Last weekend the social media sphere was treated to an increasingly common sight: an Instagram photo of a woman wearing no makeup.
This would have been about as notable as another puppy/baby/foreboding sky snap, except that the cosmetic-free female in question was Jennifer Aniston. The picture – a close up of Jen and her hairdresser Chris McMillan – was taken by McMillan, uploaded to his account and brandished with the #nomakeup hashtag. Like all Jennifer Aniston-related minutia, it was promptly picked up by an online gossip blog (or 10), and covered by the semi-legit likes of USA Today and the New York Daily News. Within a couple of days it was an international incident, spawning so many headlines that you'd think the royal baby had been reborn.
Spoiler alert: Jennifer Aniston is still attractive without makeup on. Newsflash: It was a good picture.
Most people don't post (or allow their hairdressers to post) unattractive photos of themselves on the Internet, and if they do, they are unlikely to use the #nomakeup hashtag, which is more-or-less social-media-speak for, "Aren't you impressed with my natural beauty?" It's still about vanity. The desired response isn't, "Wow – good for you for not focusing on your appearance," but "Gorgeous" or "Flawless" or "Stunning" (all comments posted to the Aniston photo). Just as the popular #nofilter hashtag is a way of pointing out that the sunset at your cottage is actually that beautiful (ie, no fancy photo tricks were used), #nomakeup signals that you are actually that, well, hot. In a humbly braggadocious kind of way.
To date, more than seven million Instagram users have published #nomakeup photos, which – even in the context of 130 million users – is a lot. Most of the images are of young women in their twenties and early thirties. Almost all of them are "selfies" (the millennial term for a snapped self-portrait) and while many of the conspicuously fresh faces are smiling, the majority adopt a pouty, come-hither expression.
"It's almost like they're saying 'look at how sexy I can look even without the smokey eyeshadow,'" says Andi Seisler, founder of Bitch magazine and occasional makeup wearer. Seisler, whose magazine observes pop culture from a feminist perspective, says the #nomakeup phenomenon is disturbing because it implies that wearing makeup is the accepted norm against which everything else is measured.
"When people say, 'Oh, I can't believe [Jennifer Aniston] let [her hairdresser] post those photos,' it is reinforcing this idea that women are the gatekeepers of their most valuable asset – what they look like," Seisler said. "It's not political, it isn't a statement … [It's not] Jamie Lee Curtis who mindfully posed with no makeup and no Photoshop," she says.
Where as Curtis's stance on aging naturally has always been about rejecting conventional beauty as the be-all, the current craze tells women that not only should they be good looking, they should achieve that without cover-up.
In his 2010 book The Authenticity Hoax, Canadian author Andrew Potter argues that our current obsession with what's real is, at it's core, totally contrived and trend-based. The fashion, food and tourism industries have all made a mint selling the the image of authenticity, rather than the reality itself. Similarly, the last time we saw the "authentic" Jennifer Aniston was in the late eighties (pre-nose job, pre-hair dye, pre-Atkins), and what of it? Most of us care what other people think about our appearance, but in the annals of narcissism, doesn't a little bronzer pale in comparison to the relentless pursuit of unnatural natural beauty? Before we worry about putting down the mascara wand, it's probably time to put down the camera.