Over the last year, the beauty industry has been shifting the standard toward a more stripped-back, “natural” appearance—if “natural” means being a genetically blessed 17-year-old with perfect bone structure. Society has obsessed over youth since ancient times—Cleopatra did not bathe in donkey milk for nothing—but the latest beauty standard is almost pre-life: women trying to look like cherubs that just exited the womb, still covered in placenta.
Widely known as the “clean look,” it involves plump features; poreless skin; a perfectly pink, over-filled upper lip that rests effortlessly on the bottom one as if glued there; sun-kissed cheeks and nose; and wet—yes, wet—cheekbones, portraying how weak and vulnerable you are by giving the illusion you’ve spent the entirety of your day in bed crying.
At first glance of this latest trend, I thought I might have landed upon depression TikTok—everyone must just be greased up from not having the energy to shower and burned from being too nihilistic to use sunscreen, I thought. I didn’t question it until I realized the faces in front of me were trying to teach me how to look more like them, and that it actually takes massive amounts of effort and money (unless you happen to be blessed with the facial features of an alien) to look this hot, slimy, and sunburned.
The latest beauty standard is almost pre-life: women trying to look like cherubs that just exited the womb, still covered in placenta.
Popularized by Glossier (a $1.2 billion “clean beauty” company whose stated mission is “about fun and freedom and being OK with yourself today”), “no-makeup makeup” has taken over what feels like every Vogue makeup video and Instagram selfie of the past year. Influencers share their tips for how to achieve this “natural” look as if it’s philanthropic work, helping the less fortunate apply copious amounts of treatments and products in order to simply look the way they did when they were born.
In one video, the ubiquitous Emily Ratajkowski even shows us how to draw on faux freckles, because she’s put concealer over her real freckles but wants it to look as if she didn’t. The finishing touch is a Marilyn mole, painted on with eyeliner.
Ironically, the no-makeup makeup look entails just as many steps, if not more, as the mid-2010’s full-coverage contour trend, while being morally above looking heavily made up. Influencer Olivia Culpo offers a guide to dewy skin … in 40 steps. A Canadian actress’s Vogue video is titled, in complete seriousness, “Shay Mitchell’s 58-Step Beauty Guide.” In the month after it aired, Mitchell’s video got more than a million views.
At least back then, after you followed along 15 or more makeup steps, you had the potential to look at least like the girl in the tutorial. Now? You just look like yourself, if you were caught in a windstorm and then moisturized with lube.
In 2016, we had so much makeup on that we were all on the same level. We all looked like clowns—in a good way. Like, if you asked somebody who was more attractive between this clown and that clown, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. Now we can definitely tell because genetics fools no one.
If you happen to have oily skin and are thinking maybe this is your moment, it’s not. The sweaty-baby trend works only when you’re mimicking real oil, using tricks like a white eyeliner pencil on the tip of the nose and other spots on one’s face where you might happen to shine. Pair that with foundation with shimmer in it and cover it all in a layer of oil, and your skin will look see-through, as if you might just be glowing from within. Artificial oily skin, when on a beautiful person, is considered “dewy,” “expensive,” and “glassy,” like a reflective pond.
Pimples are acceptable in the latest skin trend because they are cute, relatable, and associated with youth. Wrinkles are tantamount to death. (Embalming is more the look you’re going for.)
Even some of Instagram’s most beautiful and surgically altered, like model Bella Hadid or singer Madison Beer, need a little help sometimes. They turn to filters by @lazy777 and @sasha_soul_art to make them look more child-like, choosing from popular options such as “bby <3” and “demon bby” (“bby” as in “baby”), all of which, you guessed it, give you poreless skin, big pink lips, sun-kissed cheeks, and fake freckles.
Many have gone further than filters, mutating their faces to look taut even off-camera. As part of what’s been branded the “fox-eye trend,” people have been shaving the ends of their brows to appear more lifted, like celebrities who have gotten PDO threads. I don’t know what happened but suddenly everyone I stalk on Instagram looks like Spock.
If you happen to have oily skin and are thinking maybe this is your moment, it’s not.
If you’re old and ugly (over 25 and not a model), chances are you will not be able to obtain the “clean-girl aesthetic.” But if you’re rich and have endless amounts of time to prevent the inevitable, you can at least try.
There’s the Gua Sha, a jade skin-care tool that you rub on your face to, allegedly, promote lymphatic drainage, and electric-current devices like NuFace that must be used for at least five minutes each day or you won’t see any youthful results. There’s red-light therapy, laser treatments, masks, skin pills, and micro-needling, all expensive and time consuming and producing totally negligible results.
Influencers whose faces won’t droop for another 10 years swear by L.A. spa Le Jolie’s nonsurgical face-lift facial to stimulate collagen. If you’re someone who loves a good scam, there’s FaceGym (like Dogpound for facials) or the biggest myth of all: drinking a gallon of water a day.
Unfortunately, Botox and filler are infinitely more effective for looking plump and poreless, which is why people from ages 21 to 35 are getting more than ever (in between skin-care tutorials about the correct way to rub your Gua Sha). The stigma around these treatments is basically gone—the bar for natural beauty these days is just not catfishing anyone.
The latest beauty craze may seem less insidious and destructive than beauty standards of the past, like looking emaciated or having a tiny waist or a huge butt, because it doesn’t require surgery or demand weight loss, but anything that makes money on our feeling “less than” is toxic. Especially when it looks so real.
We’ve done some of the emotional labor of making sure girls know how body types naturally differ, but when it comes to plump baby skin, we’re making everyone think it can be achieved with the right face wash or Charlotte Tilbury highlighter. When really it should be just as important to teach girls to love the literal skin they’re in.
Cazzie David is a Columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of No One Asked for This, a collection of essays about social media and millennials