Selfie-Consciousness: Some Thoughts on Instagram Beauty

I’ve been thinking recently about the so-called “effortless” look, but I’ve also been thinking about its opposite, or perhaps its obverse: the heavy, colorful, ombréd look popular on Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube. At first I thought these two looks couldn’t be further apart aesthetically, but I’ve come to believe that they’re actually two sides of the same coin. While adherents of “effortlessness” scoff at the idea that anyone would spend an hour layering and blending color, both looks owe a good deal of their popularity to the Internet. Neither one began there, of course, but Instagram and other social media have helped to refine and codify the looks. Hence the phenomenon of making oneself up for selfies, as opposed to snapping a quick selfie before heading out for the day. (And hence my shorthand phrase of “Instagram beauty,” though I’m aware that many of these techniques were popular in drag, for instance, long before the invention of Instagram.)

San Francisco, December 2013.

When I first began following fashion and style blogs, around 2008, bloggers tended to emphasize the purpose of each outfit; there was a general sense that getting dressed up just for one’s blog was a little weird. I didn’t read beauty blogs back then, but I assume that the same was true for beauty bloggers. Blogging wasn’t yet a viable career for many people, and Instagram, founded in late 2010, was still two years away. By and large, the only people who wore clothes and makeup unsuited to real life were models in editorials. For almost everyone else, personal style grew out of lifestyle. You dressed and made up for your occupation, whether that occupation happened to be burlesque dancer or stay-at-home mom or graduate student. Blogs were appealing because they showed clothes and makeup on ordinary people with ordinary lives, not on Photoshopped models in lavish editorial settings.

At the same time, the Internet made editorials more widely available, which meant that more people could copy them. And as those imitations proliferated online, the fashion world turned toward the “effortless” look. Coincidence? I can’t say for sure, though I do think the effortless ideal in its current form is a reaction against popular culture’s adoption of the editorial look. But outside the fashion world, the stage for both of these looks is the Internet, which means they’re more similar than they might seem. Both begin with smooth, flawless skin: not a new beauty ideal by any means, but an ideal that the availability of filters has heightened. You can be your own Photoshopped model now: real life imitates selfie life.

Predictably, the beauty industry has responded with products designed to make us resemble our Instagram photos in real life, to make us look good in our Instagram photos, or both. The most blatant example is Too Faced’s new Selfie Powder, which promises to make the user “look filter-flawless in real life”:


Finishing powders have existed for centuries, of course, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a powder marketed specifically to selfie-takers.

And it’s not just about looking “filter-flawless in real life”: note the #tfnofilter hashtag on the box and the “photo-enhancing” epithet in the description. In other words, you’ll look filtered in real life, but you’ll also have no need for a filter on Instagram, and you can brag about this with the #nofilter hashtag. The Instagram selfie has become an end in itself, and Too Faced wants to help you toward that end (and, presumably, repost your selfies on the company Instagram account).

See also Milani’s description of its new Moisture Matte lipsticks:


And pretty much every product description on ColourPop’s website (“Curated by @brittanysuleiman, inspired by the insta-famous Kylie lip”):


I admit, I used to find it weird that people would spend hours painting their faces for selfies. (Have you seen many people in real life wear that hyper-blended, hyper-stylized look? I’ve seen very few, though the fact that I socialize mainly with academics might have something to do with it…) The more I think about this phenomenon, though, the more I appreciate it. There’s something very democratic about Instagram beauty. Editorial looks are no longer confined to editorials; makeup artists no longer have a monopoly on advanced techniques like contouring. The beauty world has fewer secrets these days. I also like that the Instagram look is a performance of effort–the same effort that proponents of effortless beauty try so hard to dissemble. Why not look like you’ve spent some time and energy putting yourself together? Why not honor others by making yourself up for their gaze?

I wanted to provide examples of the “Instagram look” in this post, but that would have meant using other people’s personal photos without their permission. The best I can do is this promotional photo from CoverGirl’s Hunger Games collection in late 2013. This is obviously more costumey than most Instagram looks, but the basic elements are there: heavy contouring and highlighting, bright eyeshadow blended up to the browbone, overdrawn lips.


It’s a shame that CoverGirl didn’t actually produce that metallic teal lipstick; that task fell to NYX. (I’m convinced that NYX’s recent Wicked and Macaron lipstick releases, in colors like mint and metallic navy, are intended primarily for Instagram selfies.)

