The Birth of a Beauty Criticism
Appearance is no longer just a topic for fashion ads and how-to guides
WHEN I first started my blog The Beheld, I spent a good deal of time clicking refresh on one particular website. It was Beauty Schooled (now in archive form), a blog by journalist Virginia Sole-Smith, who was chronicling her experience as a student at “Beauty U,” a cosmetology school where she and fellow enrollees spent 600 hours learning the ins and outs of the beauty trade. Sole-Smith never intended to become a practicing aesthetician; her goal was to understand the beauty industry as an insider and then couple that with her reporting skills and feminist sensibility to fill in readers on what she terms “the human cost of beauty.” She also scooped the New York Times on nail salon labor issues by eight years.
The blog was insightful, funny, and thoroughly engaging. It was also, at the time, the only ongoing body of beauty criticism I could find. There were individual essays and reported articles critiquing beauty culture and, of course, books on the matter. But this was 2011, years into the blog explosion, yet I couldn’t find anyone besides Sole-Smith who was primarily examining this thing that took up so much of my own mental real estate. There were straightforward beauty bloggers and vloggers aplenty—women (they were nearly all women) sharing product reviews, tutorials, and “haul videos.” There were also bloggers devoted to critiquing specific angles of beauty: beauty chemists demystifying the science of skin care, or natural beauty bloggers commenting on nontoxic products, each of which lent itself to a roundabout critique of beauty, but with built-in limitations.
As far as I could tell, though, it ended there. And so, after I’d pack up my writing and scholarly reading for the day but still crave a fix, there I’d sit at Beauty Schooled, clicking refresh, just hoping that the only other person out there I could find who was devoted to looking at beauty with an eye not unlike mine—critical of beauty culture but not immune to reveling in it, feminist yet neither dismissing beauty as a patriarchal construct nor embracing it as a pop-feminist act of “I choose my choice!”—had posted something new in the past thirty seconds. Click, refresh, please.
It’s hard to imagine myself clicking away at the refresh button were I to start The Beheld today. Instead, I’d turn to Racked for articles on men’s “anti-grooming,” or essays on the beauty standards of colonialism; I’d follow around Jane Marie and hope for more on Botox or identical rebranded products. I’d bookmark xoVain, The Cut, and The Gloss, parse Reductress for its underlying critiques of the beauty industry, and would save Refinery29 for dessert. On lazy days, I’d just refresh the #beyonce hashtag wherever I was parked at the moment. Beauty criticism has never existed in the way that fashion criticism has; beauty criticism isn’t even a thing per se. But the confluence of professional bloggers, social media, and pop feminism means that it’s thriving nonetheless.
In some ways it’s odd that it took as long as it did for beauty commenters to emerge. Back before there was such a thing as professional bloggers, the Wild West sensibility of the blogosphere seemed like it could’ve been fertile ground for an intellectual spin on beauty. But beauty made for a slippery topic in the semi-pro blogging boom. It lived between spheres: Straight-up beauty bloggers were attracting attention, both in page views and in ad dollars and sponsorship, but the emphasis was on reviews and tutorials with only the occasional aside to beauty’s larger implications. Theorists and feminist thinkers penned the occasional post or essay on appearance, but rarely stuck to it long enough to develop a body of criticism. That’s understandable—feminist bloggers have plenty on their plates without devoting more than the occasional piece to beauty, and it can be difficult enough for gender issues to gain hold in the public consciousness without getting into the sidebar of how it intersects with appearance. There were body-positive bloggers and fat activists who developed sharp critiques of the thin standard, extending to the beauty standard overall. But if there were writers before 2012 who were overwhelmingly devoting their energies to comprehensive critiques of beauty—makeup, hair, the accoutrements of femininity, and why we choose to style ourselves the way we do—I didn’t find them.
Around that time, things began to change, and quickly. I did run into more criticism along the lines of what I was attempting to do—Wild Beauty, Makeup Museum, and Zara Stone come to mind; I found like-minded fashion bloggers whose writing seemed similar to mine. But what really changed was instead of toiling away on WordPress, highly visible platforms like Racked, Refinery29, Bustle, Broadly, and Jezebel emerged. Some of these had been around for years, but they’d been seen as alternatives to traditional media instead of as mainstream media in and of themselves. The voices were diverse, but together they created a unified vision of a world where we could talk about beauty pageants and have it not be written off as silly. Single-author blogs began to dwindle; the phrase “blogs are dead” began to ping about with alarming regularity. In 2014 I gathered with fashion artist Danielle Meder and other writers to mourn the death of the fashion blog at St. Mark’s Cemetery—an event that Meder then wrote about in the Globe and Mail, perhaps proving the point.
Blogs as we knew them might have died, but criticism has grown. Refinery29 and Racked particularly stand out as representing popular beauty criticism, even though they’re primarily known as fashion sites, a term that not long ago meant coverage of, not commentary on, those topics. Each hosts plenty of standard trend reporting (“The Top 2016 Nail-Color Trends to Try Right Now”). But they’re helmed by women who are organically tapped into the power of the “influencer,” because they’re influencers themselves.
These sites’ connection with their users relies on authenticity—that elusive, precious commodity that can so easily dissolve once it’s articulated. But they’re protected from the relentless expectation of authenticity that individual influencers have. The user understands she’s engaging with a company, not an individual, which, at its best, actually allows individual writers to be more candid without shattering the illusion of a comprehensive “authenticity” that’s proved problematic for one-woman Instagram shows. That candid sensibility also translates to a diversity that sets them apart from their corporate cousins; an essay about fetishizing Indian weddings would likely have been deemed “too specific” by their magazine predecessors 10 years ago. Now, of course, magazines are tripping over themselves to echo the success of online platforms—which, in the case of hiring a more diverse set of writers, serves them well.
