Why Makeup Is Making You Feel ‘Ugly’

Photographed by Paola Vivas
Over the last two decades, everyday makeup trends have become increasingly complex and creative. We blend, bake and contour our faces to both alter and enhance our features, and while this isn't necessarily a bad thing, makeup can certainly be a double-edged sword. If TikTok is anything to go by lately, the more confident young women feel with makeup on, the less confident they tend to be without it.
Not long ago, 19-year-old Makayla Figueroa-Bland went viral for admitting to her followers that she was dependent on makeup to make herself feel beautiful, rarely even letting her family see her without it. "When I put on makeup I looked better," Makayla told R29, "but I didn't feel better," and so she decided to go cold turkey and ditch it entirely. Makayla documented the experience on TikTok in a video captioned: "Not wearing makeup until I'm confident without it."
At first, not wearing makeup was challenging for Makayla. "I had a really hard time looking in the mirror because since school, I hadn't really allowed myself to not wear makeup," she told R29. But after a couple of weeks and with the support of her followers online, she began to feel more comfortable in her skin. "Now I am in a place where I can walk out the door with no makeup and feel more confident than ever."
Makayla isn't the only one to find makeup jarring. TikTok content creator Victoria Paris also achieved viral status by 'forcing' herself to stop wearing makeup every day in a bid to start feeling beautiful in her own skin. She said it's the best decision she ever made. Meanwhile TikToker Emelia Sleep also took to the app to discuss self-esteem and the impact of breaking up with makeup. "Wait til they realise that the key to confidence is to stop wearing makeup," Emelia captioned a video with thousands of views. "I haven't worn it for almost a year and a half now and THE BENEFITS it's had on my confidence AND personality is too powerful not to share!"

I used to feel like I wasn’t beautiful w out makeup and that’s never true

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Cosmetic surgery trends like the 'fox eye' lift have a lot to answer for, especially as modern makeup hacks are beginning to mirror them.

Taking a break from makeup isn't a revolutionary idea. For whatever reason, most people will have done it at some point. But whether it's influencer fatigue, living in the age of BeReal authenticity or a hangover from the pandemic (when we all spent much more time on skincare than on makeup, thanks to mandatory mask-wearing), more young people are reevaluating how makeup impacts their self-esteem. On TikTok in particular, #nomakeup and #nomakeupchallenge have 4.7 billion and 695 million views respectively.
So why the 180? Thanks to the abundance of makeup tutorials, not to mention social media and influencer culture, it's no wonder many of us might feel like the odd one out for not rocking a flawless cut crease and a crisp lip. But cosmetic surgery trends have a lot to answer for, especially as modern makeup hacks are beginning to mirror them.

I haven’t worn it for almost a year and a half now and THE BENEFITS its had on my confidence AND personality is too powerful not to share! 💛

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Take the fox eye, for example, which supposedly lends the face a 'snatched' look. The contentious procedure enlists PDO threads to lift the brows and eyes to a slant. Eventually these threads dissolve underneath the skin but countless TikTok and Instagram artists are now looking to face tape to create the unnaturally lifted effect on their clients while doing their makeup. In a recent Vogue interview, Bella Hadid revealed that her famous pulled-back brows are a result of the makeup technique, calling it "the oldest trick in the book".
A 2019 Vice UK poll found that 59% of young people view procedures such as lip filler as comparable to getting a haircut or a manicure. Filler no doubt made way for other trending procedures such as the 'lip flip' (enhancing lips with Botox) and 24-hour filler. The normalisation of lip plumping procedures seems to have kickstarted a handful of makeup trends. Think oval-lining (drawing over your Cupid's bow with lip pencil to make lips appear larger) and lip contouring, a trick that enhances their shape.
A quick scroll through before-and-after tutorials on TikTok or Instagram proves that makeup can be transformative but it also mimics beauty standards that are often set by surgeons and aestheticians, not to mention influencers with money. It's no wonder our confidence might plummet when we take the makeup off at the end of the day. Makeup is a powerful tool but have we lost sight of what our features really look like underneath it all?

Only clear skin is deemed worthy enough to boast about not wearing makeup. Sure enough, a quick scroll through TikTok's #nomakeup hashtag serves up hundreds of smooth and glowing faces without a single blemish.

