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#ChallengeSociety: How Viral Beauty Trends Shape our Perception of Self

I hear my mother’s voice radiate from the bottom of the stairs, “Let’s go Elyssa! You have five minutes to finish getting ready or we’re leaving without you.”

This is not the first time those words have been uttered from her mouth in that same fed-up tone. I start to panic internally. My hair is still wet from the shower, and I’m not completely done with my makeup. I’m going to have to sacrifice something in my morning routine to make it downstairs on time.

Those who have lived with me or know me personally can tell you how much of a perfectionist I am when it comes to my makeup in the morning. My winged eyeliner has to come to a sharp perfect point–like a pair of stilettos.

It’s been noted that I can and do spend a little bit too much time getting ready in the morning, but there’s no better feeling than finishing a masterpiece and heading out for the day, feeling confident and put together.

For Leonardo Da Vinci it was the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel. For me it’s a perfectly blended eyeshadow and winged eyeliner so sharp it could “slice the hopes and dreams of lesser men.”

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Knowing I have about four minutes to finish getting ready I sacrifice drying my hair, the wet hair look is in now anyway, right?

A lot of people don’t understand why individuals like me—those who can spend an hour or two getting ready in the morning—dedicate so much time to our appearance. The words vain, ridiculous, unnecessary are whispered in our direction. We are, “giving into society’s ideal of beauty” or even “lying to the world” about what we actually look like. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. There is power in makeup. There is power in the way I can create a sunset on my eyelid. There is power in the way girls compliment other girls. Contrary to popular belief, I and others like me, are not trying to hide anything from the world with our makeup. Rather, I’m trying to show the world that I am powerful and strong and love feeling good about myself, and that’s how it should be, no questions asked. Of course, the world doesn’t work that way.

For Leonardo Da Vinci it was the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel. For me it’s a perfectly blended eyeshadow and winged eyeliner so sharp it could “slice the hopes and dreams of lesser men.”

Thankfully, I feel okay without makeup on and have been told by those around me that I am beautiful either way. Not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone can recognize the faults of the cosmetic industry and the media’s obsession with targeting women as consumers.

The cosmetic industry makes billions telling women they’re not good enough, making them feel bad about themselves. In a report by YWCA USA, Beauty at Any Cost, YWMCA reported that about $7 billion is spent on cosmetic products each year (Beauty at Any Cost, 2008, p. 7). At that rate why should they stop targeting women? The problem isn’t that they’re putting huge dents in the pockets of Americans, it’s that they have the power to tell us what’s beautiful, and they’re not using that influence for good.

Women and young girls especially, are constantly being put down for not being good enough, not thin enough, not poreless enough –told they are lesser because they are human. They need makeup not because it’s fun and expressive, but because they are not good enough without it. That sounds awful, right? So, what can we do to combat this? Attacking the cosmetic industry is a big jump, I think the first step must be smaller. We have to start telling young women and men that the beauty standards created by media are outrageous, that they have no obligation to change their appearance for anyone. We have to go inside the system, starting with ourselves, our youth. If we can change our perception of ourselves, the industry will begin to change with us.

We need a self-image revolution, and it may have already begun.

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Although the cosmetic industry itself hasn’t been around for a very long period of time, makeup and beauty products have been around since way before Christie Brinkley  became the first face of Cover Girl. Lipstick dates back to about 5,000 years ago to the men and women of the Ancient Sumerian civilization, where it is believed that they used crushed gemstones to decorate their lips and eyes.

Women and young girls especially, are constantly being put down for not being good enough, not thin enough, not poreless enough –told they are lesser because they are human. They need makeup not because it’s fun and expressive, but because they are not good enough without it

Although, today we might not use crushed gemstones to paint our lips, many makeup connoisseurs feel as though their Ruby Woo MAC lipstick might be a decent alternative.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s and Makeup and the internet are creating history together. Makeup “guru’s” and tutorials on Youtube have been around since 2007, if not earlier. Artists can make a name for themselves on the digital platform. Names like Michelle Phan and Lauren Luke are recognizable because of their tutorial and lifestyle channels and the crazy amount of views they rack up everyday. Inspiring makeup artists can learn how to do makeup like the pro’s and gain tips and tricks that make difficult skills easier. This is all really exciting for young makeup enthusiasts with limited budgets and no one around to show them how first hand. But there are other things going on around the internet related to Makeup that aren’t so positive.

With the rise of other big social media platforms other than Youtube, like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Reddit it’s so incredibly easy to share articles, pictures, videos, and thoughts so effortlessly. Being that you’re probably on the internet reading this right now, you’re probably familiar with “Internet Challenges” in fact, you probably have come across some kind of makeup challenge or social movement challenge recently, especially with relatively famous people implementing them (like the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge). It’s almost impossible to avoid, maybe you’ve even participated in some yourself, in private or with some buddies.