As an homage to Instagram’s many innovators, I tried out a maximalist look of my own. It’s far outside my usual repertoire (and could certainly be better), but I had fun creating it. I used these products…

…and got this result:

Because I lack quite a few staples of the Instagram look (foundation, bronzer, contour products, highlighter), this isn’t as finished-looking as it could be, but I did my best with what I had on hand. I filled in my brows with theBalm Sleek eyeshadow, using much more than I normally would. I was already wearing NARS Lhasa on my eyes when I came home and put together this look, so I kept Lhasa as a base and layered Kiko 251 on the inner corners, ColourPop Krinkle on the middle of the lids, and ColourPop Bae on the outer corners, lower lashlines, and browbones. On my upper lashlines I used Maybelline Line Stiletto, winged out. For some reason my blush isn’t showing up well in this photo, but it was NARS Mata Hari, with Milani Bella Taupe eyeshadow to contour. I lined outside my natural lip lines and filled in my lips with Milani’s lip pencil in 03 Nude. It was surprisingly hard to overdraw my lips, partly because of my ingrained horror at the thought and partly because I have very well-defined lip lines.

And there we are. Have you ever tried a similar look? What are your thoughts on selfie-consciousness?

15 thoughts on “Selfie-Consciousness: Some Thoughts on Instagram Beauty

  1. I'm definitely conscious of my makeup for instagram – I don't want to wear the same thing too often in my selfies! I have seen some insta-famous people in the flesh and their makeup looked super heavy and kind of cakey.


  2. The vast, vast majority of my instagram selfies (which, to be quite honest, are few and far between), I don't pay any attention to the make-up I'm wearing. But I have been known to do outrageous looks just for the fun of photographing them and sharing them on the internet. There exist out there on the internet several photos of me trying out a Pat McGrath for Galliano look. Eep.


  3. I find the act of putting make-up on very relaxing and soothing, so sometimes it's really just fun to pile on as much make-up as possible, which is going to look editorial. I've been drawing on my face for as long as I can remember, long before instagram or style blogs were a thing. (Sometimes the beauty blogging makes me feel old as I realize just how far technology has come since I was a teenager) I had a friend in college startle me in my room with vines drawn all over my face, I was completely embarrassed because it wasn't something anyone was supposed to see at the time I was just relaxing from a particularly stressful test. Now that I've gained confidence and know some techniques, I want to show it off (because vanity but also art and learning a new skill). It's my opinion that editorial make-up, and stage make-up, don't really look good in person. They are designed to be seen through the filter of a lens (or distance), so I love that intstagram has become a place to share those crazy stress fueled make-up looks. I just really like the democratization of the beauty world that the internet has fostered. I do think beauty goes in cycles though. We go from heavily made up looks to natural looks, from no color to an explosion of color and it goes back and forth. So the current argument between natural beauty vs instagram beauty is probably the pains as the fashion world realizes they need to switch the looks faster in order to stay ahead of the plebes. (I kid. Mostly)


  4. The eyeshadow colors are so pretty. Totally applicable for daily look if sheered down a bit, I think. :)Regardless of the techniques or makeup items used, I don't think yours looks like an Instagram selfie. You didn't pout your lips nor did you make those air-puffed cheeks. ;p (I usually go for \”deer in the headlights\” LOL). But seriously, your eyes are engaging and speaking to us. Which I think differ endearingly from most instagram selfies.(Now I'm starting to realize maybe I detest those typical insta-selfies contradicting myself who posts self-indulgent selfies every so often. ;o)


  5. It's interesting that some insta-famous people wear their Instagram makeup in public. I guess they have an image to maintain, but I always assumed they'd switch it up for real life, since the camera tones down the look of makeup so dramatically. I rarely make myself up just for my blog, but if I'm reviewing a blush and I want it to show up in photos, I have to apply more than I normally would.


  6. I haven't seen people who have instagram selie faces in real life, too. But, I'm an auditor so, I guess that's why.I think the really 'out there' creative looks were deliberately made for selfies — a way to share a work of art.I follow someone on Instagram who shares her watercolor practice paintings almost every day. Maybe it's like that, only Instagram selfie-ists have their face as their canvass.I just don't like it when Effortless Beauty proponents bash drag makeup looks.


  7. Your story about the vines is great! I wish I'd been into makeup when I was in college–I think it would have been a great way for me to relieve stress, as it was for you. I first got into makeup through the editorial looks I found on Tumblr, and it took me a while to appreciate more natural-looking ones (and to realize that editorial makeup looks very different IRL).I'm not the first to say this, but the internet has definitely sped up the cycles of beauty and fashion. I'm not even sure I could tell you what sort of makeup is \”fashionable\” now–like, fashionable in what context? High fashion? Street fashion? When we look back at 2015, what will be the characteristic look–the '90s revival thing, or the drag-influenced Instagram thing, or the effortless thing? I love that pretty much anything goes these days, but it can also be bewildering to settle on a personal aesthetic when there are so many to choose from.