When 19-year-old Mimi Francis was still in school, she couldn't imagine going a day without makeup, and winged eyeliner was a non-negotiable. "I was constantly trying to fix my insecurities by buying certain products or trying different techniques, as though my natural appearance was a work in progress," she told R29. Then Mimi moved from a small town to London. The bustling, eclectic city inspired her to break away from what she refers to as "damaging beauty standards".
Eighteen-year-old Jezabel Tokio also recently took a break from makeup when she realised that wearing a full face every day was making her more insecure. "I'd spend over two hours analysing every detail of my face and trying to 'fix' it to look more like a certain beauty standard," she said. Both women found that their self-esteem improved considerably once they stopped wearing makeup. "It helped my confidence so much to look in the mirror and see my natural face instead of an altered version of it," Mimi said. Jezabel began looking inwards for self-validation instead: "Nowadays, I wear makeup to enhance my natural features or to boost my energy, but it's no longer the foundation of my self-worth."
Educational psychologist Dr Dawn Starley explains that self-esteem is the disparity between our ideal self [arguably set by beauty standards] and our perceived current self. The bigger the gap, the worse our self-esteem. Wearing makeup can be a creative and exciting form of self-expression but Dr Starley says that feeling the need to hide our true selves under layers of makeup is where the situation becomes more negative and unhealthy.
A report published this year cited the Mental Health in Young People 2017 survey, commissioned by NHS Digital and conducted by the Office for National Statistics. It found that more than one in 20 women aged 17 to 19 experience body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Makayla, Mimi and Jezabel are far from alone in depending on makeup to feel beautiful. A 2019 Statista study found that 68% of 18 to 29-year-olds in the UK cite feeling more confident as the reason they wear makeup. "For many women, makeup use started in adolescence, at the point at which we most craved 'fitting in' and looking a certain way," says Dr Starley. "It is easy to make the connection between makeup and feeling good (or at least better) about the way we look."
The early-instilled reliance on makeup is often compounded by societal pressure to optimise our appearance through products, filters and cosmetic procedures, but beauty marketing has lots to answer for, too. It's no secret that brands prey on low self-esteem to sell products, promising things such as 'youth', 'radiance' and 'beautification'. Makeup might 'solve' a perceived problem in the short term but self-esteem goes beyond the skin. 
As someone who has struggled with confidence issues, Tatiana Escobedo is aware of how easily makeup can become a crutch for low self-esteem. The 24-year-old is cautious of discourse around not wearing makeup. She feels it excludes people with skin conditions such as acne (which affects 60% of people in the UK). Tatiana has noticed that social media's minimal makeup movement — or simply the trend for not wearing any makeup at all — tends to push a certain narrative. "Only clear skin is deemed worthy enough to boast about not wearing makeup," she says. Sure enough, a quick scroll through TikTok's #nomakeup hashtag serves up hundreds of smooth and glowing faces without a single blemish.
Actress Julia Fox recently went viral on TikTok for saying that ugly is 'in' for 2023: "Dirty girl, ugly, not wearing clothes that fit your body type [...] all those things are in." There is something liberating about not fitting into the world's cookie-cutter idea of beauty. But while makeup-free faces might become a popular accessory in 2023, Tatiana believes that it illuminates an exclusionary issue that resurfaces in beauty discourse online whenever 'ugliness' or 'man-repelling' becomes a new trend. If social media is anything to go by, the parameters of trending 'ugliness' are still in keeping with societal beauty ideals such as slimness, whiteness and clear skin.
"The real question is who gets to be ugly?" asked Jackie Adedeji in a recent R29 article. "As a Black woman," Jackie continued, "there has been plenty of messaging in my lifetime that has told me I am already ugly, and sure, I can define and reclaim ugly for myself, but not in the same way Julia Fox can." Jackie said that for Black women in particular, looking "undesirable" in the way Fox suggests "comes at a high societal cost with harsher penalties". Fox's comments on 'ugly' come from a place of privilege, wrote Jackie, as they are rooted in white femininity.
Whether you choose to ditch the makeup entirely is up to you. But Dr Starley suggests perhaps aiming to achieve a neutral attitude to it. Makeup is a free choice, she says, and should make you feel good rather than prevent you from feeling bad. She views the latter as a defensive, avoidance strategy. Dr Starley encourages checking in with yourself and your relationship with makeup by introducing a regular no-makeup day or choosing to go to a friend's place or the shop without wearing it. But taking the pressure off involves work. She suggests leaving notes of affirmation around the house to build positive self-talk, as well as spending more time doing the things you love and building relationships with people who make you feel good.
In recent months, we've also seen makeup artists begin to reject traditional notions of beauty. Take Terry Barber, who finds inspiration in the atypical. His Instagram feed is bursting with imperfect eyeshadow looks influenced by random objects and concepts, rather than trends and standards. Think burnt toast, chewing gum and cigarette butts. Then there's TikTok's @aoifeartist, known for her 'weird lip combos' and inventing curious trends like 'aura blush'. Makeup is evolving, and we're slowly but surely unravelling these unrealistic beauty goals.
Dr Starley believes that the trend for makeup breaks has the power to shift perceptions of beauty, not to mention social acceptability. Imagine a social media feed awash with examples of makeup-free beauty and competence, she adds, where everyone gets to feel beautiful. Certainly, makeup can be an empowering and enjoyable means of self-expression just as much as ditching it can help to repair a negative relationship with the self. Finding a balance between the two — and knowing what makes you feel good (not what society says looks good) — is a start in rebuilding the confidence that our obsession with particular notions of beauty has chipped away.

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