how the camera phone changed beauty

We’re witnessing a revolution spurred by technology and observed in cosmetics.

by Wendy Syfret
26 August 2016, 1:00am

There are few moments in history where we have been asked to look at ourselves from a different angle. Not speaking metaphorically, but literally to review our bodies and faces in a new way. Perhaps the first time it happened was when someone initially thought to peer into a still pool of water to examine the face on the other side. In more recent memory, the invention of the daguerreotype and moving pictures showed us our own appearance in an unfamiliar way. While we can't know what that first person by a pond felt, we see the impact of photography and film everywhere. Including how we paint our faces.

A generation before movies, the Victorians deplored make up. At most a lady might pinch her cheeks to tease a warm glow, but anything beyond that was considered garish. When cinema came along, with its beautiful, bold, expressive faces projected on the big screen, things changed. It became clear we needed a new look. At the beginning of the 20th century the exaggerated eyes and mouths of actresses like Clara Bow and Lillian Gish bled off the screen and into our lives. By the early 20s we had the beginning of the makeup revolution, as women mimicked the looks of their cinema idols and manufacturers swarmed to the new industry.

Almost a century later, we're again seeing a revolution spurred by technology and observed in cosmetics. The introduction of the camera phone — the front facing camera phone — has again changed the way we see ourselves. This new kind of portrait wasn't like the reflections we were used to. Served on a five inch screen, it was immediate, experiential and expressive. It was taken much closer than other portraits, with the camera never beyond an arms length away from its subject.

Image via @kyliejenner

The result of primarily viewing our faces on our phones is often spoken about by makeup artists who increasingly divide themselves into two schools — editorial and Instagram. Editorial makeup either seeks to replicate real life (albeit on a great day) or is so painterly and experimental you could never wear it off of the set. It's the school your mother belonged to when she told you to choose to accentuate eyes or lips, never both.

But in the close up world of self publishing and promotion, a new look has emerged. This is where strong brows, contouring and makeup challenges live. Here Kylie Jenner is the deity, and YouTube makeup vloggers are the high priests and priestesses.

Initially this new Instagram-bred look was seen as a fringe movement, but in time it has become an art form of its own. Fans of this new makeup style create bold and exacting looks, that play on light, shadow and illusion with a precision that would make Caravaggio proud. You could really argue they're not that far removed from the great art masters — Joyce Bonelli is undoubtedly the most viewed artist in the world, thanks to the magic she applies to Kim Kardashian's face each morning.

Image via @ohmygeeee

Makeup companies have also responded to the rise of the camera phone, just as they did they did the moving image. Brands like Nyx Cosmetics, CoverGirl and Make Up For Ever have found huge success with formulas designed to look good in selfies. Think full coverage foundations designed to stand up to a front flash, primers offering a beauty filter airbrush effect, and Kylie Jenner's entire matt empire. According to NY Times, CoverGirl have even implemented an iPhone challenge to check how their product will fare in selfies.

The extra effort is certainly worth it: a 2015 study from market research company the NPD Group showed double digit growth in face, eye and lip products and prestige (high end) makeup since this time last year. In the UK alone sales for highlighters and illuminators rose 48.5 percent, a bump the researchers directly credited to the social media led, selfie fuelled trend of strobing.

Image via @hieucow

Camera phones have also changed the way we speak about beauty. While we've certainly come a long way since the Victorians, people continue to have an uneasy relationship with visible make up. Sure, we love an artful smokey eye, but until recently, wearing a lot of make up was a loaded choice. Heavy foundation, false eyelashes and drawn in lips were a sign you were not comfortable in your own skin.

Flash forward to 2016 where heavily made up Instagram heroes like Patrick Starrr, Nikki French and Jeffree Star attract millions of fans and endless praise. They're the end product of the revolution the camera phone began, and their take on beauty says 'if you like your eyes, lips, and brows then you should put them all on display; and if you don't like your eyes, lips and brows then draw some new ones.'

In the process of offering us another angle to view our faces, and in turn share our image, the camera phone shifted our perception of what it means to paint our face. It has reminded us that beauty is what you make it and that there is no right or wrong approach, deepening the way we engage with our own image. Now come over here and let's take a selfie. 


Text Wendy Syfret
Image Ben Thomson