Saturday, August 11, 2012

WWPD Guides: Beauty

Beauty - as in makeup, skin creams, and so on - is strangely compelling. But why? Is it just because relative to clothing, makeup is cheap, or is it more that one can more readily purchase a Chanel lipstick than a Chanel anything else? Is "beauty" - or "vanity" for that matter - for women thrilled with how they look, who want to spend as much time as possible gazing into a mirror, or for self-haters? Is Into the Gloss is actually a drug?

On some level, we all understand that how you look is for the most part a matter of your features, your age, and your overall well-being. If you don't look like this already, which I guarantee you don't, no revitalizing eye serum will make the difference. But wouldn't it be neat if, with the right selection of products, you could, at least on special occasions? It's now more possible than ever before to read about what various glamorous women goop onto themselves, and no matter how many times you repeat to yourself that correlation is not causation, you will wonder if maybe that Bioderma Créaline is all it's cracked up to be. You'll wonder this without even knowing what the product ostensibly does.

When it comes to beauty, there are two competing myths.  The first, the one promoted by the industry itself, is that products or procedures work miracles. The second is that beautification either does nothing (and is a plot to sell you stuff you don't need) or is in fact counterproductive. The liberation-from-beauty philosophy holds that if you stop blow-drying your hair, if you stop wearing concealer, this will make you not a frizzier, more blemished version of your usual, but will reveal once and for all your gorgeous natural hair texture and impeccable skin. When the truth is that sometimes, liberation might just mean accepting to look less conventionally attractive, and giving up whichever advantages that had provided.

So, onto the Official WWPD Guide, beauty edition. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to which forms of artifice are worth the bother, as this will depend on your own features, preferences, schedule, budget, and so on. But some general principles may help:

-There is a temptation to divide beautification rituals into self-hatred (bad) and self-expression (good). Yes to royal-blue eye shadow, say, but down with foundation. When what we should really do is separate out procedures that require general anesthesia, tens of thousands of dollars, risk of death, things of that nature, and have a separate conversation about those. When it comes to makeup, it's not always possible to say what's "fun" and what's "correction." For example, where does eyeliner fall? At what point does looking more awake become looking rock'n'roll? But as a rule, if the damage is $25 handed over to Sephora, this is relatively no big deal compared with $2,500 ($25,000?) handed over to someone who's cutting you open gratuitously. It's not that this removes ambiguity - where does Botox fall? chemical hair-straightening? - but it frames the discussion more productively.

-When it comes to deciding what you need/want to do, skin-care-wise, do not invent problems. There's this thing one reads about, "taking really good care of your skin," which evidently means purchasing thousands of dollars worth of serums. Isn't that some snazzy packaging? But try to resist. If the skin around your eyes is fine, you don't need eye cream. If your skin isn't dry, no moisturizer. Do you bathe regularly? Then skip the special "face wash" - you're presumably washing your face when you wash the rest of yourself, and if not, you're doing it wrong.

Meanwhile, if you have an actual dermatological condition, what you need is a dermatologist, not an equally expensive guessing game on a far-more-expensive trip to Frahnce.

-The big thing now in the beauty industry is "natural" products. As with organic food, it's a hippie interest gone mainstream. It's no longer about using one product as toothpaste, shampoo, and kitchen-cleaner, but the usual division of labor (one cream for the eyes, one for the neck...), minus whichever taboo ingredients, or with a leafy design. There will be an emphasis on "purity" - whether it refers to your health or the environment, subliminally it's all meant to stand in for the "purity" of your skin once whichever wrinkles or zits are removed. Leading to approaches like this: "[...] I got really scared of all the toxic things that are in beauty products. I mean, I smoke, I drink, I’m not a vegan, I eat like a French person, so pretty healthy, but with ice cream and candy."

