-Mart, so I ostensibly saved it from a life of being filled with colorful rocks or something. It’s clear glass, so I can see brushes through the sides, and tall enough to keep the brushes from tipping out while short enough that I can still grasp even my shortest brushes. As I use brushes, I put them into a repurposed toothbrush holder that is totally blinged out with glass and silver paint, because my toothbrush holder is apparently cooler than I am.
If I want to reuse the same brush during the week, or even during the same look for a different color, I rub it on a color removing sponge like this one. (I also make sure that sponge gets cleaned once a week.)
On Sunday, or when I run out of room in the toothbrush holder, whichever comes first, I wash my brushes. I follow the same general order of operations from the Allure article, though instead of rubbing the bristles on my palm to clean them, I use a silicone brush cleaning pad like this one that has different textures to help work the pigment out of the brush. Once they have dried, back in the jar they go! As I have mentioned multiple times, DO NOT GET THE FERRULE WET. Getting that portion of the brush wet can weaken or disintegrate the glue that holds it to the handle or to the bristles, and you have suddenly beheaded your favorite eyeshadow brush. And you set it aside and say you’re going to fix it with hot glue later, but are you really?
There are also these things that spin the brush to clean and dry it, but according to the reviews your makeup brush handles have to be pretty standardized in order for it to work, and well… my brushes are mostly shaped like mermaid tails, unicorn horns, and crystals. So that won’t really work for me.
Cleaning Your Sponges
Please, for the love of all that is good, remember to clean your sponges as well. There are So Many Bacteria trying to hang out in there. You should be cleaning your sponge on the daily. Run it under warm water and give it a couple of gentle squeezes to get excess makeup out of it. Then rub it all over either with brush soap or just regular soap, scrub gently all over it (if you start digging divots out of the foam you’re doing it wrong), give it some more squeezes to get the soap all the way through the sponge. Rinse it under more warm water and do more gentle squeezes to rinse the soap all the way through. A couple more gentle squeezes to get water out, then set it out to try. If you are super fancy, you can get a makeup sponge holder thingy, which basically looks like an egg cup and makes me unreasonably happy.
Cleaning Your Puffs/Poofs
You’re on your own for this one. I dunno. Fire?
My best advice for brushes is to find ones that you like to use. One of the reasons I have so many fantasy-inspired makeup brushes is that it helps make the makeup feel fun to apply. Of course it’s also important to find brushes that hold together well, that fit your hands are comfortable to use, and that you’ll be happy with.
That’s it for today– join us next time when I try to develop a guide to beauty lingo.
Being a discussion of how you do not have to spend a fortune, but sometimes you get what you pay for.
“A lot of people have said I’d have probably done better in my career if I hadn’t looked so cheap and gaudy. But I dress to be comfortable for me, and you shouldn’t be blamed because you want to look pretty.”— Dolly Parton
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Venom Parton. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is trying to figure out the relationship between “cost” and “value.”
When we’re talking about makeup, people usually slot brands into three different categories. There is high end/luxury, mid-end/midrange, and low end/drugstore makeup. (I hate the term “mid-end” because being a “mid” implies it is not an “end.”) The implication is that luxury products are much better than their drugstore counterparts. So are the super expensive products really so much better than the really cheap products? That… is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
Okay everyone, pop quiz time! These four shadows hit four different price points: $10, $29, $65, and $88. Which is which?
So we have a $10.00 e.l.f. palette (top left,) $29.00 Urban Decay palette (bottom right), $65 Pat McGrath palette (bottom left), and $88 Tom Ford palette (top right). That’s right, an eighty-eight dollar, four-pan palette. An eighty-eight dollar, four-pan palette that has its own little brush set like you just bought this shit from the dollar store.
And now it’s time for the bonus round! These four brushes also hit four different price points: $0.86, $10, $23, and $40. Which is which?
Let’s go in reverse price order this time, shall we? We have the $40 YSL blending brush (top left), the $23 Anastasia Beverly Hills blending brush (top right), the $10 Morphe blending brush (bottom left), and the $0.86 Ali Express blending brush (bottom right).
I gave this quiz to a few of my friends and they did…mostly not well. Which I don’t blame them for; actually, that was kind of the point. For all of the beauty industry’s insistence on these stratified genres of makeup, when you get right down to it, a lot of things are the same and price and product do not always have a sensible relationship. There is absolutely no logical reason that four eyeshadows “need” to cost $88. But there’s also no sound economic reasoning behind an object made out of at least three different component parts costing less than $1. They’re both emblematic of different economic forces. (Namely, the unnecessary markup of average products when they are deemed “luxury,” and the insanely low prices that are possible as a result of mass production and near slave labor wages.)
