As a teen in the '00s, I grew up with Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse and Lip Smacker lip balms. Everything my generation learned about makeup, through Sugar and Mizz magazines, TV and copying our mates in the school loos, was that it existed to conceal and enhance. Foundation was to cover your acne, mascara to elongate your lashes, blusher to add a light dusting of colour. Today, the average woman spends half an hour perfecting her 'natural' makeup look every day.
Gen Z are using makeup a little differently. Rather than painting on a more conventionally beautiful face, teens and young people are playing up their imperfections. Contouring and highlighting are out, emphasising your flaws is in.
Makeup and beauty influencer ThreeMillion tells me: "I definitely think people are less concerned about looking conventionally pretty. No one needs to fit a beauty standard in order to be validated." Inspired by fellow YouTuber Celia Leslie’s video, "Apparently it look like I got a cold makeup", Three quickly followed suit. "I fell in love with the idea of defying the beauty standard and breaking the rules," she says. "I love accentuating eye bags and putting heavy blush on the nose. I want to express how I’m feeling and some days, I do feel tired! So why not express that through my makeup that day? It’s also common to insult women who don’t wear makeup by saying they look 'tired' so as a way of challenging that, let’s create strikingly beautiful 'tired' looks."
Alice Ophelia and Faye Maidment, writers of the Gen Z commentary newsletter High Tea, say the shift from an airbrushed aesthetic to a warts-and-all, natural approach has a lot to do with quarantine. "Makeup most definitely had its moment pre-COVID," they tell me. "The world and his wife was bringing out makeup lines and it wasn't just from the beauty bloggers: Gaga, Shane Dawson and Millie Bobby Brown each brought out their own respective collections. Now quarantine is keeping us all indoors, many teens are not wearing as much conventional 'cover-up' makeup as before and intentional effortlessness is en vogue."
Global senior artist for MAC Cosmetics, Dominic Skinner, has other ideas about the root cause. He likens the current revolt against makeup perfectionism to the beauty rebellions seen in previous decades. The '80s saw the rise of messy punk looks and glamorous blue eyeshadow as popularised by Princess Diana, while the '90s were dominated by glamazon supermodels and unhealthy 'heroin chic' in equal measure. Similarly, Dominic thinks the current rejection of beauty norms in favour of tired eyes and flushed noses is a countercultural pushback from teens. He says: "They are taking the things many would consider covering with concealer and baking, and they’re making those features even more prominent."
In the wake of #MeToo, young women might be leaning away from the highly sexualised porn culture of the '00s and 2010s. From music videos like Britney’s "Baby One More Time" to glamour models Katie Price and Jodie Marsh splashed across the front pages of newspapers, the message was loud and clear: to be seen, women had to be sexy. Meanwhile 2019 saw Billie Eilish, a singer who wears baggy clothes in a bid to avoid being sexualised, top the album charts. The decision not to be sexualised is becoming popular in makeup, too. Dominic says: "Makeup is a snapshot of what is happening at the moment, and now, women are finally taking a stance against male oppression. These new looks say, 'I'm going to strip away any sense of attractiveness so that you just see me as a non-sexual person as opposed to an object to be desired.'"
Makeup has always been a marker of a subculture and that’s true of today’s youth tribes, too. E-girls started emerging in 2019 and the look is still a popular subset among teens online today. E-girls are marked out by their Sailor Moon-style skirts and layered T-shirts, borrowing heavily from anime and skater aesthetics, but it’s the e-girl makeup style that really sets this bunch apart.
Take a look at the #EGirlMakeup hashtag, which has 36 million views on TikTok, and you’ll find her look is characterised by heavy pink, red or purple eyeshadow on the lid and lower lash line, topped with angular liquid liner and a ton of blusher. Posted on Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, the look helps Gen Zers overtly identify as part of a subculture. High Tea authors Alice and Faye say: "While teens aren’t choosing to cover up as before, they are using it as a form of identity-forming, like a uniform or badge of honour. It’s a visible cue for a sense of belonging in a saturated social space."
Those palettes were put to good use this year when looks inspired by the teen drama TV hit Euphoria made a splash on TikTok (#EuphoriaMakeup has 44.23 million views). Gen Zers not ready to commit to totally subverting the beauty status quo experimented with daring looks like violet glitter tears, adding stick-on gems for extra drama. The finished effect is pretty, but not in the traditional sense.
The millennial teen owned a couple of nude eyeshadows. At a push she might have invested in an Urban Decay Naked palette. By contrast, Gen Z has grown up with the influence of more experimental characters on RuPaul’s Drag Race and YouTube, who in turn have inspired unconventional beauty trends. Today’s makeup addicts are equipped not just with nude tones but with the whole spectrum of colours in a Morphe palette.
The question is, will this current movement stand the test of time? Experimental makeup fan Olivya Nora tells me she’s excited to see 'ugly' makeup have its day in the sun but points out that, by definition, countercultural movements can no longer be defined as such once they become popular. She says: "When one person starts doing something new and out of the ordinary and receives good feedback, it’s only a matter of time until it reaches a creator that will pick it up, and another, and so on. Until unconventional becomes conventional, then we move on to the next!"