The effort in looking effortless: Steph Green discusses why “natural beauty” isn’t as empowering as it seems on the face of it.
Last week, Arwa Mahdawi wrote a piece for The Guardian where she spoke of Jess Glynn’s “trite, skin-deep” stunt at The BRIT Awards, where she removed her make-up onstage while singing the lines “I won’t wear makeup on Thursday / ’Cause who I am is enough.” Within minutes of her performance, websites from Stylist to The Telegraph were advertising the product used to remove her makeup – a “100% natural” cleanser by skincare brand Votary, costing no less than £45.
This, for me, nicely (or, not so nicely) summed up what is slightly off about this new trend of natural beauty and ‘skintellecualism’. When the millionaire pop-star has access to expensive skincare, a nutritionist, dermatologist, and possibly various other means of help to keep her complexion flawless, her message seems to be lost on the masses – it misses an important mark. In reality, it is far more difficult to achieve the ‘perfect natural’ look than the more glamorous, makeup-heavy one. Instead of using makeup, people turn to cosmetic procedures and hyper-expensive skincare to make our “natural” selves more perfected and palatable.
That’s the catch – it takes quite a lot of effort to look effortless.
There is a subtle but increasingly present divide in beauty: make-up and skincare. It’s often seen as an absurd exercise of self-indulgence to fork out £30 for a foundation or makeup palette, whereas somehow skincare that is far more expensive is seen as some sort of necessity, a shame-proof expense that is essentially as important as medicine. Cult brand The Ordinary have cashed in on this idea of skincare being scientific and therefore acceptable; gone are simple descriptions, and ushered in are words like lipoic acid, pycnogenol resveratrol, ferulic acid, all to make their “clinical formulations” seem as normal as prescription medicine. Other brands have followed suit, with their little glass bottles looking like some sort of medicinal concoction one would keep with their cough syrup.
Some of the most highly-recommended and best-selling skincare products from bloggers, magazines and celebrities are by brands like Sunday Riley and Charlotte Tilbury, whose cheapest skincare products begin at £40. Cult brand Drunk Elephant, whose serums cost upwards of £60, describe themselves as “Serious skin care that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Surely, if you’re spending sixty pounds on skincare, you’re taking it more seriously than you’re letting on. Very few people don’t take forking out £45 on 50ml with a pinch of salt – in fact, very few people can afford to do that in the first place.
There are brands that don’t fall so neatly into this narrative – consider Lush. The brand everyone loved when their were sixteen, before moving onto “adult” skincare. They’re trying to stay away from ‘oily and dry’ skin types and more just what you want from your skin. They actively encourage talking positively about your skin. Also everything is cruelty free and ethically sourced. They do zero advertising and always consider diversity when showing their products, from size and race to gender. Still it can be hard not to be suspicious of its affordability in a world that tells us anything less than a tenner surely can’t get the job done right. That idea in itself is one that the beauty and skincare industry survives on.
It’s undoubtedly part of the collective Millennial psyche to eschew coverage, as shown through a bevy of Insta cool-girls who profess to wear no make-up – it’s seen as almost uncool to appear to have spent time putting makeup on. The pink-hued “natural”-purveyors, Glossier, have promo girls and fans who tell their audience to love their skin first, actively promoting their light-coverage products. However, this doesn’t make beauty lovers feel better about themselves at all. Their models, these cool-girls, do not have spots, dark circles, smile lines, pores or any conceivable “flaw.” If it’s so empowering and cool and feminist to not wear makeup, why is it not equally empowering to have an oily T-zone, a flaky nose, blackheads? I speak a little generally here, but I’m guessing that many people who feel forced to cover their blemishes would rather not wear makeup at all. Imogen Clyde-Smith summed this dilemma up perfectly in her article for FIB, stating: “I have acne, which is gross, but if I ‘plaster on’ foundation I’ll be seen as ‘fake’, and be shamed for it.” Ultimately, people with less than perfect skin are stuck between a rock and a hard place and pretending that flawless skin comes easily is dangerous in a similar way to pretending being 5”10 and a size UK 6 comes easily, or naturally, if only you do pilates twice a week.
It’s not just people with societally-deemed “flaws” that wear makeup. I, personally, have been blessed – for the most part – with quite good skin. It gets oily an irritating amount of the time, but I do not get spots or flakiness or scarring. Despite this, I love makeup. On a “normal” day, I’ll wear at least concealer, mascara, eyebrow pomade and maybe eyeshadow, and if I’m going out-out, I can spend upwards of an hour contouring and perfecting a glittery cut-crease. I have friends who repeatedly tell me that this is absurd. “But Steph, why do you bother? Your skin is perfect anyway, why cover it up?” Normally, the people who say this to me, who claim that they “can’t be bothered” to do their makeup in the morning, will have a six-step skincare routine.
For the vast majority, perfect skin is unattainable, even if millennial make-up brands and skincare-aficionados would like you to think otherwise. If they want to join the no-make-up crusade, brands need to be more inclusive of the people they use to promote their products – or else, why bother with such a trite version of feminism and loving yourself? Otherwise, I’m not interested. They can take their fifty-pound serums and “cheek stains” with them.
Words: Steph Green
Illustration: Nina Goodyer