Makeup as Empowerment and before-and-afters

In recent years, makeup has been espoused as “empowering” or a “confidence-booster”, by both the cosmetic industry and makeup gurus. The #nomakeup movement, as termed by news media, begins with Alicia Key’s refusal to wear makeup over the summer, with the largest wave propelled by her barefaced look at the MTV Video Music Awards. Mila Kunis continued the trend with her makeup-less Glamour magazine photoshoot. And yet, with the influx of #nomakeup selfies all over Instagram and Twitter, a critical look is required at the rhetoric surrounding any movement that espouses self-love and self-esteem for women.

Although lookism isn’t a widely used term in America, it is an apt term for the material consequences that go hand-in-hand with beauty or lack thereof. Although jobs are more clearly tied to beauty in South Korea through mandatory photographs on resumes as explained by Sharon Lee in Beauty Between Empires, the system of lookism is obviously present within the US. While Alicia Keys and other stars go makeup-free, Lux Alptraum on Fusion points out the false dichotomy the #nomakeup movement creates – “…the decision to eschew makeup is often portrayed as a moral one. Women who reject makeup are showing the world their “real” selves, embracing “natural” beauty—as opposed to the presumably fake and phony kind embodied by those who shop at Sephora.” It renders women complicit in their own oppression, as not confident or empowered enough to go makeup-free. The women posting #nomakeup selfies are already beautiful by conventional standards. For others, made-up faces are tied in with their jobs, couched in ideas of self-presentation and professionalism. The #nomakeup movement is clearly not revolutionary, and instead creates another force on women, rendering them complicit in their own oppression in the system of lookism. It says that women can be beautiful without makeup, without interrogating why women need to be beautiful at all. “The way the No Makeup Movement has celebrated the absence of cosmetics as an avenue of empowerment grants legitimacy to the very ideals that unnecessarily divide and paradoxically snatch away women’s ability to choose their own paths as the custodians of their own bodies” says Brown Girl Magazine, arguing that makeup can be empowering. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Makeup with regards to Asian women can allow us to view an exception to the “Makeup is empowering” argument. I have personally witnessed is the “before-and-after” makeup photos of Asian women, widely circulated on websites like Reddit, Youtube and Imgur. Largely intended to shock, these videos and images play a role in enforcing techno-orientalist ideas. Defined as rendering East Asia as perverse in it’s technology use, and as mismanaging the freedom granted to them by the US, techno-orientalism is exemplified through the western consumption of these images and videos. Taiwanese Girls and Makeup (Before and After) has 7.2 million views on Youtube, yet it is cut from a Taiwanese game show and is entirely in Mandarin. Similar videos show Asian women with half their face made-up also go viral and are made into .gifs that are distributed regularly on other sites. Lists and lists of before and after photos of asian women without makeup are distributed online, often with disturbing headlines such as “Asian Girls are Deceiving!“.

One of many list articles featuring images of before-and-after makeup photos for Western consumption.

While both makeup and lack thereof on western women is framed as empowering, Asian women are portrayed as going too far – indeed, so far that it is shocking. In the above link, the author states “Here’s a pretty interesting compilation of pictures of 16 Asian girls who are most definitely going to pull the bait and switch scheme on their prospective husbands.” Asian women are so good at makeup, apparently, that it is akin to deception. Fueling this idea that Asian women are somehow exceedingly skilled at makeup is the prominence of Asian makeup gurus on Youtube, such as Michelle Pham and Bubzbeauty. One anonymous commenter states, “White and non-asian women in general wear a lot less and you can actually see their natural facial features for what they are. Obviously, there are exceptions, but in the case of asian women, the exception is the one NOT caked in makeup and fake nails, eyes, boobs, etc. With other races of women, it’s the other way around.” Through the idea that Asian women take makeup too far, civilization centering is performed.


This back and forth rhetoric ranging from “Invest in yourself through beauty!” and “Have self-esteem and love your body!” continue to oscillate through society’s consciousness. Until we recognize that beauty is not something to be valued – and definitely not something to judge a woman’s worth by – these neoliberalist movements will continue in the name of empowerment while they further restrain the acceptability of women’s physical appearances.




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