It’s worth noting that all these sites, though they publish beauty criticism, are known either as general women’s sites or as fashion sites that also dabble in beauty, not beauty sites per se. Fashion criticism, both of the New York Times variety and the accidental commentator, became a genre because there was something specific to critique: designers. Beauty criticism has no such luxury. There are makeup design houses of sorts—the Smashboxes and MACs of the world, plus all the fashion houses that have makeup lines—and beauty writers seize the opportunities those creatives give them, waxing rhapsodic about packaging or new formulas.
But key differences shape fashion and beauty criticism: With few exceptions, makeup is anonymous (it takes a mighty skilled eye to identify a stranger’s eyeshadow as Urban Decay, whereas even I am able to occasionally point out a Calvin Klein dress). And unlike the haute couture fashion collections that make for good copy but rarely get worn by the hoi polloi, for the most part makeup is priced to be purchased and worn by its enthusiasts.
These factors, coupled with the fact that you are not swaddling your body with fabric but coloring your face, mean that beauty is more intimate than fashion, which makes its criticism more personal. The intimacy of beauty criticism shines brightest in the first-person essays that mark much of the field. It sets the stage for us to see the layers of meaning in even the most straightforward beauty media: When YouTube star Raye of ItsMyRaeRae vlogs about hair extensions and muses on their visibility, chances are she’s not thinking of herself as a critic, she’s simply telling her viewers why double-wefted extensions create a more natural look. The lesson on beauty work and visibility remains, as does the intimacy. It’s no accident that self-help and beauty overlap to such a degree; Raye broadcasts advice on overcoming anxiety and depression to her million-plus followers.
The shift of beauty writing from magazines to blogs to multi-author blogs to columns and essays in outlets that are tantamount to magazines is a tremendous change in beauty criticism. But what really changed was feminism, or how feminism was perceived. It wasn’t that long ago that the standard twentysomething line was I’m-not-a-feminist-but; now it’s more like, I’m-a-feminist … but. Feminism is on premium cable, non-premium cable, and the Video Music Awards. It was (sorta) the word of the year for 2014, remember?
There are valid criticisms aplenty of the mainstreaming of feminism, but one of its undeniable upsides is that it became seen as perfectly valid to write about and for women. My own solution to not being taken seriously as a writer has always been to not write for men. That any men read The Beheld pleases and puzzles me in equal measures; I’ve never equated having a male readership, or even being published in “general interest” publications, with legitimacy. The new beauty criticism sites are for women, but they don’t let that constrain their attention. They’ve learned that a female audience means an audience that has absorbed “the personal is political” and can handle a little intellectual roughhousing mixed in with the best nude lipsticks of winter. It’s not an either-or proposition, which the women at the top of new(ish) media outlets intuitively understand. Put more women’s names on a masthead and you’re likelier to see “fluffy” topics like beauty given a more thorough treatment.
Where I used to click “refresh” on Beauty Schooled, now my Pocket quickly becomes overwhelmed with must-read pieces, not to mention the more casual one-liner critiques that pop up on my social media feeds. The more I read about beauty, the more I learn—but without a strong critical tradition that I can take refuge in, the more my thinking becomes fractured, my mission unclear. Participating in the culture of criticism easily turns to merely reacting, at least it does for me. Reading critics I respect is a gift; I’m stirred upon reading pieces like Arabelle Sicardi’s “Beauty Is Broken” or Anne Helen Petersen’s “Pretty Girl Privilege.” But being stirred is only a step away from being agitated, which is how I begin to feel as I scan my Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feeds. I once bemoaned the dearth of beauty criticism. Now I can’t keep up.
Danielle Meder ended her missive about the death of fashion blogs with a call to action: “We all agreed that being a blogger isn’t a big enough dream for us,” she wrote. “Now we are more ambitious. It’s time to make art.” I have no such mission, no such goal. I can’t even take the obvious corollary here and say that now it is time to write. Writing is what I’ve been doing all along. For me, criticism was secondary to expression, exploration. I want to take in more smart writing about beauty. But I admit that the part of me that is made dizzy by all the commentary hesitates to urge others to create more.
What I’d ask for instead is an embrace of nomenclature. The first time somebody called me a cultural critic, I refused the label, not out of any don’t-label-me individualism but out of a feeling I hadn’t earned it. Which I haven’t, traditionally speaking: I’m embarrassingly undereducated in theory, my background is in journalism, not history or sociology or any of the fields I try to draw upon, and I’d call myself “self-taught” in criticism were it not for its implication that I were doing more of that teaching than I actually am. I don’t refer to myself as a “cultural critic” or a “beauty critic”; I refer to myself as a writer. But I wonder about that most elemental of feminist tests: If I were a man who had spent years considering and assessing a single topic, would I feel uncomfortable about the label?
There is no “school of thought” in the media I’ve mentioned here, including the media I’ve helped create. But there is a body of criticism in it. It’s loose, organic, and not at all comprehensive, which is to its benefit. It is criticism in its infancy, but it’s criticism nonetheless, and I want the minds contributing to its beginnings to say so. I don’t expect the woman filming haul videos from her bedroom to unwittingly whip up an ontology of beauty or to become the Slavoj Žižek of mascara. But I’d like to see her try.