Immaterial Girls

For a digital beauty brand, cosmetics live not on you, but with you in images

1. I am trying to understand how a “real” girl is meant to present herself online, and in the process, I keep avoiding eye contact with the camera above my laptop’s screen. The eyes that meet the gaze of a front-facing camera are ones that look right back at me: I am aware that I’m taking a photo, that I have taken a photo. To stare into your device and find yourself looking back feels unnatural. When my eyes are on my face instead, I have more control. I confront the image of myself more than I confront myself as a viewer; for now, on-screen, I know what I look like, I know the steps I take to create this iteration of myself, and the photo that makes it to social media doesn’t reveal any of them.

In mirrors, I have no routine. I make eye contact with myself because there is nowhere else to look.

2. When I am online piecing together real girls, I come across Glossier (not pronounced to mean more glossy, but glossy-yay, instead: French-adjacent). Glossier is “a new way of thinking about beauty products,” before it is, in parentheses, “a way of shopping for beauty products.” A way of thinking and shopping is a brand, though Glossier is not just a brand but “the first digital beauty brand,” introduced in 2014 by the team behind the beauty blog Into the Gloss, which advertises “beauty, from the inside.” Into the Gloss’s About page defines Glossier as “a modern beauty products brand made by editors who ‘get’ what works and are inspired by what girls want in real life,” while Glossier’s About page emphasizes the Into the Gloss editors’ “sixth sense for what’s relevant (and what works).” They share color schemes and fonts and menus and locations.

Glossier, maintaining its in-between proximity to what is real and unsimulated, offers its “almost-makeup” as an experience: The feature is not the product itself, but the interaction

3. Glossier lives with you as only a “digital makeup brand” can. In her 2012 essay “Turing Complete User,” Olia Lialina speaks of the “disappearance of the computer,” and, in turn, the disappearance of the user. “Computers are getting invisible,” she writes — shrinking and hiding, lurking under the skin and “dissolving into the cloud” as the computing industries move toward an “emancipation from hardware” focused on touch and experience. This “[begins] to turn our interactions with computers into pre-computer actions or, as interface designers prefer to say, ‘natural’ gestures and movements” — fewer clicks and taps; voice commands, less thought. Lialina cites a 2012 trailer for the thirdgeneration iPad, wherein a voiceover explains “[Apple believes] that technology is at its very best when it is invisible, when you are conscious only of what you are doing, not the device you are doing it with.” These developments, she writes, conceal the amount of labor that goes into interacting with and understanding computers, as well as the extent to which computers mediate our lives. When the computer becomes invisible, the user stops considering the ways it shapes and limits experience, conceptions of “natural.” Glossier’s products live with you, causing minimal fuss, working to be forgotten. “We believe Glossier is more than just beauty or beauty products,” the brand’s CEO, Emily Weiss, told Fader, but “a way of life.”

4. The first digital beauty brand is “laying the foundation for a beauty movement that celebrates real girls, in real life.” Glossier refers to itself as a brand at the bottom of its About page, followed by an insistence that it’s “the beauty brand that wants to be friends with you,” followed by the clarification that there are “real people over here just trying to rethink the beauty industry and have a good time doing it.” Maybe they’ll do it with your help, if you choose to join their community of likeminded Glossier girls who get it; many of Glossier’s top customers have been invited to communicate directly with the brand through Slack. The site is scattered with behind-the-scenes imagery: scanned marketing department notes with real-person writing on them. But the real girls that Glossier’s products and marketing campaigns appear to favor are figures like the “models and friends” that star in the brand’s pretty, intimate #GetReadyWithMe videos, with glowing skin and expensive facial cleansers, in beautifully lit LA and New York City apartments, partaking of the real and natural rite of makeup application.

5. If a Glossier girl is a real girl, a real girl is a Glossier girl: soft and wet, dusty pink and light blue and barely-there. An amalgamation of mood-boarded parts; parted lips and wet faces, hair slicked back. Her skin is peachy or pinkish or golden brown. A Sofia Coppola-style romantic “look” — upper-class, languorous, near-translucent pale, and absent of any conspicuous work. “Glossier’s pink is Pantone shade PMS 705, saturated exactly 70 percent, translucent instead of transparent.

6. Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl conceives an archetypical, metaphorical “young-girl” as “the spitting image of the total and sovereign consumer,” behaving accordingly “in all realms of existence.” Maybe Glossier’s “real-girl” is her successor. The young-girl is first “crazy about the authentic because it’s a lie.” The Glossier girl regrets this cosmetically, while living it as dictum. The young-girl “is the consumer, the producer, the consumer of producers and the producer of consumers.” Weiss says that “what’s very motivating to us is this idea of every single woman being an influencer.” Glossier’s real-girl knows the terms “beauty,” “beauty product,” and “beauty industry” are synonymous, so she makes the right consumer choices. The beauty blogs that create the conditions for Glossier’s existence gain their authority based on how their creators consume, and how well they frame their lives around their consumption.

