Saturday, February 28, 2015

Should Beauty Be Effortless?

In the last few years, I've noticed two different beauty ideals emerging on the Internet, or at least in the corners of the Internet that I frequent. The first is "effortless beauty": glowing skin, almost no color makeup, and an overall air of having something better to do. The second is what we might call "Instagram beauty": the heavily contoured, shaded, and blended look exemplified by the Kardashians and their followers. It's odd to see the beauty world so polarized, and I've been wondering how these two very different aesthetics developed.

When I think of "effortless beauty," I think of Into the Gloss, a blog I've followed for about three years now. In ITG's most beloved feature, The Top Shelf, staff members interview celebrities, models, creative types, and otherwise unremarkable rich kids about their beauty routines. Product junkies like Lindsay Lohan and Dita Von Teese show up occasionally, but if you scrolled through the Top Shelf posts and took a shot every time a French fashionista or LA-based juice mogul proclaimed that "I don't wear much makeup," the room would be spinning before long. The Top Shelf interviewees often imply (or, in some cases, declare outright) that piling on the color is a bit vulgar. You can wear bright eyeliner or blush or a red lip, but more than two at once is just Too Much.

This take on beauty is everywhere. In contrast to the "heavy neutral" look of the '90s, the 2010s seem to be embracing "light neutral": endless refinements of textures and finishes in a limited color palette. The guiding idea of Glossier, ITG's recently launched product line, is "skincare as makeup." The NARS Spring 2015 collection is an assortment of nudes. Responding to the looks at last fall's Fashion Week, Vogue.com exhorted us to "ditch the makeup—or at least look like you did." And the no-makeup-makeup trend seems poised to continue throughout the year. The focal point of Rodarte's Fall 2015 makeup was a tiny strip of Swarovski crystals just below the lashline...

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 ...while at Proenza Schouler, the models' faces looked almost bare, save for smudges of matte black pigment at the inner corners of the eyes and along the creases.

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I can think of a few reasons for the emergence of this look, including developments in skincare technology; the influence of Asian beauty trends; the "French girl" ideal (bare face, red lipstick) that has held the American imagination captive for too many years; and the desire to make one's face as smooth and poreless as one's triple-filtered Instagram selfie. But underlying all these phenomena is the idea that not trying, or giving the impression of not trying, is cool. This is nothing new: effortlessness has been cool in Western culture since at least 1528, when Baldassare Castiglione described the Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura in The Book of the Courtier. The perfect courtier, writes Castiglione, must "seem whatsoever he doth and sayeth to do it without pain, and (as it were) not minding it...Therefore it may be said to be a very art that appeareth not to be art." Or, translating this to the current beauty ideal: put effort into your appearance, but dissemble that effort as much as possible.

What Castiglione doesn't mention is actual lack of effort. If you're at court, or attempting to become a courtier, you're already invested in your appearance, manners, and speech. You've eaten of the fruit of knowledge; you can't go back. Real effortlessness may have been yours once upon a time, but that door is closed to you now. Likewise, if you follow beauty trends closely enough to know about the effortless look, you can achieve only the semblance of effortlessness. Back in college, when I cut my own bangs and the only makeup I owned was concealer and lip balm, I wasn't cool--or if I was (I wasn't), it had nothing to do with my refusal to wear makeup. Because I neither knew nor cared about color makeup, my bare face won me no sprezzatura points. If I'd known perfectly well how to put together a smoky eye and matte purple lip but had confined myself to a slick of mascara, it would have been a different story. Perhaps sprezzatura consists in appearing to undervalue something you value greatly.

Oxford, 2008. There is an actual viscount in this picture.

But is this what the people want? Into the Gloss's focus on "natural" looks has caused some dissatisfaction recently. Every new Top Shelf featuring an artfully disheveled woman who "doesn't wear much makeup" is met with complaints from readers: Show us the lipstick hoarders! Show us people who use foundation and have imperfect skin! Meanwhile, on xoVain, readers are invited to post selfies in the "Look of the Week" thread; the looks that garner the most compliments and upvotes are inevitably the most offbeat and striking looks, the ones that betray the thought and effort behind them. It makes sense: the point of a LOTW is to show off a creation, not an unadorned face. The problem with the effortless look is that it can be, well, boring.

