Is the No Makeup Revolution Empowering Women?

by Ada Ciuca
Mar 14, 2018

Scroll through the more than 15 million photos on Instagram proudly displaying the #NoMakeup hashtag, and you'll see a diverse range of bare, smiling faces, often captioned with affirmations of self-love and confidence.

The makeup industry itself is flourishing — with $62 billion in revenue in 2016. Even Tina Fey hilariously (and painfully) declared while hosting the Golden Globes: "It took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman." So, what is up with all the women going au naturel?

This surge in online barefaced selfies with celebratory captions is being dubbed "The #NoMakeup Revolution." It became mainstream in May 2016, when Alicia Keys of "Fallin'" fame penned the viral "Time to Uncover" essay for Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter.

In the piece, Keys announced her intentions to stop covering her face with makeup. She walked the walk and appeared makeup-free at the Grammy Awards, MTV's 2016 Video Music Awards and during her coaching stints on NBC's "The Voice."

"I don't want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth," wrote Keys in her essay read by women around the world. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why Is #NoMakeup Resonating Now?

Let's get one thing straight: The beauty industry is making bank. Cult favorite millennial brands like Glossier and Milk Makeup are attracting tons of social buzz. And YouTube's beauty gurus — video bloggers who create makeup tutorials and have amassed huge online followings — are now appearing on magazine covers and even shows like "Dancing with the Stars."

So how has the #NoMakeup movement risen in the midst of a flourishing beauty industry? First, there's a resounding desire to have the choice of going makeup-free (and not being judged for it). In addition, the rise of the self-love and body positivity movements are empowering women to love themselves as they are and encouraging participation, regardless of shape, size, race or any other appearance-based factor — increasing the visibility of those not catered to by traditional media outlets.

Women are supporting each other in the realization that their worth isn't based on their looks. When they do choose to dabble in fashion, makeup and other activities traditionally known as appearance enhancers, they do it for themselves. And in today's social media-driven world, what's more celebratory than a public Instagram denouncement of society's unachievable beauty standards?

Are Women Empowered?

"I once calculated how many hours I spent having my hair and makeup done during the campaign. It came to about 600 hours, or 25 days," writes Hillary Clinton in her "What Happened" memoir. Imagine: That was 25 days of makeup time that her male political competitors had for themselves that they could spend in meetings, preparing their speeches or just relaxing. Getting that time back for ourselves, as women, can certainly empower us to have more time to spend as we wish — on ourselves, on our families, on our friends and on our work and creative pursuits.

"When I was young, I was completely obsessed with having full makeup at all times," says Holly Perkins, Instagram influencer and founder of the strength-training online community Women's Strength Nation. "Before I learned to source a sense of beauty from within, I relied on makeup to make me feel good about my appearance."

Today Perkins is a fan of minimal makeup, indulging in BB cream, blush and her favorites — lash extensions. Her social media presence? A direct reflection of this lifestyle: "I really want to be embraced for me, and I avoid adjusting my photos to have a retouched or polished look," she says.

"I think it's important to add a dose of real life to your channels. You have people looking up to you, comparing themselves to you, and I believe it's your responsibility to be real." —Sophie Gray, influencer

Across Insta-land, the sentiment is echoed. The four influencers LIVESTRONG interviewed for this story, all of whom weave self-love and positive energy themes into their accounts, spoke of a shift in their relationship with makeup: It stopped feeling like a need.

"I think makeup is a beautiful tool, but often used to hide ourselves," influencer Sophie Gray says. A pillar of the shift toward more "real" Instagram content, Gray — whose bio appropriately reads, "It's time to accept the s**t out of yourself" — used to get professional makeup done for her social media photos.

"I would receive comments about how 'flawless' my skin is — and it wasn't," she says. "I think it's important to add a dose of real life to your channels. You have people looking up to you, comparing themselves to you, and I believe it's your responsibility to be real."

Kali Kushner, who runs the Instagram account @myfacestory, where she documents her journey to naturally healing cystic acne, agrees. "I think my Instagram has transformed into a platform many people can relate to," Kushner, who often posts makeup-free selfies, says. "We're tired of seeing perfect, photoshopped faces and bodies. We're pushing back: No filters, no amazing angles and no makeup; bringing a little reality to the hyperreality."

So why is it so significant that influencers like Kushner and Paige Billiot (who founded the Flawless Affect Campaign, an online creative outlet which showcases participants "flaws" through photography) feel excited about posting their skin in its natural state online? It means that skin conditions are one step closer to gaining mainstream visibility and awareness is growing about the unfair behaviors people who suffer from them have experienced.

Traditionally, having these conditions, such as Kushner's cystic acne or Billiot's port wine-stain birthmark (a discoloration of the skin caused by a vascular anomaly), has been seen, unfortunately, as an invitation for societal stares and comments. In a survey on the well-being of acne sufferers by the British Skin Foundation, a charity organization that funds research around skin diseases, it was found that close to half of 878 participants had been verbally abused because of their condition, with 17 percent of participants admitting to self-harming as a result of their skin.