  8. Haha, I don't spend enough time on Instagram to be aware of the most popular facial expressions! I should have vamped it up a bit more for these photos. And yes, I think plum, turquoise, and lavender is a very pretty combination. 🙂


  9. Honestly, I used to be a lot more judgmental of Instagram-esque beauty trends (e.g. stenciled eyebrows, contouring) than I am now. I wish more people would realize that there's a big difference between \”I, personally, don't like that aesthetic\” and \”that aesthetic shouldn't exist.\”I've seen a few people wearing heavy, elaborate looks in public, but it's pretty rare. Though I recently went to a restaurant where my waitress had the most beautiful cat eye–it was done entirely in black shadow, but blended and shaped very artfully, with almost no makeup on the rest of her face. It was a great example of Instagram makeup adapted for the real world.


  10. First of all, I want to say I adore your blog. I discovered it about a month ago and devoured the archives; I love your writing and your perspective on beauty. It's very thoughtful and interesting and I wish more people put this amount of thought into makeup!\”Instagram beauty\” as a concept is quite a minefield, I think. A lot of people are very against it since it is a pretty impractical aesthetic for real life, but I like your idea of making the editorial look more democratic and accessible, as well as exposing \”effortless beauty\” as ultimately false. I think I like to fall somewhere in the middle: I like certain bold elements and I'm not shy about colour (and I contour lightly), but at the end of the day I have an actual day-to-day life that does not consist of Instagram. I do think I like to use bold colours partially to challenge the idea that beauty should be effortless. (It's such a cliche by this point but whenever I do more natural makeup some midguided man always tells me that I look more fresh-faced \”without makeup\”.)This is a bit of a tangent, but I work in cosmetics and most of my coworkers aren't generally very done up. We all love makeup and know a lot about it, but most of us have the same neutral look. My boss only wears mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick. I think most of the time I have the fullest face out of everyone. So I think it's interesting that even within the context of the beauty industry, a more Instagram-like approach isn't necessarily \”desirable\” – perhaps out of practicality, perhaps because the beauty industry is conservative and behind the times? I'm not sure.Anyway, sorry for the ramble! I think this topic is fascinating.


  11. Great topic! I often play around with makeup and wear bright shadows or bright lips, I think that using the blog as an excuse to really indulge in the creativity of makeup has worked for me personally. I love seeing every facet of the selfie on Instagram and don't mind if I see some crazy contouring and the like – I only know one or two people who use that technique for their daily casual look and I don't judge them for that, but wouldn't personally enjoy doing it myself. I tend to wear more makeup than my friends and family (foundation when we go out, and eyeshadow too when they don't wear anything bar mascara) but I've become content with the fact that I am happy with it and other peoples choices shouldn't affect me wearing my favourite bright blush to have coffee 🙂 Lots to think about with this post, and I must say I love seeing that pan action on your Nars eyeshadow – excitement central, love seeing a well-loved shade!


  12. It does seem that makeup artists and others in the beauty industry don't wear much makeup, just as serious fashion people tend to wear drab-looking neutrals. (You can always tell the bloggers from the established fashion writers at NYFW, for instance.) What I find so fascinating about the Instagram look is that it *didn't* develop from the personal taste of beauty-industry types–yes, there's an element of editorial makeup there, but it's mostly street style.I like using bold colors to subvert the effortless ideal, too. In fact, when I first started wearing makeup, I felt dishonest wearing natural-looking colors and finishes: I wanted my artifice to be obvious. I had real moral qualms about blush, for instance. It made me look better and healthier, but if no one could tell I was wearing it, wasn't I lying? It took me a surprisingly long time to get over this neurosis!


  13. I remember the moment I hit pan on Lhasa, back in December! It was very exciting to see my brush move aside the few remaining particles. It took me a year to get that far, so I wonder how much longer it will be before I finish.I wear more makeup than anyone I see regularly in real life, and I don't even wear that much by makeup-junkie standards! I used to feel self-conscious about it (and still do, sometimes), but I know my friends don't judge me for my crazy lipsticks, and I don't particularly care if strangers do. It makes me happy to see someone in real life wearing a look that I wouldn't be brave enough to wear, so I hope I occasionally have the same effect on other people!


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