Those of us who have been subjected to feminine beauty standards will remember with some contempt the ‘Instagram makeup’ look of 2016. Pomaded, arched brows, full coverage foundation, and cheekbones painstakingly carved out of setting powder were the daily uniform. I stewed in envy when I overheard a girl in my 10th grade English class mention that she woke up at 4 AM to get the look down every day like it was nothing, just what was expected of her—her duty.
Content warnings: mentions of eating disorders, body image
Those of us who have been subjected to feminine beauty standards will remember with some contempt the ‘Instagram makeup’ look of 2016. Pomaded, arched brows, full coverage foundation, and cheekbones painstakingly carved out of setting powder were the daily uniform. I stewed in envy when I overheard a girl in my 10th grade English class mention that she woke up at 4 AM to get the look down every day like it was nothing, just what was expected of her—her duty that she fulfilled with the nonchalance and ease of putting on clothes for the day. I knew rationally that this was an unreasonable standard for a 16-year-old girl to meet just to go to school, but people were doing it regardless. I felt lazy and incompetent for failing to fall in step.
According to TikTok, standards have changed since then. The pressure women feel to ‘work hard’ on looking good every day has shrunk—cue the sighs of relief. Instead of necessitating hours’ worth of concentrated effort to produce an on-fleek eyebrow and eyeliner combo, injunctions given by beauty culture today appear at the root. The idea seems to be that in polishing, nourishing, and nurturing your body, you can unearth beauty that you already possessed, somewhere in there. Beauty not created by makeup, but hidden, found, and then fed by wellness.
As heralded by Kim and Khloe Kardashian’s rumoured removal of fillers and implants, the last embers of beauty-guru-glam’s reign of terror have been stomped out by the ‘clean girl’ look, a minimal iteration of ‘no-makeup makeup.’ Another ‘girl’ of TikTok’s invention has sprung to the fore: ‘THAT Girl.’ One of the most viewed TikToks on how to become ‘That Girl’ plasters the following injunctions over images of Green Goddess juices and grocery baskets brimming with kale and chard: “wake up before 8 AM, workout 4-5 times a week, follow a healthy diet.” ‘That Girl’ knows what to eat, when and how. She puts herself to bed with the right skincare routine and applies SPF first thing in the morning. She does Pilates three times a week.
The culture today might not outright demand that 4 AM before-school preening I saw in high school, but I find it even more insidious. The routine of anxious body-checking and excessive grooming is now relegated not just to preparations for school or going out, but before eating, before starting the day, before bedtime—we only pretend it isn’t.
I listened to an interview with a practising dermatologist who preached with all the zeal of a fresh convert that less is more —you don’t need a thousand different products to look good, and thank God we’re not doing the Kardashian thing anymore. Implying a moderate approach to skincare, the dermatologist chuckled at the idea that beauty influencers tout unnecessary twenty-step skincare routines, which only end up making them look greasy. She went on to describe an eight-step routine that even the laziest of us could use. The interviewer buzzed in agreement, lest we think her immoderate, that we have gone too far with the products and procedures. The reasonable thing to do, she said, is just go to a dermatologist for the “basic work”: fillers, Botox, and lasers. You know, the usual.
Though diet and beauty culture have always been inextricably linked, they are increasingly unified by this emphasis on natural beauty, and the result is a cultural obsession with micromanaging processes of the body. Traipsing along my explore page on any given social media platform, I am accosted by advice on how to eat well: don’t be overly preoccupied with food (lest you get diagnosed by the TikTok girlies), but don’t just eat whatever you want (you need to draw the line somewhere). Just eat intuitively, because only your body knows what it truly needs, but also you must have thorough nutritional knowledge from credentialed experts. Just do a little, but actually do a lot.
Although it wasn’t necessarily better, I find myself missing the culture of 2016, where memes about makeup were at least forthcoming about how long it took people to look on-trend. Now dermatologists, beauty influencers, and the girlies on TikTok put on this air of easy-breezy moderation when in reality, the prescribed rituals are incredibly demanding—oppressively so. The knowledge that even laypeople—who claim to be doing just the bare minimum—have of skin and the chemical complexities of skincare ingredients betrays a staggering investment that requires, just like orthorexia and other eating disorders, one to become a walking encyclopaedia of nutrition, physiology, and metabolism facts.
There is certainly a pleasure to be found in the process of researching, buying and applying elaborate skincare routines and—forgive the cliche—tending to your body as though it were a temple. Truthfully, on a good day, nursing my skin and body this way really does feel as though I am polishing some prized object for safekeeping with the delicate hands of an antique conservator.
But the incursion of this culture into “health” and “wellness” territory is frightening. It leverages misogyny, ageism, and racism to keep women anxious and preoccupied with halting the inevitable process of ageing. What is increasingly demanded of us, as good little consumers, is anxiety rooted in the assumption that you cannot just let your body be—exist as it is. Your body has to be controlled and normed and understood “scientifically” to this end—anti-ageing—which is supposedly okay because at least that means it’s ‘rational’.
Believe it or not, your body can be trusted to regulate eating on its own. Ageing is a gift that only some of us will be lucky enough to receive. We are intervening in processes that do not need intervention, and the intervention itself is the point—to keep us distracted, self-hating, and buying.