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…
…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.
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”?