Captain Awkward's guest blogger Cliff Pervocracy has written another extremely sensible column about how pretty is totally optional. Cliff and other commenters have totally nailed the actual discussion, but I've noticed that more than one person asking "How do other women DO that?" sort of in passing, and expressing the feeling that they somehow inadvertently missed like an entire semester of girl class or something, because everyone else seems to know what's going on and they don't.

If you're getting this impression from glancing at "beauty" mags and not being able to comprehend a damn thing they say, don't sweat it. Their "style" and "makeup" tutorials are written by idiots. Aside from being prescriptivist in a social sense and often bafflingly fucking wrong in a psychological, historical, and aesthetic-theory-and-arts sense, their target audience is invariably assumed to already know what's going on. Not one of them is written from the point of view of, say, a painter who wishes to transfer what they know from canvas to faces. Special effects makeup instructions are more helpful for people who sincerely don't know what the fuck already, although they are of limited use unless you are designing faces for an amateur production of Cats, or perhaps Lady Gaga. It's a lot like the time I tried taking Navajo 101 at my university and discovered that it was not actually an introductory class -- it was spelling and orthography (read: an easy A) for Navajo students whose grandparents and sometimes parents still spoke Dineh Bizaad at home.

Or, even better, like the time Moggie tried taking a beginning French class. French is kind of miserable at spelling, but only in comparison to the other Romance languages; it has absolutely nothing on, for example, pre-simplification Gaelic. Mog speaks enough Japanese that she didn't die in Tokyo and she didn't have issues with German, so I had no idea why she was so ready go back in time and set the entire future nation of France on fire while they were still barbarians hanging out in the woods until I got a look at the book they were using and discovered that it was written by someone who obviously believed that all frotzes could be glorked from context. Moggie is to glorking frotzes from context as I am to interpreting interesting people; she managed to figure out approximately what a flux capacitor was at least a decade before she saw the film the reference came from. So please believe me when I say that her French text was one of the worst textbooks I have ever seen, and I have seen loads and loads of them. They were expecting first semester French students to do things like read short articles entirely in French and figure out what they were talking about without benefit of a mini-glossary for the important nouns or an actual francophone person handy to make wild hand gestures and point frantically at relevant objects in the nearby environment. These two things are absolutely vital for learning a language by immersion, so the lack of them pretty much torpedoed any chance the book would be of any use at all.

And that's basically how all the fashion lesson things are written. By people who expect you to glork all of their specialized frotzes from context, and then treat you like you're mentally deficient if you don't already have all of the requisite context. Which you can't get without the lessons. Ad infinitum.

I happen to do much of this professionally. It's not something I ever expected to be doing with my life, but there you are -- the world is a very strange place. I'm also a nerd from a long line of nerds -- someday I'll tell you all about the time I watched my engineer father, electrician brother-in-law, and architect grandfather take about eight hours to hang a screen door, a job that should have taken about fifteen minutes longer than the amount of time needed to locate a screwdriver and pry the box open -- so when I set about learning something, I learn the hell out of it. As a result, I know far too much about all of the daft shit Glamour is talking about in its cosmetics section. It's fun to do for an occasion or a shoot, but I think I would go mental if I thought I really had to do that every day.

So if anybody is honestly curious about how people do that thing you see all over the place, hit the comments here and I'll give you the Makeup For Non-Majors rundown. A lot of it is interesting to know just for the head-smacking bizarreness of it all, and some of it is actually useful for learning how to sculpt or sketch, if that's your thing. Googling is pretty useless if you don't know what to Google for, so feel free to link to photos if you don't know the name of what you're asking about.

Comments

  1. Okay, here's a dorky one. I'm a pale person -- like you, I turn blue under spotlights. My eyes are pale, my hair is kind of light. So that's the background.

    I often don't bother with makeup because, way too much work. But when I do want to bother with it, I want to emphasize my eyes and have found no good way to do it that doesn't end with me looking like a raccoon. The whole "black liner all the way around the eye" is way too much, but everything else I've tried is not enough. Help?

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  2. How do the various types of liners work? I've never been able to figure out eyeliner, and I really don't get lipliner either. (Is lipliner still a thing?)

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  3. Thanks for this! I have zero sense for what makeup colors look good on me, so even though I would like to occasionally don lipstick to brighten up my very pale face, I haven't found one that doesn't make me feel clownish. I've tried visiting makeup counters at department stores, and they have been surprisingly unhelpful - they seem to expect you to already know what you want. I've had a couple of makeup counter salespeople try to help me pick a color, but everything looked garish on me. Suggestions?

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    1. Ooh, I can help with this one! An actual makeup store -- I recommend Merle Norman, but that may vary depending on what country you're in -- will be a lot better at helping you with this kind of stuff. I've been similarly disappointed at makeup counters, but Merle Norman has never steered me wrong for subtle color choices. Or, if you have some colors you think you might work, putting some of the tester stick on the back of your hand actually does help narrow things down. (If the skin on the back of your hands is a significantly different shade than the skin on your face, this may not work.)

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    2. I have very pale skin, too, with cool undertones, and find lipstick that mentions 'berry' reds or 'heather' reds to be the best. I only put on one or two coats and smooth it over any gaps before blotting, because otherwise too much colour is a bit much for me. I find that make-up counter assistants always overdo make-up - it's best perhaps to try on sample lipstick in places like boots/superdrug (UK), walgreen/walmart (US) and check it out in their mirrors.

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    3. I find most drugstores in the US do not have 'testers' anymore -- either for reasons of cost or hygiene, I assume. Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and Target, however, have an unconditional (usually 14-day) return policy even on opened cosmetics. Sometimes they have to ask you why for some sort of questionnaire, but I've never had any of them refuse to accept "just isn't the right stuff" as an answer.

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  4. Lipstick (in some traditional shade, of course, not blue or anything) as rouge -- yes or no? My mother used to recommend it, and it seems like the obvious way to get the cheeks to not clash with the lips, but I always fear that it's a classic newbie error. (I wear makeup roughly once every six months to a year -- usually lipstick and mascara.)

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  5. I'm intimated from starting with makeup because it seems like any one thing is either too subtle to change anything, or strong enough to wash out the rest of my face. Plus you have to get good at ALL THE THINGS before any of them look good. Is there a minimum set that will make me look better-enough to justify the effort?

    If it matters, I'm white, pale but not translucent, with brown hair.

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    1. I don't have any idea. What do you think of as "better-enough"? There is no such thing as a wrong way to do your makeup, as long as you come out looking like you intended.

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  6. How do I put on eyeshadow? I cannot figure out eyeshadow for the life of me. Nor can I figure out lipstick, lipliner, or eyeliner. If you could do tutorials for these things, I would greatly appreciate it.

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    1. You ask much, Padawan. On the other hand, Tash has a webcam. I'll see what I can do with that or line drawings or something -- it may take a few days.

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  7. So I always kind of imagined makeup to be a purely about practice, and I just haven't been assed to learn. So starting from absolute point zero, what do you think should be included in sort of a beginners starting kit? (And how much should you expect to pay for it?)

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