To better understand how and why makeup ends up at the price it does, it’s important to understand how makeup gets made in the first place.
Makeup starts as two main parts: a component and a formula.
The component is the term for the casing or tools that are part of a product–the palette of an eyeshadow, the wand in a mascara, the tube for a lipstick, etc. A brand will have the desired components made in an in-house factory or contract out to a manufacturer.
A formula is the name for the chemical recipe of the makeup itself. It is the chemicals and materials that give the makeup its color, consistency, etc. Brands will either develop their own formula, use an existing formula, or contract to a lab to create a formula. Then they will put the formula into production, creating the makeup itself either in an in-house lab or contracting to an outside lab (usually in China). At some point in this hypothetical “How it Works” video, the components and the makeup are combined, packaged, and shipped.
The biggest difference between brands of makeup come down to the quality of their components and the quality of their formula. Components that are likely to be more expensive are the ones that are unique and require specialized molds for creation and thus are less likely to be able to be mass produced and used for other brands/customers (like the Nikita Dragun product that was an uncanny valley reproduction of her face), the ones that are made of superior materials (like higher quality magnets for palette closures or real hair as opposed to synthetic hair for brushes), and the ones that are better constructed (less molded plastic, more hands-on creation, etc.)
In general, superior formulas are less chalky (made with smaller percentages of filler product like talc), smoother/creamier, longer-lasting, and with stronger, better pigments in the coloring. I’m not enough of a chemist to give you a full explanation of superior/inferior formula ingredients, but I strongly suggest checking out the YouTuber Jen Luvs Reviews if you want to learn more, as she always takes a look at and talks about the ingredients in a product.
We would expect that luxury brands, with bigger budgets and better reputations, would have superior components and formulas to mid-range or drugstore brands. The dirty “secret” of the makeup world is that this is not always the case. Sometimes, the lower end brands have equal or even superior components and formulas. Sometimes, they are even the same components and formulas.
One thing to look out for when you are starting your makeup journey and are interested in luxury or mid-range brands but are quailing at the price is a discussion of “dupes.” Dupes are drugstore or mid-range products that are comparable to their luxury makeup counterparts. Some brands, like Makeup Revolution and Shop Hush specialize in doing makeup launches that are intentional dupes of luxury products. (This falls into some moral grey areas that I’ll talk about in a future post.) A lot of dupes are just products that people knowledgeable about makeup suggest as a relatively comparable replacement for an expensive product. In general, anyone who is suggesting a dupe tries to find a product that is similar in color and consistency, and to the best of their ability, similar in how long they last. The conspiracy theorist in me says that a lot of these dupes are possible because the luxury brand and the drugstore brand use the same factories and the same formulas (which is sometimes the case) but often it is because there are simply only so many ingredients to use. So if there is a luxury makeup that you like but you are uncertain if you can commit to the price (or you object to the price on principle) then you can often find someone who has looked into getting a dupe for it.
Then you have private labeling. Private labeling is when something is mass produced by one company and then sold by another company under the second company’s branding. In cosmetics, that means that one company creates the formula and components to the specifications of a second company, and the product is sold under the second company’s branding and price point. The first company can also sell the same formula and components to multiple other companies, under other brands. In an ideal world, this wholesale approach would keep costs down. In our current capitalist hellscape, it means that you could be paying five times what a product is worth just because someone’s name is stamped on it. Morphe is particularly guilty of using private labeling, and even its landmark James Charles palette has been accused of being a private label of this Alibaba palette. (Though of course at this stage it is impossible to know which came first, so it is entirely possible that the Alibaba palette is a knockoff/dupe that was created to capitalize on the success of the James Charles palette.)
Some stores don’t even go to the bother of putting their own name on a mass produced product, they just resell it at whatever price they choose without making any alterations. I have seen this same set of “Crystal Unicorn” makeup brushes go for everything from $7-ish per set on Wish and Ali Express to $12 per set on Amazon to $25 per set on Shopthemagicalunicorn.com, a random online store that started advertising to me on Facebook because the Internet is Always Watching Me.
