The faces of modern Belfast
Photographer Scott Gallagher shoots a series of portraits that capture what beauty looks and feels like amongst young kids in modern Northern Ireland.
Scott Gallagher’s story originally appeared in i-D's 40th Anniversary Issue, no. 361, Winter 2020. Order your copy here.
From TikTok make-up tutorials to television ads for luxury skincare, the modern standard on beauty has never been clearer: there is no longer a standard on beauty. At least, that’s the industry line; a response to a growing gen Z consumer base, who are a more adventurous, diverse and creative generation than any before, they have changed how we see make-up and fashion as extensions of ourselves.
It’s certainly true that there’s never been more diversity in the beauty world, even if there’s still a long way to go in erasing decades of glorification of white, thin, able and “conventionally attractive” bodies. The didacticism that dominated the beauty industry and beauty media in years past is falling away. Now, you’re less likely to find a glossy magazine or make-up brand telling you how to improve your looks than one telling you to celebrate your individuality and embrace your flaws and imperfections.
But what does that change at the top of the industry – an embracing of “natural” beauty – actually look like IRL, away from the marketing agency focus groups? How do we define beauty in 2020, and what do our own individual aesthetics tell others about who we are, and where we’re from?
As a teenager in Belfast in the early 00s, the mainstream look that was considered “beautiful” is one that is now mocked on the internet by wealthy teenagers performing “chavchecks” for Instagram filters and TikTok views: perma-tanned skin, the expectation of a full-face and glamorous outfit for every social outing, and supersized everything (heels, hair, nails, brows).
“Beauty to me is being an individual. To be beautiful is to be yourself.” Gerard McFeely, 21, Welder
It’s a look, admittedly, that’s not specific to Belfast, or to Northern Ireland. It’s the same aesthetic that you might see on a night out in Newcastle and then scorned the next day in a Daily Mail spread, which curls its upper lip over drunk, carefree girls laughing together as they stumble in their heels on the cobbles. Or perhaps in Liverpool, arguably the most well-prepared city in Britain, where women wear rollers in their hair all day while going about their business, so their hair is perfectly coiffed by the time they’re calling their Ubers to the club. Or you might see it in Essex, where the outfits are put together so meticulously that it would be a shame not to take a pre-night-out selfie by the fireplace, drink in hand and wrist on hip, even if they’re the kind of pics people will like and then privately laugh at for being “basic”.
In these places, a finished look means effort, time, money, performance. The performativity of these regional aesthetics, the obviousness that they exist within a time and a place, the embarrassing ease with which they fit into expectations of an archaic male gaze; for all of these reasons, these aesthetics are the ones that remain sniggered and scoffed at.
As a teenager, it was an aesthetic which fundamentally embarrassed me, and one I tried to reject (in the form of becoming a truly awful goth). But after graduating and moving to London, I was even more embarrassed about the remnants of regionalism in my style. My new friends and colleagues, without thinking and without malice, commented on the depth of my St. Moritz fake tan, the thickness of my scouse brows, and each time I’d grimace and assimilate, shoving my “out out” clothes in the back of the wardrobe and adopting a new, more muted uniform. The implication, as is the implication when we open up the “sidebar of shame” to laugh at the extraness of outfits at Aintree or Cardiff Freshers Week, is one rooted in classism, a classism that we have yet to fully reckon with when we unpack what we mean when we talk about beauty.
It might be 2020, but British society is still incredibly squeamish about class. So it makes sense that, if we’re yet to fully tackle classism in general, we won’t be anywhere near addressing the microaggressions and nuances of how that classism is performed and actioned. If you’re feeling particularly optimistic, you could hope that gen Z’s increasing embrace of individuality and experimentation is evidence that the class divide is dwindling, and that discrimination based on where you live, and how you choose to present yourself is a thing of the past, as much of a relic as foundation lips and Elizabeth Arden concealer.
“Beauty is an energy” Jordan Adetunji, 21, Musician
Certainly, these beautiful portraits, shot by Scott Gallagher in the same city where I grew up, are less of a testament to Belfast’s penchant for contouring and hair teasing, and more of a testament to the individuality and changing beauty standards of the place, and the generation defining its limits. Eyeliner is artfully smeared across lids, chains and padlocks replace oversized clutch bags and greening Elizabeth Duke jewellery. Eyebrows are thinner and fluffier, lashes are decidedly less clumpy. The faces of the city are more diverse, more open, more pared back. None of the young people in these photographs are in any way embarrassed or uncertain of their aesthetic, of how they choose to present themselves to the world. They stare at the lens with an assurance that they look how they want to look, that they are where they want to be, questioning whatever assumptions you might make about how people from Belfast should carry themselves.
But, as with the 00s fashion trends currently experiencing a Y2K TikTok renaissance, these things are circular. Tabloids might now have the decency – or audacity – to brand their regional night out photos as celebratory rather than guffawing, but the ogling of how young, usually working-class women dress up and do their make-up is still there. And teenagers are still on TikTok, painting their faces orange, affecting northern accents and pretending to interview for hairdressing jobs in order to laugh at “chavvy” beauty standards.
“For every one there’s a different form of beauty and what they perceive as beautiful. There’s no one true form. Doing what you want, not having any barriers holding you back. Be who you want to be.” Samantha Patterson, 19, Student
“I think beauty is just what attracts someone to a certain thing, it doesn’t necessarily have to be visually beautiful, it can be many different ways that you feel something or sense something. It just attracts you towards something.” Phillip Gracey, 19, Music student
“Beauty isn’t everything. Beauty starts with confidence and being comfortable within yourself. As long as you love yourself then nothing else should matter.” Ella Glackin, 18, Student and procrastinator
“I would define beauty as something that’s individual and unique to someone. I find that there’s beauty in loads of different things, it’s whole massive spectrum… It’s based on the individual and how unique something is and how you perceive things… Other people’s beauty might not be the same as yours or what you think is beautiful, I think it’s a unique thing.” Jack Graham, 23, Mental health and learning disability support worker
“Beauty is anything that people can connect to, anything people can relate to that is real and substantial.” Leo Miyagee, 23, Musician
“Beauty is being unapologetically yourself… being bold” Adam Smyth, 19, Artist
“Beauty? It’s everything.” Jack Murphy, 14, Student
Photography and casting Scott Gallagher
Hair and make-up Shauna Taggart.
Photography assistance Chad Alexander and Chris McKenna.
Lighting Keylite Lighting.
Special thanks Olin Brannigan, Rachel Lamb and Moderne Lab.