It seems that there are three categories currently for social media challenges. There are the physical challenges (like the cinnamon challenge), charitable organization challenges (the extremely popular ALS challenge), and social movement challenges that deal with appearance and self worth.

I’m not as interested in the implications of physical challenges or charitable challenges  as much as I’m interested in the implications of the challenges and internet trends that make us question current beauty standards or ones that enforce them. Challenges like the “The Power of Makeup” and the poorly conceived, “Don’t Judge Challenge” , seem to be challenging and/or enforcing our current perception of beauty, self-worth, and self-acceptance. Some of these challenges are having positive influences on young teens and adults all over the web, making us remember how strongly the impact of what we say and how we act can affect those around us. Many others are forgetting, encouraging bad self-esteem and glorifying the conventionally attractive.

I want to know if these appearance challenges can really improve the way people think about their appearance, or are we blindly reinforcing the same old standards of beauty that lead to some of the 14.6 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures that were performed in 2012 in the U.S. alone? 

I first wanted to start talking about these challenges when I came across this video

A Youtube makeup guru and  makeup artist, “NikkieTutorials” became fed up with makeup shaming. In the video Nikkie does only half her makeup, leaving half of her face completely bare and the other half glammed to the max. In her description Nikkie says, “I feel like lately makeup shaming has become a thing. It’s as if putting makeup on to have fun is a shame. Therefore, I thought it would be cool to show you the power of makeup. A transformation. Because makeup… is FUN!” [….] Makeup shaming is so popular, that men feel the need to address the issue themselves. Claiming that women who wear makeup are essentially liars. Here’s a comment on this Reddit post of a “makeup transformation” by user ‘cinnamon-swirl”:

“Looks like two completely different people. It’s amazing what makeup can do. Personally I think that this level of makeup should not be allowed, because it dramatically deceives.”

Ladies and gentlemen, beware; the next time you put on that lipstick or mascara you might just be arrested for fraud.

Now back to Nikkie. Nikkie used the hashtag #Powerofmakeup to reach her instagram fans and it stuck immediately.

The multimedia platform has been under heat lately for its ban of the hashtag #curvy. Nikkie’s hashtag would be one of many combatting Instagram’s absurd bans. But instagram has its own issues to worry about. The response from fans of Nikkie and those who saw or heard about the challenge was empowering, to say the least. #Powerofmakeup was popping up everywhere on my Instagram and Tumblr dashboard. Women seemed to be embracing both sides of themselves, letting the world know that it’s okay to wear makeup and it’s okay to not wear any, either way is fine! Do what YOU want, it’s your choice! Nikkie was also quoted saying,

Because, nowadays, when you say you love makeup, you either do it because you want to look good for boys, you do it because you’re insecure, or you do it because you don’t love yourself. I feel like, in a way, lately, it’s almost a crime to love doing your makeup.

Nikkie’s challenge was not the first positive social challenge or movement to pop up on the internet. Body positivity has been trending since around 2012.

But challenges like the #don’tjudgechallenge threaten to tear down any progress.

The #don’tjudgechallenge took a nose dive within hours after initial videos went viral on Twitter. Know Your Meme.com breaks it down pretty simply,

Don’t Judge Challenge (#DontJudgeChallenge) is a selfie video fad in which the participant records oneself at a close-up angle while wearing heavy facial makeup to appear as unattractive as possible, before transitioning into another self-portrait in which the subject is shown in their most photogenic form” (knowyourmeme.com).

The challenge was meant to follow something along the lines of “don’t judge a book by its cover” and spread themes of positive body image. I must of watched a hundred of  videos of young teens putting sharpie on their face and drawing thick brows and patchy facial hair. It failed completely. What it managed to do instead was tell people that things like acne, braces, glasses, and freckles are things to be insecure about and things that don’t fit into the ideal form of beauty. The website goes on to say that this particular challenge/trend received a lot of backlash from social media commenters.

So, what the heck is going on here? Why are we trying to build body positivity and positive self-image just to tear it down again?

Is it because of socialites like Kylie Jenner? In the middle of 2015 the “Kylie Jenner Challenge” came into play and a whole bulldozer of issues came pouring in. More unrealistic ideals of beauty, with possible racist undertones (which is another issue altogether.)