Now, none of this is to say that there is absolutely no relationship between cost and value. I have found that cost can be related to value, especially when it comes to eyeshadow products. To be fair I’m currently really only playing in the waters between drugstore and mid-range. I need to be a LOT better at makeup before I even attempt to tell myself that a luxury makeup product is worth it. But I’ve found that making the leap from drugstore eyeshadow to mid-range eyeshadow (or at least drugstore eyeshadow-to-drugstore-priced-but-mid-range-reputation eyeshadow, like Colour Pop) has actually made a difference in the color brightness, consistency, and wear length of my makeup. I bought a “bite size” blue shades quad from e.l.f. for $3 and a 9-pan Colour Pop blue palette (normally $12 but on sale for $9) and it’s wild how much creamier and better pigmented the Colour Pop palette is despite being almost the same cost per shade as the e.l.f. palette.
And there are definitely ranges of makeup at the very low end that barely deserve the title of “makeup.” I tried a glitter eyeshadow I bought at a Halloween store last year, and it was literally a pan of petroleum jelly with some glitter on top. Do not buy your makeup from Halloween stores.
Makeup that is sold on Wish has not necessarily undergone any safety or product contents testing. Do not buy your makeup from Wish. (Buy your brushes from Wish, like a normal person.)
Makeup that you buy at Claire’s can be legally classified as being intended for children and play, which for some bizarre reason means they are less likely to undergo rigorous product testing. (Some makeup sold at Claire’s and Justice has tested positive in the last few years for asbestos, because they were sourcing their talc from places where the talc mines were contaminated with asbestos. ISN’T THE WORLD GREAT?) DO NOT buy your makeup from Claire’s. (Also don’t get your ears pierced at Claire’s. That’s a whole different story/the reason my earring holes don’t line up in one of my ears.)
In general, my best advice is to do a lot of research when you are purchasing something. Check out reviews, swatch or sample it at a store if you’re able to, and decide what products are worth splurging on and what products are worth saving money on, and in general try to look beyond the prestige of brand names in order to determine how good the makeup really is.
Join me next time, when I talk about how absolutely overwhelmed I am by the variety of makeup brushes in the world.
Being a further discussion of expectations and reality.
“Do not live someone else’s life and someone else’s idea of what womanhood is. Womanhood is you.”— Viola Davis
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Ophidian Davis. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is trying to remember that YouTube and Instagram are not real life.
YouTube and Instagram have been incredibly helpful as I have been getting more into makeup. (Beauty YouTube is also an amazing time suck full of drama. Be careful as you enter into it, you will possibly be trapped in its vortex of “spilled tea” and “favorite products ever.”) I can watch people apply makeup and attempt to imitate them. I can get suggestions on products, see people review products that I’m too poor or lazy to look into myself, and see makeup done on a variety of skin types by people in a variety of body shapes. I can follow makeup Instagrams and see inspiration look pics, and get a sense of trends and options.
Instagramers and YouTubers both trade a lot on how “relatable” they are. Anyone with a camera can start a page or channel, pick up a makeup brush, and get going! It’s the great equalizer. People Just Like You are doing all of these things. And I think it was this sense of being relatable that made me temporarily turn off the cynical parts of my brain and start being Extremely Concerned when my attempts were not living up to even the supposedly “easy” looks.
I think almost everyone of my age knows better than to accept cosmetics commercials or ads on face (ha) value. We’re well aware of the little small print parts on mascara commercials that reluctantly inform you that fake lashes and CGI were used to enhance a model’s looks. We know about the magic of airbrushing and Photoshop, and how they can transform any look into something glorious (and skinny. And light skinned. And without lines, or cellulite, or blemishes….).
But with YouTube and Instagram, we have entered a whole new world; one that simultaneously flaunts its authenticity while doing lots of things to undermine that same authenticity. With something as simple as a photo filter, your selfie is suddenly better than real life. With a Snapchat filter, your eyes can sparkle, your lashes can grow longer, and your complexion can smooth. With apps like FaceTune, you can instantly edit and enhance a selfie while still making it seem like you “just woke up like this.” And I’m admittedly more suspicious of still images than I am of live videos, so I’m slightly more likely to have reasonable expectations on Instagram than I am on YouTube. After all, what can be unreal about a moving image when someone can’t afford body doubles or CGI?
The answer is: a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
Let’s start with the basics. They say that the camera adds ten pounds. Well, when it comes to makeup, the camera and good lighting add five pounds of makeup and take away your flaws.
