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Author Rae Nudson On Beauty Culture


When you hear the word makeup, chances are you're more likely to think about your favorite products or where your makeup bag is as you prepare to go to the office again than you are to think about power and influence. But in a new book, beauty writer Rae Nudson not only connects those two but writes about how makeup has been used as a tool for both social control and protest. By profiling influential figures who reinforced or subverted beauty norms, Nudson charts the role of makeup in influencing how we think about and, quite literally, look at ourselves. Her book is called "All Made Up: The Power And Pitfalls Of Beauty Culture, From Cleopatra To Kim Kardashian."

And Rae Nudson is with me now. Welcome.

RAE NUDSON: Hi. Thank you so much.

KURTZLEBEN: So your book is broken up into chapters that each explore a different aspect of the beauty industry now, but you also spend a good amount of time in each chapter looking at makeup throughout history. So why is it important to you to get at the history of makeup even from centuries or longer ago?

NUDSON: Yeah, I think I really want to show that a lot of the stereotypes that people are facing wearing makeup have been around for a really long time. And so none of these struggles and these arguments are new. For example, Empress Wu in ancient China was the only woman emperor in ancient China, and she wore makeup and created an image of herself that was very powerful. But when she lost power, her detractors painted her as vain and arrogant and caring about her appearance and manipulative.

And these stereotypes that women use their appearance to be manipulative or to gain power is still very prevalent today. That also happened to Queen Elizabeth centuries later, that she used makeup to create a look of a strong sovereign that really fit in with the trends at the time. And after she lost power, people rewrote her story to paint her quite literally as a clown that wore makeup, and they tried to portray her as a ridiculous person. And these things - modern women face these same stereotypes and these same struggles.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And you also talk about social media, which plays a huge role today in the world of beauty. You argue that the internet has opened up the world of who gets to be a beauty tastemaker, but also that even as women of more races and classes became beauty influencers, that there was still a new hierarchy created, as you put it. What do you mean by that?

NUDSON: So I think a lot of times in fashion, taste is set at the top of who is very powerful, and that in our society tends to be white people with wealth. And a lot of times, people will shift tastes and shift trends once people of color, for instance, become more active in that trend. So an example like contouring or false eyelashes, once white influencers who were very powerful - once they saw that their influence could be kind of crowded out by these newcomers, they shifted beauty trends again.

And now I think it's kind of swinging in the other direction where people are spending lots of money on skin care and to have perfect skin and to not even, quote unquote, "need makeup" because their skin looks so good without it. And so it's kind of shifting the goalposts of looking good with makeup to now spending money on skin care and looking good with only certain selective makeup products.

KURTZLEBEN: I see. So as things change, there's always something new and near impossible to strive for, right?

NUDSON: Yes, exactly. It's like a new set of standards that are created that make it difficult for certain people, people without money, say, to me.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, speaking of exclusivity, I also want to talk about gender because this is not just a book about women. Social media has opened the doors across the gender spectrum, allowing for male makeup influencers, makeup tutorials by drag queens, for non-binary people to wear makeup. How do you think makeup is shifting how we think about gender norms today?

NUDSON: I think that the acceptance of more people of all genders wearing makeup and just sharing images that show people this is what that can look like, the more people can accept it and can understand that makeup can be worn by any person. If you grow up in a place where makeup is only worn by professional women, you might need that image to be challenged before you can explore that area yourself. And I think that social media is expanding the ideas of what gender can look like, what it can mean, and what makeup can mean to someone of any gender.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, reading this book, it's hard to read this much about makeup and not think about the pandemic and how it might change our relationship to beauty and makeup, in particular, because on the one hand, we've had masks covering our faces. And a lot of us were home a lot, so maybe we stopped wearing makeup. But then again, some people, you know, put on their makeup to do Zoom meetings, for example. So with all of those sort of crosscurrents at work, how do you think the coronavirus pandemic has changed our relationship to wearing makeup?

NUDSON: Yeah, I think it's kind of a wonderful free-for-all. Its - people can kind of stop and think about what feels good to them and what they were wearing for the benefit of presenting themselves to other people and what they were wearing to actually feel good about themselves at home. And I know that I started wearing less makeup, but there was a few products that I turned to that made me feel more me and more normal in a crazy time.

So to take the time to actually pause and reassess your appearance and why it matters - and I think there's two different tracks. Like you mentioned, there's people that maybe pulled back and said, oh, I don't like wearing this. I don't feel comfortable in it. I don't put it on if I'm at home by myself. And then other people, it became this way to maintain creativity and a sense of control, and they maybe made friends with other people who are practicing makeup and having fun with it because they didn't have to go out and meet any certain standards. So I think that the fact that all of this can exist at the same time right now is really, really interesting.

KURTZLEBEN: Before we let you go, what do you hope people will take away from this book once they've read it?

NUDSON: I hope people take away that it's just - appearance is important, but maybe not for the reasons you think. It is not vain or silly to care about what you look like. It matters because it affects power, and it affects the way you move in the world. And it affects how people treat you. And it is not silly or inconsequential to consider that.

KURTZLEBEN: Rae Nudson is a beauty and culture writer. Her latest book, "All Made Up: The Power And Pitfalls Of Beauty Culture, From Cleopatra To Kim Kardashian," is out Tuesday. Rae Nudson, thank you for joining us.

NUDSON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.