I decided to see what happens when we take the challenge outside of the internet –before you get your hopes up, no I did not walk around with only half of my face in full Makeup. Instead I decided to walk around Philadelphia dressed to the nine’s (full makeup, red lipstick, curled hair, and a black dress) and record what happened to me and those with me (my then-boyfriend). Then I would  do that same thing in no makeup, hair up on top of my head, a t-shirt and running shirts (also accompanied by my then-boyfriend). Two very distinct, very different looks. What I experienced was very telling of our society.

I assumed in Look #1 I would get more compliments and probably get cat called due to the shortness of my dress and my bright makeup. Overall it would be an ego boost and slightly repulsive but at least my makeup would be on fleek.

Look #1

Look #1

Like I guessed, look #1 caused me to receive plenty of looks and a lot of unwanted attention from men across the board. My then boyfriend informed me that men (and some women) totally disregarded his presence as we walked down the street, not hiding their glares. People smiled at me, opened doors for me, and generally gave off a pleasant vibe. I noticed that I was noticed, and that’s definitely a nice feeling. I don’t like being objectified, but when I think I look good and other people affirm that for me it feels good. Basically, it was a good night and people noticed the effort I put into my look.

If you haven’t already guessed, look #2 caused a very different reaction. I assumed people would ask me if I was sick or tired or something else vaguely rude. Thankfully, I didn’t get any negative attention. Nobody accused me of being deceptive, comparing my previously look to the current one. Nobody called me a liar, or arrested me –on the contrary no one paid much attention to me at all. Girls smiled at my then-boyfriend and didn’t even look at me. I bumped into a man while in a store and he didn’t even look up to say sorry, just mumbled it quickly as he continued on. It’s not like this was the first time I’d walked around Philly looking like I just got out of the gym. In fact it’s exactly how I look when I get out of the gym, except my gym’s in my apartment so I don’t really have to walk outside.

Look #2

Look #2

Now I don’t want this to come off as a pity party that no one recognized my natural beauty, rather I want this social experiment to explain that we want to build self-esteem up yet somehow we seem to bring it back down at the same time.

No one paid much attention to me when I was plain jane, ironically my then-boyfriend preferred when I wore less makeup (how he ended up with a makeup enthusiast, who knows), but when I was hitting all the current hair and makeup trends the attention didn’t stop. So, men tell women they’re lying by wearing makeup, and yet I received more positive affirmation and attention when I was all dolled up. Girls even looked at my then-boyfriend and ignored my presence completely when I wore gym attire, possibly assuming I wasn’t with him. So, what am I really supposed to believe here?


I think it’s up to me to give myself positive affirmation when I’m being minimal, bare, or messy. I like the way I look without makeup, and I like the way I look with it. I get enjoyment out of spending time on myself in the morning. That’s what really matters. That’s what other women and young girls (and beauty boys) need to start reinforcing: total self-acceptance alongside positive self-improvement.

Now I don’t want this to come off as a pity party that no one recognized my natural beauty, rather I want this social experiment to explain that we want to build self-esteem up yet somehow we seem to bring it back down at the same time.

The reality is, many individuals do not feel the same way I do. There is so much pressure to be thin and flawless, we hear it time and time again. Girls and women of all ages struggling with self image and body image is not a new concept, and boys are not being left out of the conversation either. I think we may be getting tired of hearing it, but it’s not going away.

Another body image challenge that originated from Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site (think Twitter), calls attention to our obsession with being thin.

The trend is being called the “belly button challenge” and encourages people to test their “fitness” by taking one of your arms and wrapping it around your back in order to reach your belly button.

Sounds silly right? Thankfully, people are recognizing how harmful this challenge and challenges like these can be. According to Sophie Kleeman from Mic.com, “These kinds of trends can emphasize unhealthy body image,” relating this challenge to the thigh gap trend.

The Bikini Bridge challenge is one of many other challenges created to idealize thin and possibly unhealthy bodies.

So far it seems like the harmful challenges are outweighing the helpful ones. Maybe the revolution is not within beauty challenges or media platforms. There are many hashtags that don’t go viral, staying within the body positive movements of tumblr, instagram, and similar platforms. Hashtags like #honormycurves , #effyourbeautystandards , battling instagram’s ban of #curvy the response hit instagram back with #curvee and #stillcurvy. These smaller movements are important and will hopefully stick around longer than trendy challenges that come and go.