There's also something undemocratic about it. Good skincare is far pricier than good makeup, and it's cheaper to change your look with a new lipstick than with a new outfit. You may have worn that pilled Target blazer more times than it deserves (she wrote, glancing at the just-washed blazer hanging on her bedroom door to dry), but if you throw on a red lip, who will notice? The effortless look, bolstered by serums, essences, and moisturizers that run to hundreds of dollars each, is the province of the rich. Plus, the elaborate "Instagram look" evolved from traditionally marginalized subcultures--including drag, as Renee pointed out in her comment here--and the brands that cater to this look, like MAC, NYX, and ColourPop, tend to be mid- to low-end.

I've made a lot of generalizations in this post, but I'd wager that most people reading here fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes: not willing to spend an hour blending and contouring, but too attached to their color makeup to be content with a splash of micellar water. In a later post, I'll consider the evolution of Instagram-esque makeup, but for now I want to know: what are your thoughts on "effortless beauty"?

25 comments:

  1. As an actual French girl and litterature student who studied Castiglione last semester, I must say I love this post !!
    I feel like the ideal of effortless beauty is an answer to the usual stigma put on makeup that looks "high maintenance". I wear bright lipstick everyday to class, and I get stared at everytime, even if french girls are far from effortless... I once ran into a girl re-applying her foundation with a stippling brush WHILE she was walking to her next class.
    But yeah, most people are unable to detect the presence of "natural looking" makeup, so choosing it over red lipstick and a midnight blue smoky eye means that you're not as into your looks as the girl who only wear brown eyeliner and a single coat of mascara in order to "look natural".
    I was raised with the idea that a woman cannot wear a bold eye and a bold lip at the same time, and that you should never ever wear red lipstick is you're one of the following : pale, cool toned, have freckles, blonde, red-haired, have lips that are too full or too thin...

    I like to pull off a no-makeup makeup look sometimes but - if makeup is considered among its cult like a fun thing you do for yourself - choosing to put on your face the stuff nobody likes, because it's too striking or unnatural, is an affirmation or self, in my opinion. Wearing super dark lipstick with purple eyeliner on a summer day to go grocery shopping almost becomes rebellious, because it's never what you're expected to do. And It feels fantastic.

    PS : sorry for the grammatical approximativeness and the rambling on !

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    1. Hooray, another Castiglione fan! Your grammar is great, and no need to apologize for rambling--I mean, have you read my posts? ;)

      At the university where I'm a grad student, I rarely see girls wearing color makeup, either; people seem to like the clean preppy look. Good for you for wearing bright lipstick to class! I wish I'd experimented with makeup as a college student. Now is the time to do it, when you have the freedom to play with your appearance.

      I never heard any of those rules about red lipstick when I was growing up, but that's because it just wasn't on my radar--my mother never wore it, and neither did anyone else I knew. It's certainly not easy to wear, and most people have to experiment before they find a red that works for them, but it's sad that some people go their whole lives thinking they can't wear red lipstick!

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  2. I don't think I was ever into instagram-esque makeup (although I do post many instagram selfies ;p).
    "Natural effortless beauty", that, I've attempted only to find out it actually takes thrice of time I'd usually spend to put on makeup, so naturally I've given up. I love beauty, but I am also practical and lazy. Plus I think we should consider the fact 99% girls who apear in magazines with minimal look, are actually just "girls" who would look pretty with mud on their faces. Even the professionals say "Those runaway nude makeup looks? Not good in real life". To fake that natural glow God granted every one of us only for a short period time, we need tons of products, time, and money.
    So what's effortless to me would be literally (and relatively) effortless to put together in my real life that also makes me feel good about myself while fetching compliments occasionally.
    I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on the other end of current beauty world.
    Have a wonderful week! :)

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    1. I've never been into Instagram-esque makeup, either, and I'm always surprised when I see it in real life, because it's so rare! Which is something I'm going to talk about in my next post, actually. And I agree, it's no coincidence that the girls chosen to model "effortless" looks are natural beauties who tend to be very young. I was very young once, but now I'm ready to feel like an adult...well, most of the time, anyway. :D And it certainly takes a lot less effort to throw on bright blush and lipstick than it does to layer highlighters and powders and who knows what else.

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  3. I would consider myself a balance of the two. I enjoy a very minimalistic approach to my face makeup but always make a statement with my eyes or my lips. When you watch or read anything about this topic, people seem to be so divided and it's ridiculous! Should beauty stem from a natural approach or from one's own expression? I find the heavier look just as beautiful as the effortless one. I believe the sooner we realize that what you wear on your face is not definitive of your value as a person the better. So why are we obsessed with how little or much makeup someone wears? At the end of the day, I'm indifferent towards praising the effortless look. I believe that enhancing natural beauty is a great look, but it's not superior to a more colorful one. They both provide confidence to the wearer and that's all that matters.