While it's possible we are all being slowly killed by the butylacetoformadocyanides in our insufficiently organic eyeliner, the way to deal with that possibility isn't to collect a wide range of "natural" brands, but rather to simply use fewer products. Because let's be serious - do we have any idea if whatever replaces parabens is any better? Rather than scrutinizing the ingredients of what you do slather on, slather less stuff on. If you're wearing a toner and a serum and a primer and a day cream and invigorating oils and a tinted moisturizer and only after all that, you start applying your makeup, you may want to slow down. This will be better for your skin, your health, your wallet, and the environment, everything but the profits of the skin-cream industry. Your skin does not need to be "fed."

-That there is such a thing as marketing doesn't mean products never work as promised. I wanted to believe it, but no. Somewhere along the line, I tried this shampoo and conditioner, and realized my mistake. Oh, and if you're one of those pale women who gets a lot of 'you look tired', concealer and eyeliner, yes. Maybe blush, but don't overdo that. An absolutist stance against the Sephora Industrial Complex ends up being a bit self-defeating if you have some relatively contained routine without which you would look and feel worse.

-Mascara, however, is the single most overrated product. Yes, I have the drugstore Maybelline, and yes, out of some kind of ritual, I will wear it if I want to look my best. But if you have anything but pale blond lashes (and the product is of course marketed to women of all complexions), it's a bit like wearing foundation on unblemished skin - no one is going to see a difference. Putting waxy goo on your lashes does not make them any longer. The ads are showing you fake lashes. You will forget to remove the mascara and wake up the next day with under-eye circles. You will need special eye-makeup-remover to get the stuff off. If it rains (or worse, snows), you will immediately need to take cover. It's a gigantic pain in the neck for something that does approximately nothing unless, again, your eyelashes are near-translucent.

-There ought to be such a thing as enough when it comes to nail polish, but if you're someone who wants some, you want more. (Owning one bottle of clear, or a red from a decade ago, doesn't count.) That you already own beige doesn't mean you don't urgently need a sheer off-white. That you've got an orange-red doesn't mean you don't need a dark-red one ala "Vamp." That's just how it is. If you cared enough to buy the muted purple-pink, you will need a bubble-gum shade, as well as a pale-pink pastel, and why not a neon pink while you're at it. You can buy all the Opi and Essie you want, and still rationalize it by noting that you'd spend so much more if you got professional manicures. (It helps, with this rationalization, not to get professional manicures.) But you should still take it easy - $8 times infinity can add up.


Flavia said...

I used to feel this way about mascara (I have v. dark, normal-length lashes), but either they've thinned over the years--which is allegedly something that happens with age--or I've gotten more attentive to small things. Now I wear mascara even on my most minimal (though not on my no-) makeup days, along with a little brow filler, to look more awake. And on days when I forget, I can instantly tell the next time I pass a mirror.

Phoebe said...

That's a fair point - so make that thin or blond lashes. I'm undecided, for myself, on eyebrow enhancement - despite having dark hair, I have oddly light eyebrow hair, more so I guess in the summer, and think I might look better with thick, dark eyebrows. But extremes are out, and my attempts at eyebrow pencil leave me too close to Uncle Leo for comfort.

But getting back to my overall theory/philosophy/whatever about beauty, the idea is less about the specifics and more about doing what works for you, and no more. For me, skin is wash-and-go, but hair is not. For someone else, the reverse might be true.

Mascara just strikes me (as well as the other blogger I link to) as the prime example of something all women are told is a must, when it's something that on many - most? - simply won't be visible... until it migrates to the wrong part of your face. Lipstick, on the other hand, doesn't always look good, but unless you go with something incredibly sheer or the exact color of your lips, it will do something.

Flavia said...

No, eyebrow pencils are BAD! But powder (I use this one) is good. I have super thick dark brows, but once I shape them there are a couple of thin patches. So a little of this is kind of amazing.