Shot for @theuntitledmagazine #GirlPower issue in stores now ✌🏼️ This is my body with very minimal photoshop, but make no mistake that I think photoshop is an essential part of my industry. When I first started modeling I wasn’t as comfortable with my arms or tummy but now, I love all of it 💯! Most of the images you see daily in the media, magazines, etc have been photoshopped & you would have no idea. I don’t believe in using it to distort someone’s body or make them slimmer, but to smooth lines in clothes, or amping up the colors.. Hell yes! Have any of you ever used a filter on Instagram? *gasp!* Thats the same thing. As a model I have ZERO control over how a photo is edited or the final result but work with the best in the industry & stand by my work👌🏽 So yes, you can #effyourbeautystandards by using photoshop, makeup & a wind machine. At the end of the day, I’m doing the impossible by even being a model in the body I’m in. It’s about being unapologetically YOU.. Whatever that means 💋📷@indiracesarine

A photo posted by Plus Model | Mom | Feminist🌹 (@tessholliday) on

The reality is although they’re popular for a very short period of time these image challenges don’t really go away. Once something is on the internet it’s there for good. It only takes a few seconds to save or capture an image that was uploaded by accident. We need to start taking responsibility for what we put and share on the internet.

With power comes responsibility, and if we want to promote self-love and acceptance we’ve got to start using our hashtags responsibly. If I could start my own internet challenge it would be to tweet, instagram, snap, Facebook, or post on tumblr once a day (or really how many times you want no limit) at least one thing you love about yourself that society tells you you shouldn’t. I would call it the #challengesociety. 

Elyssa Kerstein
is a junior English major with a writing minor. Her eyebrows are always on point and she enjoys dabbling in many different types of art.

3 thoughts on “#ChallengeSociety: How Viral Beauty Trends Shape our Perception of Self

  1. Hi Elyssa,

    I’ll start off by apologizing if this comment gets too nit-picky or critical. It’s for a class, so I intentionally picked an article that I thought I wouldn’t entirely agree with, so I would have more to say.

    Many of my female friends have expressed a lot of the opinions that you talk about in your piece; feelings related to self perception and how the media sets seemingly impossible standards for them to meet. I’ll bring up the same point here that I usually bring up when talking with them: it’s not just women who deal with these issues. While you do acknowledge this point in your article, it is only ever in passing. Men can be derided just as much as women when they do not fit typical standards of beauty. Men are subject to the same disorders and depression when they do not realize these standards.

    Overwhelmingly, you portray men as being antagonistic, and somehow at fault for the body image problems of women. I don’t understand this, as the central point of your article seems to be an argument for women to attain satisfaction from themselves, rather than from external sources such as other women, the media, or men. You go as far as to include a single quote from an anonymous Reddit user as the basis for a broad statement about men. How do you even know that the Reddit commenter was male? I followed the link and could not even find the aforementioned comment (this might be due to my unfamiliarity with how Reddit works though).

    The social experiment that you performed on the street is interesting, but like a lot of “citizen scientist” projects, it lacks value if it’s not recorded and repeatable. Also, I’m sure (literally sure, in that I’ve done it before and gotten GOPRO footage of it (which was subsequently lost :/)) that I could produce a contradictory experiment where I counted the number of women who stare at my chest/shoulders as I walk down the street wearing something revealing. Is that just as “telling of our society,” or does it have less value because I am male and the oglers were female?

    I love arguments for body positivity, but I hate when they are approached from the single mindset of men are evil and women are good. That’s just not the case. There are plenty of nice men out there, and plenty of evil women. Gender does not have an innate influence on the way that you treat other people, so please stop implying that men are all savages who are visually raping you as you walk down the street. People are people, and some are shitty. Some of those shitty people happen to be male, but do not allow that portion of the population to form your opinion of an entire gender.

    I love the Spiderman reference in the last paragraph! (Assuming that it was intentional)

  2. On my second read-through of the article, I noticed less of the bias that I commented on before (my previous comment doesn’t seem to be here, I came back planning to edit it after rereading the article, but it’s gone. Was it deleted?). While I still feel that the article partially shuns males when it comes to their potential struggles with living up to impossible standards of beauty, that might just be because the author is female and is simply using female pronouns out of habit. I also did notice more gender inclusive pronouns in my second read-through; I must have just missed those the first time. However, I still find the business with the reddit comment to be very annoying (I think those were the main points in my previous comment, but I don’t remember).

  3. I found this article to be very telling of our society today. As a teenage girl, I have felt immense pressure to look “perfect” all of the time and fit into society’s standards of beauty. Conversely, I have heard the opposing argument that natural beauty is better and that wearing makeup indicates someone who is less intelligent or hiding their true selves. It is easy to say that, yet the article outlines that being more done up attracts more attention. I really love how the author wanted to use this piece as an answer to both of these claims. I completely agree that makeup is fun and an art in itself, yet going product free is totally okay too.

    Another aspect of the piece that I found interesting was the social experiment that Elyssa carried out. It just goes to show how both men and women react differently to a done up person as opposed to au naturale.

    Overall, I thought the article was relatable for young women and eye-opening for others.

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