Glow Aesthetics

Ubiquitous cameras are changing the meaning of makeup

In the cosmetics aisle in the drugstore, the influence of social media and the cameras we carry with us everywhere is evident. Wet-n-Wild’s display boasts a comparison of a woman’s face with and without their product, asserting that their highlighters are not only good, but specifically good for being captured by your phone:  “Goodbye Photo Flashback … Smartphone-Tested on Multiple Skintones … Under Seven Light Conditions. With Top Smartphone Models. With & Without Flash.”

The same linkage with the digital is evoked by a L’Oréal Paris Infallible Shaping Sticks display. One image shows two women taking a shared selfie; another depicts a woman in the midst of applying contour and highlight — an image reminiscent of a series of snaps Kim Kardashian West posted in 2017, detailing step-by-step her use of a contour and highlight kit. Among her snaps were images of her face streaked with contour and highlight prior to blending — an unfinished look that has since become a selfie aesthetic in its own right, playing with what is real and what is augmented.

Social media feeds teem with neon, prismatic shimmers, chrome, filters, and glow

The makeup-in-process image lends itself to before-and-after diptychs, a common trope on social media. It also evokes the possibility of having it both ways — of calling attention to makeup as augmentation before passing off its effects as natural. In sharing her images, Kardashian West claimed that highlighting gives “skin a natural, glowing look, especially on camera,” attributing naturalness to what is also at once a conspicuous enhancement of “glow.” Similarly, the name of Revlon’s PhotoReady Candid collection suggests a reversal of the common and tired presumption that makeup is a form of falsity or deception. It presents consumers with the paradoxical promise that one is most “candid” and frank when well made up and “photo ready.” From this perspective, makeup is not an affectation but a refined representation of the reality of one’s face and individual experience.

These cosmetics marketing campaigns are tapping into a widespread phenomenon. Of course, it has always been necessary for often-photographed celebrities like Kardashian West to be especially aware of how they look in images, but selfies have now made it something that almost anyone might think about. Our image on a screen is increasingly how we “really” look to other people, leading to new ways to augment our self-presentation. Social media feeds teem with neon, prismatic shimmers, chrome, filters, and glow. Snapchat and TikTok effects sparkle and glimmer. People share their “golden hour” looks — trendy selfies taken before sunset or after dawn, resulting in an elusive glow. And glow has registered as a discrete phenomenon in pop culture and celebrity media: Ariana Grande’s skin is conspicuously luminous, for instance, in the video for “7 Rings,” where she sings, “My skin is gleamin’, the way it shine, I know you’ve seen it.”

Some of these augmentative effects are created with algorithms, filters, and other forms of digital postproduction. But some have long been created on the surface of the skin rather than the image, with makeup highlighters to accentuate and brighten the face and body. Along with contouring, highlighting can create the perception of depth or angles on the face, leaving every area of the skin it touches luminous and glowing in a way that seems to pop in image feeds, capturing attention with an eye-catching gleam as users scroll through. Unlike strictly digital effects, these analog efforts to produce glow foreground the paradoxes inherent in being equally present in images, feeds, and physical spaces simultaneously. They evoke not an edit of reality but something that is at once a process of transformation and its realization.

Glow aesthetics play on the possibility of seeing light effects as real in and of themselves

Such techniques for illuminating the face are not new. H. Stanley Redgrove and Gilbert A. Foan’s 1930 makeup manual Paint, Powder and Patches: A Handbook of Make-Up for Stage and Carnival offers an early account of the technique, noting that “the ‘high-light’ must be sufficiently distinct to show through the final powdering, but it must merge imperceptibly into the ground color or else the camera will reproduce it as a whitish spot surrounded by dirt!” Highlighting, then as now, depends on the camera for its effects and is undertaken for the sake of images. But as Redgrove and Foan suggest, it must be imperceptible to the camera yet visible enough to achieve a brightness of the skin onscreen. Through a particular transformational alchemy by means of pigment, liquid, and powder, highlighter enhances what is there by seeming to be not there. This tension is part of the glow aesthetic’s fascination: It plays on the possibility of seeing light effects as both real in and of themselves and as augmentations of what’s real.

