As a general rule, we tend to see makeup as frivolous and superficial, as if it lacked relevance beyond its aesthetic function. However, according to Canadian poet Daphné B.’s book Made-Up: A True Story of Beauty Culture under Late Capitalism, it is a cultural artifact that explains a great deal about the world today. Put differently, makeup offers an interesting way to analyze socioeconomic reality because it touches on issues of race, politics, economics and social media. In our current age of selfies, makeup has become increasingly important.
For example, many celebrities now have their own makeup brands. Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Drew Barrymore and others have capitalized on their public images to sell cosmetics. Kylie Jenner has built a veritable empire by selling makeup kits with lipstick and eyeliner. The makeup industry generates billions of dollars and inspires people around the world, including the author. Daphné B is a big consumer of makeup and views a lot of YouTube beauty tutorials. That passion has put her in a paradoxical situation because makeup also has negative associations, particularly with racism and oppression. But can things be different in the future?
Question. In the book you say that you wear makeup every day. What is your relationship with makeup like, and why is it so important to you?
Answer. I started wearing makeup at a young age. As I explain in my book, I had a very controlling mother; [she] controlled my body, my appearance. Putting on makeup… [seemed like] a way to free myself, to regain some power [and] self-determination, since I could alter my appearance and decide what I wanted to look like. I also say that, for me, makeup is above all a ritual, like having a coffee, for example. It helps me refocus and start my day. It’s something I enjoy doing and give myself permission to do, despite my busy schedule. I realize that for some people, makeup might feel like an obligation, but that’s not the relationship I have with it. For me, it’s pure pleasure, playing with colors and textures.
Q. You also spend a lot of time on YouTube watching makeup videos. At what point does makeup merge with sociology?
A. I spend a lot of time on YouTube and actually researched the sociology of social media at university. Watching tutorials, for me, is a bit like doing social studies. There are all kinds of communities on the web, and the beauty community on YouTube is one of those niches that is full of influencers, feuds and dramas. It’s not just about makeup, but about human and economic relationships. A whole market that has been turned upside down with the appearance of influencers. If we want to understand contemporary business, fashion and trends nowadays, we have to look at influencers, the economy of influence and the emotional bonds they create with their followers.
Q. Yet you argue that makeup is still seen negatively. Why is that?
A. For several reasons… Some of them go back to a binary conception of reality, implemented by Greek philosophers like Plato. It’s been a long time! But hey, these dualities have shaped our conception of the world and continue to do so. We have for example privileged the mind over the body, the inside over the outside. Makeup alters the body and its surface [and] is thus immediately degraded. Obviously, it has historically been associated with women, [who are] considered inferior, and sex workers.
We also tend to associate makeup with lies, subterfuge... In fact, makeup is a technology of the self and a technology of transformation. The real problem is that whatever changes or is fluid (and not stable), is scary. It plunges us into insecurity because it is nearly impossible to access certainty. Human beings like to believe that things are stable, unchanging. But we are constantly changing, mutating, aging, etc.
Q. For all these reasons, makeup is seen as something shameful, to be used in secret.
A. True. Ovid speaks of makeup as something women must use in secret in the Art of Love. [It’s] something shameful. In fact, women are forced to play paradoxical roles, [like] the mother and the whore; this is also implied in the “no makeup” makeup look. We want makeup that does not look like makeup. We criticize makeup because we believe it hides something, some kind of “truth,” but we also ask women to wear makeup while hiding the fact that they [are] wear[ing] it. [It’s] total hypocrisy. In this sense, it would be subversive to look made up, to [claim] your blush, your lipstick, your kohl.
Q. But in today’s selfie culture, it will become the product of the century.
A. That’s kind of what’s going on already. Our way of communicating and staging ourselves socially is incredibly visual, thanks to social media and the way they are designed. We always have an audience at hand. So yes, what alters the appearance of the face, the organ that we photograph the most, is very much [a] trend.
Let’s also think about our hands, which we often see in selfies. Manicures are becoming more and more popular and creative. We can also think of the filters that are applied to our faces in terms of “digital makeup.” Makeup is a commodity that markets itself well on social [media], and that influencers can endorse easily. Selling makeup is also a way to make money, because of the profit margins [involved]. So, [makeup] is a commodity that is easily marketed by lots of celebrities.
Q. You’ve said that you consume a lot of makeup, which creates a number of contradictions for you, such as the fact that it oppresses you and makes you feel better at the same time.
A. True! In fact, the whole book insists on the paradox that makeup represents, because I believe that it is constitutive of our century. I weave this paradox through the color schmoney, a dirty gray color that represents the violence of capital, as well as the money made clandestinely in order to survive. To live in the 21st century, to consume in the 21st century, is to occupy a paradoxical position. Finally, makeup is never “good” or “bad” in essence. Everything depends on its context.
Q. That’s not the only makeup-related contradiction you mention in the book. You also explain that using makeup represents an intimate moment for you, but on social media, companies use it to sell more products with the hashtag #selfcare.
A. Of course… The whole self-care thing has been picked up by companies that have capitalized on the formula. It’s now a slogan rather than a practice. Self-care can mean reading for 15 minutes before going to bed or taking a walk in the park. In fact, I am especially critical of the political dimension that has been attached to self-care, and which has largely deviated from its initial context. [The quote] “self-care as an act of political warfare” comes from the diary of the poet Audre Lorde, a black lesbian [who had] cancer. She explained that taking care of herself is a radical gesture, because her existence is improbable in a system that only wants to erase her, that wishes her [dead].
Q. You also discuss makeup’s negative aspects in terms of the environment, labor exploitation, racism and sexism.
A. Of course, makeup has a negative impact on the environment. But [that] is [true] of any merchandise. I think for example of cars, cell phones... It is the same [with] racism. We live in a racist world. In fact, we had to wait till Fenty in 2017 for the industry to be more inclusive in terms of foundation shades. If we want makeup to stop contributing to racism, sexism and pollution, it’s society that needs to be changed, not makeup. Everything that is inserted into a capitalist context participates in capitalism.
Q. How can makeup help change these dynamics?
A. I think that one way of changing the world, perhaps, is precisely to accept the change, the transformation that makeup highlights. Ultimately, we die. That, too, is a transformation that must be accepted. And if we manage to develop a more peaceful relationship with our ephemerality and fluidity, perhaps we would be less driven to accumulate wealth, regardless of the violence and destruction that this generates. For me, capitalism is also the negation of something. [It’s] the fantasy of an omnipotence that would overcome death.
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