But yes, I agree with your larger point 100%. I've used foundation for a million years because I have a fairly uneven skin tone. I used to feel self-conscious about this--like I was doing too much, or looking too "done" all the time, when the standard among my social set was more fresh-faced--but finally decided, wevs. I can put it on in five minutes. It's not a burden, and I'm much happier with how I look. In fact, my whole makeup routine takes ten minutes (and my hair takes zero, other than washing). I don't wear makeup every day, but I'm certainly not going to second-guess myself that I'm being frivolous or a control freak or promoting or buying into a culture of unhealthy self-image. Ya do what works and makes you happy.

PG said...

I'd be curious to see whether mascara really is invisible on many women. I have black lashes and I only started wearing eye makeup 8 years ago after getting LASIK (so long as I wore glasses, eye makeup seemed pointless), and while I still don't wear it much, I do think mascara and under-eye concealer make a big difference in covering up tiredness and dehydration. I don't wear liner because it always feels like I'm going to stab myself in the eye and it never seems to go on straight, but mascara is relatively foolproof if it's of good quality and not prone to clumping.

Phoebe said...


My belief that we should do what makes us happy in this area is greater than my sense that you're wrong about mascara, so by all means, wear mascara! But yes, I think you might be wrong about mascara, and might find it a revelation to switch to eyeliner if you got the right kind/had someone show you how not to stab yourself in the eye while using it.

Concealer, yes, a fine invention. Mascara is quite subtle (as in, others probably don't see it), until it makes its inevitable move away from where it's meant to be, at which point it cancels out the undereye concealer and then some. Pencil eyeliner, on the other hand, can make you look more awake, but as it makes its inevitable disappearance throughout the day, it just kind of fades. I've never heard of makeup existing to hide "dehydration," and if that's the issue, I'd think water, and not eye makeup, would be a simple enough solution.

Also, a small point re: mascara being "of good quality" - this is the one product even the experts who advise fancy-schmancy everything else tell you to buy the cheapest of. In part that's because fancy or not, mascara needs to be replaced far more often than other makeup. But also, the drugstore ones tend to be fine. Clumping, I suspect, means the tube has dried out. Or maybe if it's a tube for which one has paid $30 rather than $3, one is more careful applying it.

Phoebe said...


This brow product is intriguing.

I've had revelations similar to yours about foundation, but about such things as the flat-iron (people imagine that if you let poufy hair be, it does this, but as a rule, nope.) It's not very "academia" (or Francophilia, for that matter) to change one's natural hair texture, but you just figure out by a certain age what looks best on you personally and have to go with it. I mean, on certain days - I'm lazy about it and end up embracing the wavy-and-a-bit-too-voluminous look often enough regardless.

Britta said...

I have longish blonde lashes, and the tips are translucent. I suppose I'm perfect mascara material, but every time I wear it I look like a kewpie doll. Even brown mascara makes me look like I'm wearing fake lashes (though I would admit I'm not very expert at applying it). I've put vaseline on for mascara and I think it works pretty well to accentuate without totally looking overdone.

In general, I've found being very pale with light hair and eyes to match means that what would be understated on someone else is vegas showgirl on me. This might be a bit why I never started wearing makeup--experimentation looked so terrible I never dared leave the house, and anything more than minimal makeup in "natural" colors looks too made up for daytime wear. In my early 20s, a boss showed me how to put on eyeliner, and I've started wearing that more to look put together. I try not to wear it every day so I don't get to the point I feel like I need it to look presentable.

Phoebe said...


"Even brown mascara makes me look like I'm wearing fake lashes"

This is precisely why I'd understand mascara better if it were marketed primarily to the very blonde. Not because pale lashes are this flaw in need of correction, but because the ostensible purpose of mascara is a false-lash effect.

"In general, I've found being very pale with light hair and eyes to match means that what would be understated on someone else is vegas showgirl on me."

I guess it's like having a big chest - if you have naturally the features that a showgirl would pay for, you have to go further in the opposite direction not to look like one.

" I try not to wear it every day so I don't get to the point I feel like I need it to look presentable."

While I do wear eyeliner most days (if less so since moving to the woods), I can totally get behind this. On the one hand, I don't think we should deprive ourselves of easy, cheap enhancements that make us happy. On the other, you don't want to try each and every option, because yes, we probably would all look better with some hour-long (but subtle-enough) routine, it's best to keep a basic routine pretty basic, and save the extras for special occasions.

caryatis said...