Most makeup vloggers use large ring lights (you can see them reflected in things like mirrors, glasses, and sometimes even their eyes). I don’t say this as a negative– good lighting is essential for filming. If I ever do get around to vlogging, I’ll be doing the same thing. But having this lighting makes makeup very different. You can essentially create the ideal lighting setup for a certain look. Will it look good in any other kind of light? Probably not. Can you put on your normal colors of foundation and amounts of makeup? Almost certainly not– you’ll be washed out. So the YouTubers you’re watching are putting on more makeup than usual, darker makeup than usual, and the lighting is for a controlled, idealized condition that you probably can’t replicate in the real world. The makeup your favorite YouTuber is doing may or may not be something you can replicate in your own life.
Next, we have things like editing. YouTubers may actually be doing their look multiple times, and then splicing together the best takes. That look that you can’t imagine someone getting right on the first try? Odds are, they didn’t. You are watching the version of the look they decided to share with the world, not necessarily the first attempt. They can also put filters over an entire video– Snapchat in real time.
Then we have things like “doing it for the ‘gram.” Or “doing it for the clickbait.” YouTubers are almost certainly doing things that they don’t entirely need to do because it makes for good cover image clickbait or good Instagram engagement. Now, I don’t entirely blame them for this– the YouTube algorithm is a demanding and mysterious master, and creators do what they have to in order to get some clicks. But it leads them to do some things that make for good images, but bad makeup techniques– putting color corrector over their entire face, putting highlighter and contour powder in places it doesn’t need to go, dripping product directly on their face in big squiggly lines,(SO wasteful with liquid foundation, do not do that!), using products just because they look interesting/glittery/whatever. Now, not every YouTuber does this. Or even does this often. But enough of them do it often enough that it is worth knowing about.
Then we get into some of the “behind the scenes” things. I’ll talk about this more in my second miniseries where I talk about ethics in makeup, but everyone from a mid-sized influencer to a mega beauty vlogger is likely to have a mix of affiliate links/codes, PR, and “sponcon” (sponsored content). All of which may or may not affect their stated opinions, their makeup decisions, and how they interact with their fans.
Affiliate links are special links that fans can click to go to a makeup website, and usually get some kind of discount. The YouTuber or Instagrammer also gets some kind of kickback for the purchase they influenced. Affiliate codes are similar, only the codes are usually entered at checkout. Now ostensibly, someone could have an affiliate link/code and stay honest about the products that come from the company they have an affiliate link/code with. And many of them do. But many of them don’t. After all, if you trash a product and your fans don’t make a purchase, you don’t get that cool, cool kickback cash.
Figures in the beauty community also get a lot of PR, aka “free products sent by companies in exchange for a review or mention.” Now again, this can be very innocent. People can get free stuff and still stay honest about their discussion of it. But again, some people don’t. You badmouth something, you could end up blacklisted. And then you don’t get the free makeup, or the extra goodies, or the early scoop on the new release.
Finally there is sponcon. Some brands will actually go into business deals with influencers, whether that means actually doing a branded palette or something, or just getting the influencer to talk about and feature their product. The FCC dictates that influencers are supposed to disclose whenever they are getting paid to talk about a product. A lot of influencers laugh in the FCC’s face. And even those that do let you know when it’s an ad aren’t necessarily going to be honest about the product. James Charles infamously touted the benefits of SugarBearHair vitamins that he couldn’t possibly have been taking for long enough to actually notice a difference. Lots of influencers will talk up diet teas (aka laxative teas) that they don’t use themselves. Hell, Kylie Jenner will (allegedly) sell her OWN products without using them herself.
I’m not saying to delete your Insta or to harass beauty YouTubers. I still find a lot of use out of both Instagram and YouTube, and I really like a lot of influencers. (I’ll talk about the ones I like in that future series, too.) But when you are a makeup beginner (or even somewhat advanced) it is really important, for your own sanity, to remember that the internet is not actually real life. Be kind to yourself, keep practicing, and avoid the urge to use a filter, as that starts to hella mess with your self esteem.
Join me next time, when I talk about what makeup costs and what makeup is worth.
Being a discussion of plague, guilt, and happiness.
“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”— Susan Sontag
This wasn’t the post I promised this week. I know. In my defense, I was not entirely expecting the apocalypse to happen, and it is making me have some feels. I’m hoping to get back onto my normal track next week, but today we’re working through some things.
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Electromagnetic Sontag. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is wondering if that obsession is “okay” in light of recent events.