7. Glossier products are divided into phases, steps in a process. Phase one is skincare, phase two is makeup; skincare is essential, and makeup is a choice. If you do choose, it should live with you, not on you, fading quietly into your life with little thought. The description for Glossier’s Perfecting Skin Tint (phase two) speaks of a “land between bare skin and makeup” The product offers an “imperceptible wash of color” in five shades, all admittedly super-sheer. Throughout Glossier’s production descriptions there’s a theme of minutiae — the feature is not the product itself, which promises not to do too much, but the experience of interacting with makeup: the process of its application, the feeling of having applied it, the understanding of the difference between before and after, a process that real-girls presumably know and share. Glossier reifies a median space, an intermediary girlhood, between makeup and bare skin, between our image as mediated by screen and who we “really” are. It sells back a consumer’s understanding of the difference.

All the “real-girl” wants is to feel great in a way that she doesn’t have to think about. One of the spoils of a bourgeois feminist brand of neutrality is taking up more space than it acts like it does

8. For Tiqqun’s young-girl, “the easiest things are the most painful, the most ‘natural’ are the most feigned, and the most ‘human’ is the most mechanical.” Glossier, maintaining its in-between proximity to what is real and allegedly unsimulated, offers its “almost-makeup” as an experience — of girlhood, of presumably shared girlhood. The matte lipstick Generation G “gives the look and finish of just-blotted lipstick, without the blot,” cluing you into the preexisting route to its effect — but why do that? In the video demo of Glossier’s Stretch concealer in action, a model rubs what appears to be nothing at all under her eyes, light shining on her nearly-unblemished face as she grins at you. These demos are deliberately choppy, and charming: A Glossier girl will carefully apply, frame by frame, some concealer she doesn’t need; you might roll your eyes, but then her face lights up, or she smiles at you sweetly, expectant. She feels as though some miracle has just occurred, and she has faith in your ability to see it, too. The beauty brand that wants to be friends with you.

9. Barely-there is non-imposing. It seeks to be imperceptible, to completely disappear, to be too small to question, and get rid of, in turn. Beauty products that live on you can be removed. Those that live with you have to be evicted, broken up with. Weiss states that “anyone can be a Glossier girl,” as the Glossier girl “doesn’t need our products, but she chooses them because they make her feel great — simple as that.” All the Glossier girl wants is to feel great, and in a way that she doesn’t have to think about: one of the spoils of a bourgeois feminist brand of neutrality, taking up more space than it acts like it does.

10. If a digital beauty brand is inspired by real life, what spaces are its products intended for, and who occupies them? Members of Glossier’s representative program are sometimes rewarded with sales commission, but more importantly, they’re “rewarded by association with the brand, in sort of this intangible social currency,” according to their CEO, through the followers and social media engagements that come from officially being affiliated with the brand, often after a long period of informal, unpaid promotion. The Instagram account is tagged in other users’ photos nonstop. Many of them are consistently aligned with Glossier’s visual aesthetic, ready for the reward of a repost.

11. The Glossier girl vaguely celebrates “real girls” as if their fate is uncertain. Glossier girls don’t suffer the contortions of being reduced to an image — they are images, dynamic feeds in process. Products have corresponding mood-boards.

12. The Glossier Instagram account features photos bathed in dreamy light that fluctuates between pink and orange and iPhone front-flash white. Product shots are interspersed with photos from their ad campaigns and shots of very aspirational inspiration: pale-pink buildings, assorted sunsets, model selfies, and photos of their office’s mood boards, walls covered in magazine cut-outs and pictures of models with their mouths never fully closed, like physical manifestations of the feed they’re posted on. Products sitting on pristine shelves, haphazardly arranged alongside other beauty brands’ offerings. Sometimes it’s just packaging — white boxes, pink on the inside, and bubble-wrap pouches, also pink. There are many methods online for sorting the signifiers of self-representation: “starter-pack” memes collating brands and haircuts and articles of clothing and behavioral tendencies into specific genres of self-identification; hashtags, typing-styles, following lists; the way one’s photos look next to each other in the gridded profile view.

Clicking around for a while, I find that the Instagram algorithm has tinted my Explore page a particular pink. There’s only one vague way to clarify that I don’t really want to see it: a “See Fewer Posts Like This” option that doesn’t let me specify what I might like to see instead. I get this feeling that the best way to be seen online is to become an image that an algorithm can easily identify.

13. Glossier’s marketing not only exploits, but reifies the anxieties and the labors of being online, being alive: the paradoxical work of constantly representing oneself in images, of making oneself friendly to algorithms by remaining “real.”

Glossier’s consumers often share a “we-should-know-better” attitude toward the brand; I’ve seen it all over social media — an acknowledgment that what Glossier sells is an aesthetic of “effortlessness,” obscuring the labor that creates it. What Glossier knows is that might be enough.

Rina Nkulu is a writer and artist studying in Arizona. She likes writing about cultures/subcultures, imagery, and identity. Her work has been published in Rookie, Teen Vogue, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and others.