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    1. I hope my post didn't come off as an effort to pit one look against the other! We all have our personal preferences, but in an ideal world we'd be more open to experimenting with looks outside our comfort zone. I confess, I used to be more prejudiced against heavy beauty looks before I started my blog. My usual look is still pretty minimal, but I no longer see any reason to judge others for, say, filling in their eyebrows strongly. In fact, I love it when people have put obvious effort into their appearance; it means that they see the world as worth dressing up for. Which it is!

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  4. One of my least favorite tropes in books is the girl who is pretty without really trying. The moment a character is mentioned as "effortlessly beautiful" or "pretty without knowing it" my opinion drops and it takes an amazing novel to pick it back up.

    And that's long hand for, I really dislike the natural beauty look. I feel that on some level it feeds into this idea that women should simply be beautiful without really trying. You and I and most beauty lovers will know the actual effort that went into the look, but others will simply assume it's just nature and really shouldn't EVERYONE be that careless with their looks?

    I'm not personally a fan of the super contoured look, but it doesn't offend me on some level the way that the 'natural make-up' look does. I can't decide exactly what level it is, the feminist level- because it feeds into the expectation that women be pretty-but not like they're TRYING to be pretty. Or does it offend my sense of fairness, because as you say that natural make-up look is one that takes either amazing genes or lots of money and thus is inaccessible to large swathes of the population.

    Plus, I LIKE color. I like putting color on my face, whether it be to highlight my lips, bring out my eyes, or simply because I want to wear blue eye-shadow dammit.

    To be fair, I do think a part of my dislike is envy. I have mediocre skin. Blemishes and I have been well acquainted for years, so I would require about the same amount of product (if not more, and definitely tons more effort) to pull off the natural make-up look. And if I'm going to put that amount of work then I want people to notice my work.

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    1. It's like that One Direction song: "you don't know you're beautiful, and that's what makes you beautiful" or whatever. It's a very absorbing logical problem. By making the girl aware that she's beautiful, surely the boys have ruined what made her beautiful in their eyes?

      I think a feminist critique of the effortless look is definitely in order. There's a difference between preferring a minimal makeup look and trying to project effortlessness--the implication being that obvious effort is somehow wrong. And the hilarious thing is, applying color makeup takes very little time and effort when you're experienced! How long does it take to throw on some bright lipstick--30 seconds, maybe a minute? But a bright lip implies *knowledge*, knowledge as opposed to innocence. And Western culture has always fetishized innocence.

      And yes, color is fun! I'd have no fun with makeup if I felt obligated to wear neutral colors every day (though I'm wearing neutral colors as I type this, to be fair).

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  5. I agree that there is definitely something elitist and even reactionary about the natural/effortless beauty trend and the whole no-makeup makeup thing. I think it's about reaffirming traditional beauty standards: white, rich, young, etc. Not everyone who does it or likes it fits into those categories, obviously, but I am pretty convinced that that is the origin of the trend that people are participating in.

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    1. "Reactionary" is a good word for it. The effortless trend does leave some room for weirdness (like Proenza Schouler's eye smudges), but it's a strictly contained weirdness. There's little challenge to accepted standards. I'm not saying that every makeup look needs to be a political statement--sometimes you just need to get through the day, you know?--but the effortless look does seem to have constructed itself against other, more obvious ways of wearing makeup.

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    2. "Reactionary" is a great word for it. It's a return to traditional standards in the guise of liberation from them.

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    3. ...whoops. I somehow forgot I'd written that first comment. I need to eat lunch.

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  6. There's so much wrong with this whole 'effortless beauty' malarkey. It is essentially only accessible to a small subsection of society - young, preferably white, slim and conventionally attractive, not to mention with either the fortune to have great skin or the money to be able to buy the products to give them great skin. In other words, we're looking at 1% of the population.

    Also, I feel like the effortless beauty idea is linked in with the idea of the Cool Girl - a woman who looks perfect but not artificially perfect because that suggests she's trying too hard. When you see how many men there are who whine that they have trust issues because women wear make-up, it's understandable. Our society has deemed that our natural faces are not beautiful enough but if we try to be anything other than natural looking then we're clearly fooling people.

    My favourite thing about fashion shows is the make-up and it's just really boring at the moment. Every single show has a variation on the same look. More and more, it's feminists of every kind who are creating amazing make-up looks, not professionals. I am 100% invested in a backlash against the 'natural look'.

