This is not news to those who are prominent in beauty culture. After all, they’re often famous because of social media, and when they choose to make a beauty line, it’s not just about cashing in — most of the time they feel insecure, and they use cosmetics to help themselves feel better and want to share those to make others feel better too. But this becomes a vicious cycle, and it’s hard to step back.
Michelle Phan, an early influencer and Ipsy co-founder, confused the beauty community when she stopped posting online in 2015. Two years later, she restarted her makeup line, Em Cosmetics, which she bought back from L’Oréal, and sold her stake in Ipsy. “Once, I was a girl with dreams, who eventually became a product, smiling, selling and selling,” she said in a 2017 video explaining her departure. “Who I was on camera and who I was in real life began to feel like strangers.” She added: “My insecurities got the worse of me. I became imprisoned by my own vanity and was never satisfied with how I looked. The life I led online was picture perfect. But in reality, I was carefully curating the image of a life I wanted, not had.”
Working within the system, Rae was trying to address the way that she was also torn apart by a lot of the same concern over her looks that other people had. She even built vulnerability into the branding of her makeup line. Last year, Rae and Item sold a round, orange-colored compact, and when you opened it, it had a mirror with the words “I love you say it back.” This was a riff on a popular meme, a standard-issue message of girlboss empowerment but also an acknowledgment of widespread insecurity that Rae, and the person buying the compact, might feel.
I thought that was sweet, but an intimate relationship with the idol was also what the consumer was demanding. A display of insecurity from Rae, or at least an acknowledgment that Rae might look in the same mirror and need a jolt of confidence the same way the consumer does, may be part of that. “Relatability is the No. 1 thing that makes people click ‘check out,’” Sarah Brown told me.
It was hard to tell whether Rae was truly insecure or simply using a marketing tactic to gain fans. “Everybody is insecure about their bodies, and the more our culture gets visual, the more insecure we’ll all get, and it doesn’t matter how you look objectively one bit,” Widdows, the philosopher, told me. “So it’s not implausible to think even the most beautiful celebrities might also be insecure. In fact, it’s very plausible to think they are. But to say that they suddenly stopped being insecure because they put their own lipstick on, I find much less plausible.”
Still, the psychological flytrap in this kind of rhetoric — “I want you to know your body is perfect even though you’re buying this product to look like me, and I am insecure about my looks” — was powerful, and stars other than Rae were gesturing to it as well. When I asked Camberos, the beauty executive, where he saw beauty culture today and where it was going, he said it was connected to the issue of mental health. Rae told British Glamour that she felt she was in a good place regarding her appearance lately and quoted the saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When asked about what she was proudest of, though, Rae said, “Just staying mentally healthy has been a really big accomplishment for me.”
It was a bit chilling to think about linking these two things, a beauty brand and mental health, especially as our era of global pandemic comes to a close and we emerge in the light, blinking, looking to create new idols. In September, Selena Gomez, who has been open about her bipolar disorder, introduced her own line, Rare Beauty. In marketing efforts, the company, which offers soft concealers, foundations and blushers, vowed that “we will use makeup to shape positive conversations around beauty, self-acceptance and mental health.” And shortly before the musician Halsey began promoting her new makeup line in early 2021, she chose to post an old photo of her emaciated body on Instagram, explaining that she suffered from an eating disorder. Kylie, too, recently put a saying from a self-help author on her Instagram — “may the dark thoughts, overthinking, and doubt exit your mind right now,” it read in part — along with a photo of a bathtub and naked legs, slightly covered in suds, against which rested a clear pink bottle from her skin-care line.