You can probably tell a woman’s generation by the thickness of her eyebrows. I was a teen in the 90s, when a uniformly tweezed, slender arch was the norm–and when you pluck that much you just aren’t going to get it back. Now my natural brow’s not thick enough to be on trend. There’s been a resurgence of the big brow, attributable mostly to Cara Delevigne, who was among the first wave of supermodels to make Instagram and other social media a core pillar of her publicity strategy.
Growing up, people my age got our makeup advice the same place we got our dubious sex tips: from glossy magazines. Back then, you did things–even ill-advised things like wearing a stick-on bindi or carrying an inflatable handbag–because celebrities had done them, or because some words about the newest trend had come down from on high, nebulous fashion authorities placing them into a box quote in Elle magazine.
Today, we get our beauty instructions primarily from social media and a new sort of celebrity; not the movie star or magazine editor, but the passionate consumer who knows how to put on makeup so well that everyone wants to watch them on YouTube, follow them on Instagram, and look as boldly staged and beautiful as they do online.
Among the best new skills I’ve learned as an adult is how to do a basic “Instagram eyebrow.” The knowledge anchors me, tells me I’m not that old, that I am keeping up. A search for “eyebrow tutorial” on YouTube brings up more than half a million results, most of them young women in all colors and nationalities creating the same dense, severe look. Every month, over 50 million people watch more than 1.6 billion minutes of consumer-uploaded beauty content on the site. I’m one of those people, and can now approximate the brow on myself, at least enough to feel all right showing my face in the club.
Imagine a big eyebrow perfectly outlined in dark liner, filled in with powder. The liner creates the illusion of a bigger, bolder brow than is natural, while at the same time creating a stark frame for the eye. The bit of the brow closest to the eye is blunt, even square-edged, and the rest wings outward toward the temple in a clean, sharp-trending line. No matter how many tutorials I follow, I’ll never quite be able to perform the brow exactly. At its most correct, it should look as if it were airbrushed on with a stencil. That’s the dream. That’s the Instagram eyebrow.
Or, at least that’s the most current understanding. There’s actually some confusion about what the phrase “Instagram eyebrow” means, because it’s changed some over the years. It can refer to the distinctive, dark-powdered checkmark I’ve just described, now written almost daily on the face of every makeup fan. Or, it can reference its meaning closer to 2014, when the term caused a sensation–thanks specifically to a “really frightening” brow fade of sorts at the inner eye, an almost “ombre” effect where the tonality of the brow shifted as it traveled to its thinnest point.
It was around then that someone finally noticed a brow that looks on-trend in a filtered photo looked very strange in real life. That was almost irrelevant, though. How it looks on Instagram matters most, especially as we are increasingly offloading our self-images onto social media. As we spend more and more time online, the person you appear to be on Instagram or Facebook could soon be more relevant to you, and more real to other people, than whomever you are offline–if indeed you are ever really offline.
Lately, my friends and I have rejoined Snapchat, lured in by the weird but fun filters that add animation overlays or other modifications to selfie pictures and videos. Some of them are intentionally absurd, like cartoon animal ears and noses. More interesting, though, are the subtle effect-filters that make your eyes just a little bit bigger and more luminous, your nose a shade smaller, your skin soft-focused. My filtered self is beautiful in an unearthly way. All my friends know I don’t look like that, sure, but what if that isn’t the point?
Some futurists once believed that the whole web would become a world unto itself, a true 3D environment where users would create full-body avatars to act out “second lives” for them in virtual space. While that future hasn’t exactly materialized, we are building avatars, in a sense. And a viral culture of increasingly bold and unusual beauty products has grown to serve these versions of ourselves–a beauty culture increasingly genderless, unconcerned with appealing to patriarchy, and detached from the conventional fashion industry.
The five Kardashian and Jenner sisters are masters of the Instagram eyebrow; they make it look effortless. They are the perfect aspirational figures for the Instagram era–we believe they are basically normal people who have mastered the art of projecting a second self into the social media realm with the help of some cutting-edge products and good strategy. We feel both able and free to create a second self, too, to participate joyfully in calculated selfie-craft, to make ourselves up not as much for the outing itself as for the “”‘grams” we’ll post. We know that we’re all projecting an unreal image. We don’t mind.
The Kardashians certainly helped bring contouring–a visual sculpting technique formerly of Old Hollywood and, more recently, almost exclusively the province of drag queens–into common parlance. Like the Instagram brow, contouring can be severe, a look crafted to be photographed, not deconstructed. It is a performance of one’s own face, one that can be turned up louder and louder until the face has almost stylized itself. It’s just within the last few years that I’ve suddenly begun to feel I was selling myself short by owning only a sheer foundation or tinted moisturizer, and just a little bronzer. So, I started doing the eyebrow. But after that I needed a darker bronzer with which to whisk stark gutters underneath my cheekbones. Then I got a concealer, and then a highlighter, two creams both lighter than my face where the former is matte and hides blemishes, and the latter is sheer and reflects light. I now own a veritable color wheel of cream highlighters, each for different areas of my profile.
I started using foundation sponges for the first time in a nearly 20-year makeup-wearing career. I got a “Unicorn Tears WonderSponge” as part of my Birchbox, a subscription beauty sample service I signed up to based on a Facebook ad (no regrets). I started using primer, and now I use a full-face primer as well as a primer just for my eyelids. I have learned, basically, which parts of my face need to be matte and which parts should glimmer subtly under light. It’s not that I think I “need a lot of makeup”–that rhetoric, about needing makeup, feels fusty–it’s that I want to be part of this new performance of beauty, unconcerned with what the man on the street would think of my look.
Beauty in the age of social media is about inhabiting a liminal performance space, about participating in performances led by trendsetters–where being a trendsetter may no longer require you to be skinny and white. It’s often more about photographing innovations and color experiments that create a sensation and make other people want to try them than it is about what makes the most sense to wear to work.
This “gloss strobing” highlighter technique is designed for maximum luminosity in photos, while these bizarre geode-themed “crystal lips” are probably meant only as Instagram art and not for going to lunch. Bitter Lace Beauty’s rainbow highlighter palette (a swipe of the shimmery powder appears like an actual rainbow of colors on your skin) reportedly sold for over $1,000 on eBay when its launch earlier this spring couldn’t meet initial demand. The soft prism of hues it enables does look amazing in photos, but I’ve never seen anyone wearing it on the streets of London, nor even on the cover of a magazine. Just a few months later, “even hotter than rainbow highlighter” was “thermal highlighter,” a high-shine, multicolored experiment inspired by compiling shimmery eyeshadows to reflect what you might see in a thermal-imaging body scan. Essentially, it gives faces the odd, futuristic look of a heat map.
This is makeup for its own sake, no more or less than plain delight in performance and experimentation. It almost doesn’t matter that each trend lasts only a few months, or that someone out there has spent a thousand dollars on space unicorn makeup with few to no practical venues for wearing it outside their home.
These performances of our meatspace faces live only in social media feeds, where it’s considered beautiful to sport thermal heat map faces, crystal lips, and oddly dark, oddly perfect Instagram eyebrows. We aspire to be a popular avatar–like a Kardashian–more than we aspire to a prior age’s more conventional markers of achievement or beauty. Is it really too far off to imagine that future makeup may even be crafted primarily for our avatar faces, our real ones the afterthought? Or that soon you’ll surely know a woman’s generation by the adornment of her online face?
For the record, the beauty icon of my youth, Kate Moss of the heroin-chic figure and wispy eyebrow, did not join Instagram until last week.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Sartorial section, which looks at the impact of science and technology on how we present ourselves to each other. Click the logo to read more.