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    1. Yes, this is a look that relies on technologies found only in higher-end products. There's really no way that I know of to dupe it with drugstore makeup and skincare. And I agree that it plays into the "Cool Girl" stereotype. I hate to keep picking on ITG, because it's a website that's given me lots of pleasure over the years, but their founder recently wrote a piece about how "it’s way cooler to do a day look for night, both for hair and makeup. And wear something super chic. Mixing high-low is always the most fun, in my opinion." What about the people who don't have access to the "high" part of that combination and can't combine their no-makeup-makeup face with something "super chic"?

      And yes, fashion shows have been so boring in the last year! I was disappointed with the neutral looks at last fall's fashion week, but I thought, well, they're showing spring looks and it's understandable that they'd go lighter on the makeup. But the same thing is happening this season, with fall clothes! Whatever; fall makeup will always be about the dark lips for me.

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  7. Those black eye smudges are freaking me out. I don't understand that look at all.

    I hang out largely with midwestern Quakers among whom the beauty norm really is "I have washed my face." There are spiritual values underpinning that, which are related to what you discuss here (the valorization of simplicity is super complicated, ironically) and could bear unpacking, but it's not really the same thing.

    By the way, this seems like something you would enjoy, if you haven't already: http://millihelen.jezebel.com/a-lipstick-love-letter-1687810243

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    1. On the models who had more hooded eyes, the smudges were less apparent, but I chose a photo that gave the full effect. Which is not an effect I particularly like, either. At least make the smudges fuchsia or something!

      I know what you mean about the "I have washed my face" aesthetic. When I went to my father's WASPy family reunion five years ago, no one seemed to be wearing makeup, and it wasn't because they were going for the effortless look. But yes, I agree that there's a difference between the traditional American emphasis on simplicity and the effortless/natural look that's popular these days. The latter is a very *knowing* simplicity--though I guess you could argue that Calvinism and its offshoots produce a knowing simplicity as well.

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  8. I subscribed to the effortless thing for many years and never thought about it quite in the way that you articulated here, particularly the point about how economics and personal finances can factor in. It does seem rather ridiculous when everyone claims not to try very hard when the truth is otherwise and apparent. I think the setting that you enter also plays a great role in the level of "try" that is acceptable, and the whole thing is now somehow tied in with the horror of being seen as awkward. My personal lightbulb moment about the truth of effortlessness had to do with discovering that other Korean girls with long, glossy, straight hair took the time to straighten their already straight hair for an extra smooth appearance. As an oddball curly-haired Korean, I was both bemused and galled.

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    1. It was a while before I noticed the connection between the effortless look and economics, too, but I always detected a certain smugness in the way that proponents of that look would talk about it. And hair-straightening was an important part of my beauty development, too, though not in the same way. When I was in college, straightening was de rigueur for a lot of girls, including my most looks-obsessed friend. She couldn't BELIEVE I'd never even thought to straighten my wavy hair, and one day she talked me into submitting to the straightener before I had a breakup talk with the asshole guy I was seeing. Because my hair is so fine, the straightener just made it look limp. I felt like a wet dog, and the trauma of having wet-dog hair during a painful breakup biased me against any sort of beauty routine for a while. These days I don't mind putting effort into my appearance, but I still don't own a straightener. :D

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  9. A good friend of mine has never worn makeup, and when the no-makeup look at the Spring 2015 Marc Jacobs show made a huge splash, I gleefully showed her the pics. "This is your moment!" I said. "You are not just cool--you are ultra-cool!" And we giggled away with amusement.

    But, of course, you're absolutely right--high-fashion no-makeup looks are shot through with self-consciousness. (What a delight to see Castiglione's 'sprezzatura' mentioned here, by the way!) All this reminds me of Lisa Eldridge's no-makeup makeup video (which, as an aside, I love--I use tons of those tips all the time). Although I've never sat down to confirm this, I've always been semi-convinced that she uses more products and takes more steps for her no-makeup look than for any other look on her channel. Even if that tutorial doesn't take the prize, it feels like it must be way up there.

    But I doubt that even Lisa E.'s no-makeup makeup look would make the current 'effortlessness' grade. I myself have been seduced by the effortless look, and I can confirm that the attention to skin care and the time and effort in application--while it yields a very refined result if done well (i.e., if not done by me--I utterly lack the technical skill)--far, far exceeds any big makeup look I've ever tried. And the end result--to the extent that I ever managed to pull it off--is that I always looked the same, day in and day out. "You looked like yourself!" the effortless advocates would say. Yeah, I guess so. But I got bored, so bored. I hope I'm less boring than that. lol.

    Anyway, I doubt that I'll personally be taking a turn toward the Instagram look, but lavender smoky eyes with bright red lips? Yep. I'm in the mood for some color.

