Crisis in Cosmetology


Our Correspondents


I’ve started to realize how homely I’ve become. I look like crap. I need a total makeover.

When I was a teenager, and then into my twenties, I would never have let this happen. Back then, I was mad for makeup. I read Glamour and Seventeen with the intensity of a Talmud scholar. It was the pre-hippie days, and no one wanted to look natural. Being a young woman meant knowing about eyelash curlers, and the right hairdo for your face shape (there were only three choices: round, triangle, or square), and how to cover acne pustules with thick sheets of foundation. I worshipped at the altar of every department-store cosmetic counter. With the right mascara, lipstick, and face powder, my life had limitless possibilities. 

Now, determined to recapture the promises once offered to me by Revlon, Estée Lauder, and Max Factor, I returned to my favorite beauty magazines, but nothing resonated. Long ago, I had come to grips with the fact that my face is shaped like a parallelogram—a new hairdo couldn’t save me anymore. I had to take drastic measures. I went on YouTube.

I mean it as a high compliment when I say that YouTube is the waste bin for popular culture. It still amazes me that everything I’m interested in is there, from cargo cults to people getting their ears cleaned on the streets of New Delhi. Ordinary people become YouTube sensations by being beautiful or cool, young or outrageous, or all four. This is the land of beauty hacks: I felt I was in the right place.

My first shock was that the beauty tips I learned way back when don’t exist anymore. Nobody curls their eyelashes or wraps their bouffant hairdo with toilet paper before bedtime to keep it fresh. No one wants to look simply pretty. The new buzzwords are hot, mean, bad, sexy, or freak.

The hosts of some YouTube beauty shows are slick professionals, but the majority are women with smartphones. Their studios are often their bathrooms, lit by fluorescents or dangling bulbs with no shade. You see into their real lives—most clearly through their medicine cabinets, opened to reveal stool softener and generic ibuprofen. The camera has been placed on the ledge of the sink so there is one angle, shot from below, looking up the nose.

In my quest to look less hideous, I stumbled upon a true subculture. YouTube beauty experts do not operate in a void. They monitor one another relentlessly, which leads to feuds as caustic as, but far more real than, those in professional wrestling. Before the lipstick or eyebrow pencils are brought out, they talk smack about the competition, posturing, preening, and making threats.

The problem is, there’s only so much to say about eyeliner, which takes up maybe twenty seconds of airtime. No one wants a twenty-second show, so the beauty experts fill you in on their boyfriend problems, what they had for lunch, and what they plan to wear to the prom. It aims to sound like girl talk between best friends, but I don’t talk to my best friends in the bathroom while I look up their noses.

Worse still, I found that watching these beauty tips did nothing to help me. If anything, I came away worse. I learned that no one pencils in their eyebrows anymore—instead, you must spend eight hundred dollars for “Instagram eyebrows,” which necessitate microblading, a multisession procedure that uses tattooing to make wispy brows look as thick as Hitler’s mustache.

Almost as popular is the art of contouring. This is not regular contouring, which meant, I thought, adding a subtle bit of blush on the sides of the nose to make it look thinner. This new-school contouring is an extremely labor-intensive, time-consuming endeavor that requires greasy makeup in ten different skin shades, plus myriad brushes, sponges, and blending tools. First, you erase your real face by coating it with white, like a Kabuki actor. Then, tediously, bit by bit, you draw on your new face: you give yourself cheekbones, a strong jawline, a narrow nose, and a cleft chin, or until you look less like a human being and more like a monochromatic Paul Klee painting. Then you take the numerous buffers and sponges and polish the new face until it does not look drawn on.

Along with your tattooed brows and mosaiclike face, you must learn the “smoky eye” with a good “cut crease and wings,” meaning you have extended your eyeliner like a Cadillac’s tail fins. I don’t want to spoil your fun—you could discover a hundred ways to look great—but I will testify that the hemorrhoid cream Preparation H does not shrink your under-eye bags. And the special facial that requires grinding up a bottle of aspirin in the blender with a tablespoon of yogurt: it will peel the paint off your house.

I am too old for this quest. I prefer looking like crap.


Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Sterns recently donated forty years of archival materials to the Smithsonian museum, documenting the atmosphere, stories, and history of various restaurants, diners, and regional food events.