I’ve never been a big fan of “Whatabboutism,” or the declaration that one thing is unimportant in the face of another, worse thing. Sure, sometimes it can be a useful reminder of first world problems not being the worst (Yes, you broke your phone charger, but there are people dying of malaria). But most of the time it is used as an attempt to stop legitimate criticism of actual problems just because other actual problems also exist. “Why are you complaining about income inequality, when women in the Middle East are getting stoned to death for adultery?” “How can you worry about being called “sweetheart” in the workplace when other women are being sexually assaulted in war zones?” The intention is to basically make you admit that the thing you care about is less important than the other thing, so you really should just shut up about the thing you care about. (I usually answer with something like, “You are so right, here is an NGO that works on X topic, let’s both donate RIGHT NOW.” Strangely their passion dies a bit after that.)
I hear this type of argument a lot, because one of the things I care about and write about is popular culture. And if you dare to care about representation in media, or female characters in fiction, or the way that female directors get screwed over at the Oscars, you will definitely get told that the thing you care about is Not Important.
Despite hating this argument, I found myself giving it to myself on March 17th. Aka, St. Patrick’s Day. Like most white girls in the US who want free shots or free green beer, I claim to be of Irish heritage. (Though if my family’s 23 and Me results are to be believed, I’m more “genetically 25% Irish” and less “My great grandmother once dated someone named Sean O’Reilly” Irish.) But on most St. Patrick’s Days, I partake in the following routine:
Realize it is St. Patrick’s Day.
Frantically look for green clothing that isn’t in the washing machine or on the floor.
Lecture basically everyone I know about how bodily autonomy is important, and how we shouldn’t be pinching or kissing anyone without permission.
I did all of the same things this St. Patrick’s Day, with the addition of putting on some green eyeshadow as an eyeliner. And the extra addition of feeling very, very weird and as if I wasn’t paying attention to the right things. I was already feeling a bit off when I was grabbing my green tunic (out of the closet, not off the floor. This time). It felt somewhat petty and pointless to care that much about what color I was wearing.
It got worse when I started doing my makeup. It felt like fiddling when Rome burned.
With only one eye done, I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror.
“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself. “People in my state are getting sick, things are shutting down, and I’m worried about green eyeliner? Is this really the best thing I could be doing with my time?”
(I’ve never had an existential crisis with half a face full of makeup, but this was apparently the time for such things.)
After berating myself for being a flaky, superficial, first-world-problems bitcah for a while, I took a deep breath, and asked myself some more questions.
Was I doing the most I could to help the situation? Well, I didn’t panic buy (okay I panic bought Diet Dr. Pepper. But I buy four packs of that at a time anyway. I have an addiction). I was donating to local aid agencies, reposting news stories, and confronting people online who were saying this was all a conspiracy.
Was I hurting anything by doing makeup? No more than I ever was by forcing people to see my makeup.
Was I going to improve anything by foregoing makeup? Not really… but it felt very strange to be caring about something like makeup in a time of crisis.
Exactly how long was this crisis going to last? How long should I feel terrible for doing parts of my routine? …. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. This isn’t a momentary crisis, it’s a waiting game. It could be weeks, or months. It could be longer than I could imagine.
That’s the point where I finished up my other eye.
We are living in very unusual times. And a lot of the things that make our days normal, or make us feel happy, are either being taken away from us or are being given up by us voluntarily to help others. Going to see our friends, going to the movies, going out to eat, traveling… all of those things are gone, potentially for a long time. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty. And SO MUCH anxiety.
There is a lot about our lives we can’t control right now. There’s a lot about our normal lives that we can’t do right now. But small things, moments to breathe that also bring us happiness, can still happen. And these small bits of happiness that aren’t going to hurt anyone else need to still happen, or else we’re going to go crazy. We need some familiarity. We need some joy.
I’m not saying we should turn away from what is happening, or that we should be willfully ignorant about the bad things in the world. You should still be doing whatever is in your power to combat the virus, whether that’s donating to nonprofits, sewing masks, or just keeping your ass home. But we can’t enter this with the attitude of, “This is going to pass quickly and then we can get back to normal.” This IS the new normal for a while. Whatever decisions we’re making have to be as sustainable as possible, or else we’re going to snap in one fashion or another.
It helps to rephrase the question. Instead of, “Should I really be worried about makeup right now?” ask, “Should I really be worried about my mental health right now?” There is a difference between “being an individualistic asshole” and “giving your brain some breathing room.” The former hoards toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The latter gives your a few minutes where you’re not panicking.
For me, that means continuing to experiment with makeup. It means continuing to watch Beauty YouTube. It means taking moments for myself, and remembering that there is a world beyond everything being on fire.
Try to remember these things for yourself, too.