What about lipstick? I've always wondered whether lipstick is actually necessary if you have naturally pink lips (and don't want to make them red or orange or whatever).

Phoebe said...

Lipstick! Very complicated. This definitely doesn't fall into the "myth" category, like mascara, simply because painting black or brown lashes black is very subtle, whereas unless you exactly match your lipstick shade to your lip color, it's visible. "Pink" is a huge category.

What's weird with lipstick, though, is that even though it's said to be, like blush, about making a woman look aroused, lipstick comes in so many colors other than redder-than-natural-lips, even just within the work-appropriate pinkish-lipstick range. Lipstick might make your lips paler or less pink than natural, and this will still be thought to improve your appearance. As for why, I think - and I feel like Kei mentioned this somewhere before? - it's that any artifice is evidence of effort.

Personally, though, my two "new" lipsticks are ones I bought over a year ago. I don't like wearing the stuff if I'm about to eat or drink coffee, which means unless I have it with me when I go out, but even then, I'm not going to wear it. The advantage of non-lip makeup is that you don't eat it. (Which, with lipstick, you unavoidably do.) Sure, your skin still absorbs whichever chemicals, so that's less the issue, but there isn't the reapplying concern, nor are you applying quite as much.

caryatis said...

That's funny, because lipstick is the one article of makeup I always take with me. I will apply it before eating or kissing and reapply it afterwards, illogical though it may be. And yet, since the lipstick I prefer is very close to my natural lip color, the difference it makes is negligible. I think. But somehow I got the idea that an attractive woman with a polished appearance must wear lipstick, and be always reapplying it...and frankly it's fun and sexy to reapply it. And easier than foundation or eyeliner.

Incidentally, I happen to think that lipstick that makes your lips look less colored and more beige (eg Megan in Mad Men) looks bizarre and terrible.

Phoebe said...

The "nude" lip is generally about balance - if you're going to have a lot of black eyeliner or a smokey eye, even a natural lip might look too dark/pink. It's like wearing a buttoned-up shirt if you're wearing a miniskirt, or pants if you're wearing a skimpier shirt. But a pale pink/beige lipstick without any eye makeup probably would look weird.

Britta said...

Oh, speaking of beauty and perhaps another data point for you, I am in Italy for a month and a half visiting my boyfriend's family, and am now the owner of 18 euro French sunscreen from a "pharmacy." It is packaged like a cross between medicine and high end makeup. I needed sunscreen, and my boyfriend's uncle would not let me buy the supermarket stuff, but instead called his girlfriend to get the "right" brand for fair skin and then made a special trip to the "right" pharmacy. Being me, I would have rather not spent 18 euros on sunscreen, but it probably also prevents eye wrinkles and cures cancer or whatever and maybe is the slippery slope towards an expensive beauty product addiction.

Phoebe said...

Ooh, which one? I found a La Roche-Posay one disappointingly streaky (if you can see white streaks on skin as white as mine, that's a bad sign about a product), and am back with boring Neutrogena. I think for anti-aging and anti-skin-cancer, you really do just need the drugstore ones, as long as they have UVA and UVB protection with a high enough SPF. But I wouldn't knock packaging, or texture - a higher-end one might be more of a treat to put on, so there'd be more of an incentive to actually wear it.

Britta said...

It's called Avène. I tried a little of it, and it smells like nice lotion and rubs on similarly. I guess 18 euros weren't wasted since it seems to be something that could double as moisturizer.

kei said...

Yes, I think I may have mentioned that effort is pretty much everything, possibly based on my observations of makeup use in Japan.

