If The Future Is The Metaverse, Why Are We So Obsessed With Nostalgic Beauty?

Photographed by Myesha Evon Gardner.
Nostalgic Beauty in the Metaverse
Few things have brought me more unadulterated joy than the recent experience of ripping open a metallic purple bubble mailer and having two tubes of blush not much bigger than a D battery spill out. The mailer in question featured the (limited-edition) return of Tarte’s Cheek Stains — the brand’s first and most iconic product. In terms of formulation, color range, and packaging, the products are nothing special by today’s standards. But that’s just fine, because their appeal comes from somewhere else entirely: my memories. In my adolescence, making a beeline for the Tarte shelf at Sephora to smear on half-ravaged Cheek Stain testers in various states of use made me feel like the hottest girl at the Roosevelt Field Mall food court. Holding these tubes in my hand once more in 2022 had me feeling thirty, flirty, and thriving, full of nostalgia for a time when a quick swipe of blush invoked a sense of joy far more intense than anyone would expect from colored goo.
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Twenty-something years after my formative Sephora memories were made, beauty has boomed. You know that scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry and the gang are trying to steal a horcrux from a Goblin-run bank vault, and everything they touch multiplies until the trio is nearly crushed under the sheer weight of treasures? That’s an apt metaphor for the state of the beauty industry today. There are more products than faces out there to wear them. If you streamed every beauty tutorial on YouTube non-stop, it would likely be longer than the duration of the natural human lifespan.
Silicon Valley even has us buying virtual makeup products for our online avatars to wear. In a culture where your digital identity often takes precedence over who you are IRL, it’s not surprising that tech moguls and metaverse pioneers are eager to capitalize on our vanity. The constant nudging towards a pixelated lifestyle with endless face-snatching filters somehow competes with, as well as informs, the proliferation of new DTC skincare brands launching every day that promise to erase your flaws (that you weren’t even aware of until their solution was presented), elevate your bathroom sink (to post top-shelf brags on social media), and make you feel like you’ve finally gotten your shit together (clear skin, full hearts, can’t lose).

"In the past two years or so, we’ve been largely missing a sense of emotional safety and connection, as well as an outlet for self-expressive creativity and joy. Nostalgic beauty fulfills at least one of those, and in some cases (depending on your most memorable makeup products), the other as well."

Sable Yong
Having more inclusive options and accessibility so everyone can participate is a great thing. But sometimes when I open my overloaded medicine cabinet — which is currently bowing under the weight of dozens of cleansers, sunscreens, moisturizers, and serums — or when I have to forcefully slam my overstuffed makeup organizer closed, I find myself wishing for simpler times.
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Beauty brands like Tarte that built an empire based on blush sticks are responding to a call for comfort. It’s a simple-yet-effective bid for nostalgic beauty in a time of overstimulation and uncertain expectations. Lately, it’s been easy to get lost in the endless normalization of intricate makeup and skin-care routines in the name of keeping up with beauty trends born from social media. And while I can’t imagine life before double-cleansing and the invisible magic of Lashify’s false lash extensions, the satisfaction they offer is of a functional nature, devoid of the deep emotional resonance I shared with my earliest beauty product obsessions. In the past two years or so, we’ve been largely missing a sense of emotional safety and connection, as well as an outlet for self-expressive creativity and joy. Nostalgic beauty fulfills at least one of those, and in some cases (depending on your most memorable makeup products), the other as well.
Beauty has always been an indulgence and an escape. But while true “escape” from the woes of the world isn’t something most of us can realistically entertain (not all of us can afford a ticket to colonize Mars), we can indulge nostalgia instead, reminiscing about the beauty products that we remember making us feel happy and confident. When you remember that beauty often involves the making of the self — as much expression as it is armor — nostalgic beauty is an easy balm for uncertainty, at least on a superficial level. It reminds us of a time when we were hopeful for who we would become, as so many of us don’t feel in control of what’s going on in the world and our place in it.
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There may never have been a time totally devoid of social, political, and cultural upheaval. And considering the constant crush of unprecedented events overlapping within the last five years or so, uncertain times is an understatement. It is no wonder we are collectively reaching for the joy we remember before we knew too much.

"In a culture that emphasizes originality, individuality, and innovation, nostalgic beauty might at first seem lazy or unoriginal. But the intention of revisiting nostalgic trends isn’t about earnestly recreating them in their original form so much as it is reminiscing on the way we felt at the time, and maybe updating some of the better ones with a modern interpretation."

sable Yong
And that’s not necessarily a regression. We’re revisiting the pillars of our culture with new eyes, questioning our treatment of women, celebrity culture, and the damages that those attitudes wreaked on us. I look back on the things I obsessed over when I was younger (some of which were problematically marketed) and I remember the decadent joy that was Jessica Simpson’s Dessert body line, Benefit’s vintage Barbie doll branding, flavored roll-on body glitter, Lip Smackers, Bath & Body Works scented hand sanitizer gels, GAP Scents, even Axe body spray. I have little desire to retry orangey, cakey matte foundation or frosted eyeshadow and lipstick, but revisiting the cornerstones of my beauty upbringing, is an emotional detour to the person I was, who was so fundamental to who I am today.
Some of those trends are now coming back for a new generation to embrace. Ariana Grande’s buzzy R.E.M Beauty line launched with lip-plumping glosses that were based off the popular Lip Venom of the early aughts. Bath & Body Works re-released its best-selling scents from the ‘90s and early 2000s to much fanfare. Scent is a powerful vehicle for delivering memories, and the fact that there’s still a die-hard audience for the oldies demonstrates the chokehold nostalgic beauty has.
In a culture that emphasizes originality, individuality, and innovation, nostalgic beauty might at first seem lazy or unoriginal. But the intention of revisiting nostalgic trends isn’t about earnestly recreating them in their original form so much as it is reminiscing on the way we felt at the time, and maybe updating some of the better ones with a modern interpretation. It’s a glossy little slide down memory lane that reflects how far we’ve come since then, a marker that we can look back on with affection.
Recently, I opened a new bottle of Marc Jacobs Daisy Skies — a new limited-edition seasonal flanker spawned from the original 2007 Daisy. It smells similar, but it’s in a blue bottle and there's a misty, ocean breeze-like quality to it. It’s something new built from a longstanding affection for the familiar; the beauty industry has always benefited from betting on itself in that way. After spraying it on, I kept sniffing my wrist throughout the day, catching a familiar whiff of something sweetly calming, and I noticed that I’m a little less anxious, more at peace and cozy-feeling, and even a bit wistful. Nostalgic beauty allows us to take bits of the things we love with us as we continuously evolve and redefine ourselves, no matter what the future has in store.

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