Where Kardashian West pursued a “natural” glowing highlight, glow aesthetics can also celebrate deliberately excessive highlighter use. There has been a vogue recently for ostentatious, almost unwearable displays of makeup glow across the range of social media users, from micro-influencers to e-girls (girls primarily on TikTok with an emo aesthetic and blushy highlight on their cheeks and nose tips) to Instagram baddies (attractive women on the platform with full faces of makeup and often times glaringly obvious face and body highlight) to the everyday makeup enthusiast and selfie taker on social media. For instance, popular YouTuber and cosmetics maker Jeffree Star’s approach in this recent video is to foreground the highlighter as clearly there. At one point, with his face already gleaming, Star swatches a liquid highlight shade called Ice Cream Bling on his hand and, after rubbing it in, revels in the sheer instantaneity of its transformative power, moving his hand back and forth to reflect light back on the screen for his viewers: “The gold glitter undertone is everything. I love putting this all over my entire being.”

Though such hyperbole is part of Star’s gimmick, the comment points to the surprisingly ontological stakes of highlighter: that a certain kind of heightened self-presentation can augment the self itself. It plays on the other meaning of highlight, referring to a peak moment or an outstanding event. As opposed to more additive forms of makeup meant to masquerade or completely transform, highlighter in its translucent sheen scintillates across the face and body, in and out of focus, allowing us to luxuriate in the sheer self for an instant. Glow can appear to happen to us spontaneously, even when we deliberately pursue it, allowing augmentation also to play out as a discovery. This light is captured via the flash of a phone camera and then shared on social media, resulting in a “more real” self-presentation. Makeup then works as not a tool of artifice but a way to manifest our being on and in relation to our camera lens, our screen, and ourselves.

Makeup works not as artifice but a way to manifest our being on and in relation to our camera lens, our screen, and ourselves

Ultimately these representations of glow on social media in their very excess can be seen as expressions of our own temporality — our sense of presentness as the light of our screens capture us. Images that foreground the use of highlighter and glow are an aesthetic performance of what media theorist Mark B.N. Hansen calls “embodied temporal fluxes”: the body as implicated in its experience of the present. Viewed collectively, these images make up a network of present temporalities on social media, shifting and shimmering onscreen. This intermingling of present moments encapsulates the here and now in relation to the camera, the screen, and the viewer. In our image feeds, highlight aesthetically manifests as mirrors of the now, kaleidoscopes of glowy images that let us bask in the always fleeting presence of ourselves and others.

But just because makeup can signify presence doesn’t mean that it should be excluded from critique: It’s also a commodity, a way of reifying presence. Highlighters, in their excess, suggest a glimmer of an “embodied singularity” — the body’s implication in a single instant in space and time. But the highlighted face, an aesthetic representation of our very embodiedness, is not free from the tendrils of capitalist semiotics. The language of presence and what is “real” surrounding highlighter products does not just point to the temporal singularity of highlighted faces; it’s also ideologically useful in advertising. Revlon’s “Insta-Filter” line inspired by the instantaneity of social media and “photo-ready” taglines are reminders that marketers and algorithmic systems alike aim to capture our attention for their ends, turning “presence” against us. Even as makeup users consistently challenge a legacy of beauty standards that subjugate, the language of temporality around makeup hints at another method of control — a demand to be present or “real” in a particularly codified way.

Makeup on social media allows us to play with, and in some cases alter, the language of gender in transformative and empowering ways. It offers an aesthetic expression and signification of our own reality, but control over ownership of that reality is what’s always been at stake. Beyond its appeal and popularity in beauty, highlight reflects our own bodily intertwinement with social media and technology back at us, for better or for worse: We become glowing images of ourselves, shifting and shimmering, if only for what seems like an instant.

Dalia Barghouty thinks and writes about beauty, temporality, digital experience and the self(ie).  She is currently a PhD student at the University of California, Davis researching media theory and contemporary literature.