The other day I found myself watching a makeup tutorial. And let me tell you, this was nothing at all like the horrifically amateur tutorial I posted a year ago, where half of my explanations involved phrases like, “Just mash it into your face” and “you have to blend, I hear…” and “draw heinous circles, like, legit stripes ..then rub it in until you look less crazy.”
No, this tutorial was snapchatted by none other than Kylie Jenner, sister to the fabled Kardashian women and known for her super-big lips.
I have no explanation for how I came to be watching this video. I don’t follow any of the Kardashians (or Jenners for that matter) although I am definitely aware of them in the periphery sense that most of us in our celeb-obsessed culture are. I don’t share the disdain for them that many feel; the whole family evokes a pretty neutral response from me.
Nor am I particularly interested in makeup- doing it, acquiring it, experimenting with it etc. It’s as much a part of my life as getting dressed is – I take care in the process, I try to put enough effort in that it ends up working for me, I use it to accentuate the positive and diminish the negative, but it’s an aspect of my life that takes about five minutes a day and requires minimal cost and attention.
But this is different. This isn’t just makeup, it’s art. Jenner has perfected her skills and utilises her tools and materials to the point where she artfully constructs her face basically from scratch each and every day. She draws and conceals and contours and highlights, and in doing so, dictates what you see. What you perceive. It’s kind of fascinating. Just watch it.
It’s so bizarre and surreal. Even the face she begins with is not her face. It’s a face augmented by lip implants/injections and eyebrows which have been professionally sculpted and filled in.
As I watched the tutorial (the entire time thinking, “Why am I watching this tutorial?”) I was fascinated and intimidated and also a bit horrified. The sociologist in me knows that nothing we do in a social context is completely devoid of meaning, so I kept wondering; What does this level of attention to artifice signify?
The easy answer is to deride this type of elaborate makeup routine and mock it- and we do, in droves. It’s easy to say that this process signifies nothing more than vanity and a slavish, vapid attention to appearance. It’s easy to assume that one puts so much attention into the external because there’s nothing of substance beneath that face, those lips, those carefully outlined eyes.
The vanity, I mean that’s undoubtedly part of it. But aren’t we all a bit vain? Don’t we all like to look good? This is different. This, I think, is about control. It’s an incredibly intense, basic form of control – I decide what you see. I decide who you see.
This deliberate depth of camouflage seems more than just makeup, it seems like armament. I mean especially for someone like Jenner who has had her private life made public on a reality show since she was a pre-teen, and makes her living from doing so, isn’t this a way of literally concealing her true self so that it becomes virtually unrecognizable?
And is it the same for the thousands of girls and women who follow her and emulate her, simultaneously sharing everything on social media while also hiding behind painted skin, using tricks of colour and light to alter their bone structure, trying on various disguises of bold lips and dark eyes and paint-by-numbers perfection?
If makeup is the medium, does that make their obscured faces the message? If so, what are they saying? And are we listening, or are we dismissing it because it’s trivial, it’s girls, it’s makeup?
Then again, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill and reading too much into a video of a 19-year-old experimenting with makeup like 19-year-olds have been doing for decades.
Maybe it’s just Maybelline.
I’ve always felt a deep fear of addiction. I don’t know where it comes from, addiction doesn’t run in my family, nor do I know anyone who’s seriously struggled with it. But I’ve never once smoked a cigarette, fearing that once I started I’d never be able to stop. I regularly stop drinking coffee for days or weeks at a time- as soon as I feel like I depend on something to function, even an innocuous cup of coffee, it deeply unsettles me and I have to give it up, if only to prove that I am capable of doing so.
A few months ago as I was doing my own makeup, I realized I was getting that way with mascara. My face with eye makeup began to feel more like my “real” face than my bare face did, I felt self-conscious with naked lashes, my eyes appeared small and unremarkable, it was unthinkable to leave the house without it.
So, dependence established, I went cold turkey. No eye makeup for two weeks. An insignificant change, but an important one for me. It signified a re-setting. I did it until I could wake up in the morning and meet my eyes in the mirror without feeling less than, needing of augmentation.
Does Jenner feel this? Is this routine an indulgence or a dependence?
I guess the point of this long meandering post is that there’s nothing wrong with makeup, even a makeup routine with the bewildering depth and scope of Jenner’s. But it’s a fine line between augmenting and disguising. One seeks to enhance what exists naturally, the other seeks to hide the natural born form altogether because it feels not enough somehow.
Maybe in this case the medium is the message, in this case: Look at me. Look at me but see exactly what I want you to see. Nothing more. Nothing less.
It’s a deliberate obstruction of the self, a controlled release of authenticity. And it has the intended effect, doesn’t it?
I can’t look away.