I had a bit of a conflict. Growing up in a household of strong women who routinely left the house without thinking twice about makeup, I took up a similar definition. Makeup was a nonessential that eventually gained a negative connotation as I watched friends obsess over the newest line of lipsticks and then pour hours into learning how to apply it. The word association grew darker as I watched ads subtly pick at the self-confidence of women and dangling the promise of perfection just outside their reach for a cut of their next paycheck. Realizing the tricks played on our self-esteem I developed a feminist manifesto that didn’t exactly view makeup in a glowing light. I was distrustful of the makeup industry. Why would anyone put money into companies that preyed on the insecurities of women? In my eyes, those women were complicit in their own abuse. In my eyes, there was a fundamental flaw in looking flawless.
So, you can imagine my internal battle when one of my favorite writers and actress, Issa Rae, was inducted as a CoverGirl. I had a bit of a conflict and resolution came in the form of a smart and relatable panel at Cannes. As I watched four beautiful, diverse women walk on to the stage I immediately thought, We’re off to a great start. Let’s hope they can maintain it. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Katy Alonzo, Ukonwa Ojo, and Issa Rae began with powerful accounts of how they learned to define femininity. They expressed how their definitions were rooted in tradition but pushed to new depths through life experiences that questioned traits commonly thought as feminine and introduced stereotypically masculine ones. Alonzo noted that this was possible not by changing the traits we considered feminine, but by heralding these traits as equal to others and opening access to them. Femininity is something for all, but more importantly it’s something for yourself. And as Alonzo later quipped, so was makeup. According to her, no woman mixes three shades of lipstick and spends a half an hour on the perfect cat-eye eyeliner for “Steve”. Not only was there an aspect of artistry to makeup, but there was a raw passion intrinsically fueled that had nothing to do with impressing others. That meant that there was a “treat yourself” aspect, and I found this intensely satisfying to think that millions of women have that moment every day. Despite its showiness makeup is primarily for self-consumption.
And just like with anything you consume, the reasons you do are as varied as the women on the stage. Sometimes you indulge so you can wear a splash of self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with filling in chinks in the armor with liquid liner. Or polishing swords with moisturizing matte finish. These women represented makeup not as a crutch, but as a physical manifestation of fearlessness. As Ojo remarked, “If you have a superpower, use it”. A warrior is a warrior with or without their war paint. But there’s something about it that completes the picture when it is there.
Furthermore, never before had I noticed the sense of agency makeup can provide. Alonzo framed makeup as a second wardrobe that allows you to ask, “Who do I want to be today?”. Maybe today you’re pretty in powder pink, but tomorrow you’re easing down the road in ruby red. And there’s something viscerally powerful about having that choice.
As the conversation shifted, these representatives explained how CoverGirl hoped to go beyond empowering the individual. It was about creating a movement that encouraged the masses to break traditional beauty standards. And Ojo understood the heavy responsibility companies like it had in this revolution. She explained that in choosing the next CoverGirls they were making a cultural statement about what beauty is. Their goal was to broaden that definition to reach as many people as possible. That meant representing different races and ages, and even changing how makeup was marketed.
There are countless makeup ads with great lighting and pretty faces guaranteeing to give you more volume, more color, more life than any other product before it. But where was that pretty face from? What was she doing in that bold new mascara? Where was she going in that mysterious smoky eye? Past makeup ads failed to show women in their full humanity. And as Rae viewed it, showing flaws is a part of that humanity. CoverGirl is aiming to put women, and by extension makeup, in context. The new wave of ads spotlight women with commas; women who have careers, social lives, families, and who just so happen to wear makeup. Women who wear makeup to pull together a pants suit before an important meeting. Women who put on makeup as a sacred bonding ritual with friends. Women who are real, and multifaceted. And as I came to realize, women who are just like me. When makeup is presented as a part of a larger process instead of the process itself, it seems more coherent with reality. As Alonzo put it, they were marketing in a way that is true to user experience.
So, I was missing a couple commas in my previous definition of makeup. Makeup can be defined as a complex boundary shaker of femininity and beauty old and new, art, war paint, a closet of flaws and full humanity. And in that new light, gone was the former sense of its frivolity. And while I don’t think I’ll be plunging headfirst into the cosmetic world, I definitely found my resolution. Congratulations Issa Rae for your new title as CoverGirl.