    Thanks for such a great post! I just found your blog, and I'm enjoying your writing so much.

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    1. Welcome! I'm delighted that you're enjoying my writing. I've never seen that no-makeup-makeup video, but I love Lisa Eldridge (she's the only YouTube guru whose videos I watch), so I'm going to check it out when I get a chance. And yes, I don't see the point in spending lots of time and money only to come out looking like a slightly more polished version of your un-made-up self. Plus I think people still look like themselves with red lips or lavender smoky eyes or whatever; real life isn't a Shakespeare comedy in which a lady fools everyone into thinking she's a man by putting on pants.

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  10. This is a wonderfully thoughtful post. For some reason the 'effortless' look has always struck me as especially funny when it comes to hair. Maybe because an artfully 'undone' braid looks utterly different from one that you've actually exercised or slept in. The amount of time, effort, and money put into looking like one didn't try very hard is really quite amusing... until some people (especially very young women) get fooled into thinking that women should look like the photos above without any effort at all.

    At age 58 the 'effortless' look in makeup is impossible for me to attain, even if I had thousands of dollars to put into plastic surgery and other professional services. It does seem to be a pretty elitist trend, attainable by a very small segment of the population.

    I found your blog recently and have been enjoying it very much.

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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you've been enjoying my blog! I don't follow hair trends very closely, and my hair has been too short to style extensively for years, so it didn't occur to me that the same "effortless" thing might be happening with hair.

      Our culture's obsession with youth is very depressing, and it's hard not to fear aging when so many beauty advertisements promise to "turn back time" and produce a more youthful appearance. Surely it's no coincidence that most people chosen to model the effortless look are young, white, and thin--people who already fit the conventional beauty standards of our society.

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  11. I'm late commenting, but I've read through this post a few times and absolutely love it. I think you're spot on when it comes to the subtle economic exclusion of Natural & Effortless versus visibly made up, because certainly, there are only a small number of people who can afford the very best skin treatments. I'd also argue that it's only the very wealthy who don't have to worry about skin damage caused by working outdoors, or in an office with harsh heating/ air conditioning, etc.

    On top of that, of course, there's the fact that "effortless beauty" is exclusively the province of the young. People age, no matter what we do to maintain our youthful look, and after a certain point it starts to show.

    I'd also argue that the dismissal of makeup and clothing as something not worth an effort actually perpetuates the stereotype that things that are traditionally feminine interests are unworthy of time or effort. I'm not going to say that makeup, clothing and the like are all-important, but there is an inherent sexism at work in dismissing them as frivolous. (I won't get started on that topic. I can go for a long time.)

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    1. Never too late to comment! I tend to be pretty late in replying to comments anyway...

      I think you're absolutely right that the effortless ideal is connected to the internalized sexism of "I'm low-maintenance, I don't spend time on my appearance, only vain women do that," etc. There's nothing wrong with being genuinely low-maintenance, of course, but there is something wrong with assuming that's "better," morally or aesthetically, than enjoying makeup. And anyone who assumes that a woman can't find time for both makeup and her actual work is confused about basic time-management skills.

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  12. This post was so thoughtful, articulate, and relevant. I have also been a long-time ITG reader and have had many similar thoughts about "effortless" beauty. I found that this post has a strong connection to your post on everyone's personal comfort zone around makeup (ie, what is too much, too little, etc.). What I find interesting about the notion of "effortless" beauty is that it is strikingly dishonest. When we read about beauty on sites such as ITG, the whole point is to talk openly about your beauty habits - whether it be 5, 10, or more products and regardless of your beauty "philosophy." The people reading this information like to understand different routines, product mixes, etc., and appreciate recommendations. It really makes no difference to me personally how much effort someone put into it. So, if that no-makeup makeup look actually took you 10 products or if you travel with 20 lipsticks everyday, it should be okay to admit it. I understand that the internet community can be quite critical and judgmental, but we all know the drill and I'm surprised interviewees aren't more candid. Regarding your point on the somewhat undemocratic nature of "effortless" beauty (a broad generalization, yes), while it does make sense, I don't believe that having money means all your beauty issues are solved and that you don't get a little help here and there from whatever product (or other treatments) - it just sounds dishonest to pretend that you do. Talking about beauty is inherently personal and revealing, so I think having the honesty there makes it authentic and believable. To have this emerging philosophy that gives the appearance of no effort - it doesn't ring authentic and believable, it sounds conformist, and seems to support a certain branding/reputation more than anything else. This was all less articulate than it should have been :)

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