I've been trying the fewer products rule even though I fall for the "need" for a toner before moisturizer and still worry about ingredients. Those serums in that slideshow are crazy! I guess I'm referring to the prices and claims about them. I was then led to a slideshow about the making of La Mer cream, which I can only imagine was a marketing ploy developed in response to people who googled it's ingredients only to find "It's the same as Nivea creams" or whatever. I've heard that expensive SKII creams work well, but that skin will get used to it and not respond as well over time. But I've noticed that in Japan, SKII is marketed towards "ladies of a certain age" (i.e., not women in their 20's to even 40's, really) so as you say, it can and probably should be resisted.

Again, I'm on board with the overall WWPD guide, but I do want to note that I rely on mascara possibly more than any other part of my makeup regime! I think it's because I lack that crease in my eyelid, so I always look asleep; thus any and all help is taken to prevent that look (for instance, when I take a picture, sometimes _Japanese_ people will tell me, "Oh let's take it again, you closed your eyes" but when I review the photo, MY EYES ARE NOT CLOSED!!!). I have longer eyelashes than many Asians, and they actually curl a little because of my partially wavy hair (the Asian norm, I think, is short eyelashes that point out straight, sometimes into the eye), but I often feel I need to highlight them as much as possible.

Which brings me to the larger point (I think it's been mentioned above) that some people have stronger features and need less makeup. I think this is probably divided up more or less in terms of ethnicity, but in any case, I think the overall point might be, know your facial features and what the minimum is and stick to it as best as possible.

By the way, I was wondering what the WWPD view of BB creams was, considering earlier posts wondering what the point of tinted moisturizer is (was there ever a final judgment on that?). I like that "BB" can either stand for "blemish balm" or "beauty balm."

Phoebe said...


Thanks for commenting!

What you write about mascara, and also what commenters have written, is making me think I might not have expressed my stance as well as I could. Basically, I very much agree with the beauty-industry contention that most women - myself included! - would look better with more going on in the lash department. I have no idea how false eyelashes work, and am too weirded-out by the idea to try them, but the end result can look great. I just don't find that mascara gets one anywhere close to that effect. (Exception: women like Britta, whose own overall blondness makes dark lashes stand out dramatically.) And this isn't something born only of my own impression of how mascara looks on myself personally - mascara advertising will use false lashes, knowing full well that that's what their customers would like to see. I mean, on some level, it's all a mix of false advertising and subtle results, so if mascara makes you happy, go for it, and as I said, I myself own and sometimes wear it. I just think, if I had to pick one product where cost-benefit ("cost" as in its migration all over the face, its inevitable obviousness to the wearer once on, and the need for special products to remove it) tilts against, this would be it. But the overall idea I was trying to get across is that we should do what works for us, and no more. If mascara is what works for you, use it. If not, no need to assume it's a part of Official Makeup.

The relationship between ethnicity and beauty-products is one I could only begin to address here, but I agree that it certainly enters into it. The mainstream beauty industry has its "normal" woman, and she's of maybe English or German ancestry, with the facial features that implies, with straight, light brown hair that maybe she highlights blond, skin she wants a bit darker, etc. So much of what's sold won't work for other women, who, in turn, feel themselves to be high-maintenance for not taking the "normal" shampoo, and so on.

"[...] I think the overall point might be, know your facial features and what the minimum is and stick to it as best as possible."

Yes, 100%.

BB creams, agreed that the name situation is amazing. I suppose I'd put it in the same category as serums, toners, and other products whose ostensible purpose is left intentionally vague, and is meant to 'enhance the skin' but not to fix any particular problem. (Oh, to give a verdict on tinted moisturizer, it's foundation for the what-me-I-don't-wear-foundation set.) I mean, who among us wouldn't want better skin in some unclassifiable sense, but if there's a specific issue, you address it, and if not, more creams are only going to announce new allergies. Pores can't be gotten rid of, whereas pimples can.

My sense of it is, till a certain age, women don't want acne, then there are some years of occasional zits plus omg-is-that-a-wrinkle, then it's time to shell out $$$ for anti-aging snake oil. So, as a woman in that in-between age, skincare-wise, I go with whichever sunscreen has the most sun protection and the least other stuff in it.