Dr. Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, told Get the Gloss, "As issues with skin are so outwardly visible to others, it is not surprising that those who suffer may also feel embarrassment and psychological distress…. The preoccupation society and social media have with self-image and their stigmatization of perceived imperfections only creates further pressure."

Alas, the tables are turning. Kushner's selfies — sometimes bare, sometimes makeup-clad, sometimes covered in acne-fighting products — radiate positive vibes with her warm smile and sunny glow. Billiot, who wore makeup to hide her scar, now uses it to "highlight my flaw to show that it is what makes me flawless." And sometimes she just lets her birthmark shine as is.

"I feel very empowered when I see others being proud of who they naturally are, whether it's barefaced or not," Billiot says. "It's not about what you do and what you don't. It's more about knowing the difference between want and need." And to these women, the #NoMakeup movement has sent the message loud and clear: You don't need makeup to be beautiful.

The Celebrity Factor

While the everyday woman now feels comfortable carrying the movement (as demonstrated by 15 million Instagram #NoMakeup selfies) and ultimately benefiting from it, it's hard to ignore the celebrity factor. If Keys' had not written her reflective essay and stepped out fresh-faced, would the hashtag have taken off on its own? If celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Lovato hadn't joined in on Keys' plea, would it have died down?

From a scholarly perspective, "It is unclear what the effects are of celebrity activism," University of South Carolina sociology professor and "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame" author Mathieu Deflem says. "It does bring certain issues to the foreground, but it also is done so much these days by so many celebrities that it may lose influence."

Robin Hornstein, psychologist and clinical director of Hornstein, Platt & Associates Counseling and Wellness Centers, believes there's value in celebrity involvement: "It is a statement to the nonfamous among us that we are so much more than a look based on primping and preparing," Hornstein, an eating-disorder specialist who has worked with girls and women around body-image issues for years, says. "I think someone as talented as Alicia Keys saying this with her no-makeup stance vivifies it for the greater public."

The greater public, like Gray and Kushner, appreciate celebrities' contributions as reminders that everyone is human. For Kushner, it's a sign of relatability. For Gray, "it's helping 'even the playing field.'" And although some critics have penned celebrities' #NoMakeup selfies as humble brags or as perpetuating an unrealistic idea of what natural beauty should look like, "the conversation is more focused on embracing your natural face — not embrace my natural celebrity face," Gray says. So it's important to take in inspiration; not comparison.

Ultimately, celebrity involvement should be appreciated — but not romanticized. "I think it's important to acknowledge those who began the movement and dealt with the initial backlash," Kushner, who started her account four years ago in a landscape not yet tapped by celebrities, says. For her part, Gray believes it's important to recognize privilege. "Celebrities are more likely to be celebrated [for going without makeup], whereas others may be discriminated against."

The Subtle Effects of #NoMakeup

When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared without makeup during a business trip to China, Bangladesh and India, both the Daily Mail and Fox News published articles pointing out her "tired and withdrawn appearance." In a mini social experiment, then-Bustle writer Brinton Parker went to class wearing different levels of makeup (none, average and party mode) to gauge peer reactions and was shown concern for her health and well-being when wearing none.

What is the common thread? Whether on a large or small scale, women's appearance is still free game — and a bare face is enough of an anomaly to get people talking.

However, woman or man, Instagram user or not, as the phenomenon continues to translate to the offline world and women shift from the "need makeup" mentality to the want (or not want) mentality, the subtle psychological effects of the movement begin to take shape: "Our brains look for patterns as well as stimulation," Hornstein says. "When something is seen in a repetitive fashion, we quickly become desensitized, as we no longer need to scan for a response (the most basic responses being fight, flight or freeze). When we normalize something, we are actually becoming more efficient in our life, as we don't need to make a big deal of it."

So let's say women like Gray, Kushner, Perkins and Billiot live their offline lives in the same manner as on social media — some days it's no makeup, some days it's a full face, some days it's in between. Say their followers feel empowered to do the same. Say this growing network of women march to the beat of their own drum and showcase their skin — cystic acne, port wine-stain birthmark and all — and as they come in contact with each other, or with men that are initially shocked, there is a realization that everyone has "imperfections," but they do not need to be hidden. Say it all becomes normal. Guess what: For these women, it is becoming normal.

"When we normalize something, we're actually becoming more efficient in our life, as we don't need to make a big deal of it." —Robin Hornstein, clinical director

"When I wasn't comfortable with myself, I felt like I needed to wear makeup to make me feel something that I felt I needed to live a happy life. Now I don't feel like I need to do anything. When I wear makeup, it's because I want to," Billiot says. Talk about empowering!

About the Author

Ada Ciuca is a writer and editor at LIVESTRONG, covering stories on body image, self-love and celebrities. You're probably saying her name wrong. Catch her on Instagram and Twitter @adachooka and see more of her work at adaciuca.com.

Photography Credit:
Scott Clark

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