Who Gets to Be Beautiful Now?

ONE OF THE indisputable positives of social media has been an expansion in who and what we consider beautiful. (One of the indisputable negatives has been an ever greater commodification of the self, but that’s a different letter altogether.) I am 46, old enough to remember when top models were almost uniformly white, tall and thin, and am still in awe of how, not so very long ago, many of today’s most compelling faces and bodies would never have found a career in fashion at all, rejected before they even tried for being too dark, too small, too large, too queer, too feminine, too masculine. The ability to say “I’m beautiful” — and to really, truly believe it — may not be a fundamental right, but it, too, is revolutionary in its way, reflective of contemporary upheavals in how we perceive race, gender, sexuality, ability and size. Who gets to be beautiful now? Anyone who believes themselves to be so.

VideoA history of modern beauty in four chapters.

Chapter 1: On the rise of strong “oriental” fragrances that reflected the political and cultural landscapes of their time, the 1980s.

Chapter 2: On ’90s-era advances in weaves, wigs and other Black hairstyles that ushered in a new age of self-expression.

Chapter 3: On botanical oils, a simple fact of life in much of the world that, here in the West, began to take on an almost religious aura in the 2000s.

Chapter 4: On men wearing makeup, a practice with a long history, but one that has really taken off in the last decade.

In this issue, we look at four arenas — hair, skin care, fragrance and makeup — in which the beauty industry has been transformed in the past four decades, and how those transformations changed how we collectively came to see, or re-see, our physical selves. One of the most profound shifts in recent years might be the degendering of makeup. In her story, the T writer at large Megan O’Grady argues that a number of factors — the rise of vlogging, the mainstreaming of drag, the intertwining of queerness and gender identity, the democratization of celebrity — have converged to create a cultural moment in which male-identified people find themselves experimenting with makeup in a way that would have been considered deeply subversive, and even dangerous, only 10 or so years ago. Male rock ’n’ roll stars had long worn eyeliner and lipstick onstage, she acknowledges, but this is something different: This is makeup not just for performance but for the everyday. This is makeup as women have long worn makeup — as a kind of artifice, sure, but also as an invitation to see us as we see ourselves, a gesture far more intimate and revealing.

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