An American Abroad: "How Moving to Cambridge Changed My Beauty Routine"

Updated 04/20/19
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When Caroline Calloway stepped off the train at Cambridge University, she had one suitcase full of art history textbooks and another of Glossier beauty products. It was 2015, the fall of her junior year, and she wanted to be as prepared as possible. “I’m a big Glossier fan, and by ‘big Glossier fan,’ I mean I am their number one fan,” Calloway tells me with a laugh via Skype. “To this day, they do not ship to the UK. At one point, I was the recipient of an email saying, ‘You bought a lot of Glossier product at once; you realize you can’t resell this, right?’ But no, that was all for me.”

This image of Calloway with a face mask in one hand and a volume of impressionists in the other is an accurate representation of the then 23-year-old’s distinctly millennial identity: half scholar, half American It girl. By then, Calloway had nearly three hundred thousand Instagram followers, all moved to follow the young student for her whimsical photographs and lengthy captions detailing her Cambridge life in a quippy, yet personal way. But Calloway’s Instagram celebrity isn’t what brought her to Cambridge’s Saint Edmund’s College: Instead, it was a lifelong dream of pursuing art history at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions.

As Calloway has proven, there is space in the world for both the old and the new.

From the moment Calloway began at Cambridge, the place enchanted her. (“Here’s the crazy thing about Cambridge,” she posted in the spring of 2013. “There’s not just one castle. There’s not just ten castles. Cambridge is a city of castles.”) As she continued her studies, so grew her dual identities: that of a serious academic and that of an online beauty icon.

In 2016, Calloway graduated from Cambridge with an art history degree and a book deal, plus some blond highlights and a set of eyelash extensions that she (almost) made me promise not to mention. (“Honestly, you can’t even write this because it has blown people’s minds over the past three years—they think I naturally have the most amazing eyelashes in the history of humans,” she whispers into the webcam. “Actually, you can print that. It’s hilarious. No one in Cambridge has figured out that eyelash extensions exist yet.”)

It’s no coincidence that Calloway picked up a love of Glossier and subtle cosmetic procedures during her time at Cambridge. Under the surface, it reflects an unspoken beauty culture that exists in academia, one that has everything to do with lies, sexism, and valuing high IQs over happiness. Intrigued? Keep scrolling to discover the untold beauty secrets of women at Cambridge, as told by Caroline Calloway.

No one in Cambridge has figured out that eyelash extensions exist yet.

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Caroline Calloway

American Suburbia vs. the Cambridge Country

Since childhood, Calloway’s beauty identity has been a product of her environment. She was raised an only child in suburban Virginia by a mother she fondly calls “tomboyish.” In their two-person home, makeup and skincare were not a priority. As a teenager, Calloway received beauty information passively from magazines and girls at school.

“I would just blindly buy things that I saw other people my age using, like Lancôme Juicy Tubes or some random Chanel eye shadow set that I would have no idea what to do with,” she says. When mainstream trends steered her toward glossy pink lips, she went with it. When MTV told her to get a tan, that’s what she did. After high school, Calloway moved to New York for two years, where black eyeliner and gobs of waterproof mascara were a part of the standard uniform. There, too, she followed suit.

But when Calloway arrived at Cambridge, she noticed a dramatic shift in beauty standards. “The number one thing is that being tan and thin is not fetishized there like it is in America,” she tells me. “And remember, I’m not living in London; I’m living in Cambridge—a solid hour by train through the English countryside. I came from a place where it would be totally normal for, I don’t know, your standard Tuesday lunch with a friend, to wear a solid gold sparkly eye. But if you were to wear any sort of eye shadow in Cambridge, let alone gold sparkles, British people would get so embarrassed for you that they’d try to pretend it’s not happening in order to save you this enormous amount of traumatizing shame.”

For someone who’d never been much of a sparkle-wearer to begin with, this transition felt perfectly doable. It would take Calloway a few more semesters to realize that Cambridge’s beauty standards go deeper than a cultural distaste for glitter.

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Hidden Sexism in Academia

It’s in Calloway’s nature to pepper every conversation with the irreverent wit you see on her Instagram—serious discussions are not the girl’s cup of English breakfast. So when I ask her to describe the beauty culture at Cambridge, she puts it like this: “To fit in at Cambridge University, beauty-wise, you should complain constantly about the lack of sleep you’re getting, the lack of showers you are taking and the lack of liters of water you are drinking per day. … You’re so dehydrated and tired that you’re not even sure how you’re having this conversation.” (She says this only half kidding.)

“However, in reality, you need to be sleeping, you need to be taking showers, and you need to be not so dehydrated that your skin is flaking off. People basically want you to smell nice and have clean hair but complain about life like you didn’t.”

In other words, in stark contrast to a place like Los Angeles, where it’s customary to exchange beauty advice over alkaline water and boast about your extensive self-care routine, such things (or discussing them, at least) are reviled at Cambridge.

Wearing makeup … [is] basically like advertising to the world how much time you didn’t spend on being smart today.

According to Calloway, this judgment surrounding beauty stems from something insidious: A deep-seated bias against female students that’s existed at Cambridge for centuries. “I think particularly at Cambridge, there’s this really unfortunate sexist whiplash in effect, where it’s almost seen as frivolous and unintelligent to wear makeup, or self-tanner, or an elaborate hairstyle,” she says. “Because all of those physical signs belie the quantity of time to make that happen. And that would be time that you’re not spending on reading, homework projects, or essays.

So, it’s basically like advertising to the world how much time you didn’t spend on being smart today.”

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Caroline Calloway

Evolving Beauty Standards at Cambridge

For female students at Cambridge, there is pressure to strike a delicate balance: You’re expected to look healthy and presentable, but not overdone, and certainly never talk about it. So when Calloway was a student, sneaking off campus to get her eyelash extensions, then secretly applying her understated Glossier products, it was all to negotiate this tricky equilibrium.

It sucked that we couldn’t talk about beauty because we were struggling just to be taken seriously,” she tells me, her tone shifting to one of solemnity. “And what’s tough is not just that everybody wants to be taken seriously, it’s that the boys are automatically taken seriously.” This fact is written into Cambridge’s DNA.

Founded in 1209, Cambridge is the second-oldest English-speaking university in the world, but women have only been allowed to study there for the past 140 years. In the late 1800s, three female colleges were established, and for a century, these were the only places where women were admitted. (For background, the university is divided into 31 separate institutions, known as “colleges,” which each have their own campuses, budgets, and professors.) Only since 1988 have all of Cambridge’s colleges admitted women.

This history of inequality continues to inform women’s experiences at Cambridge. “Girls were only really admitted to Cambridge in the last century, and this process by which they got full status as university members is still not finished,” Calloway says. The year that Calloway was accepted to Cambridge, the university’s Undergraduate Admissions Statistics claimed that its student body had a female-to-male ratio of 54% to 46%, which sounds fairly equal. But Calloway says this statistic is misleading.

There is a significant number of women who came to Cambridge looking for an education, and whether you choose to wear makeup or not while you receive it is up to you.

“Some of the university’s colleges are really beautiful with huge castles and boast lots of money and royals and Nobel laureates—and then some are really far away from the university center,” Calloway describes. “Of the 31 colleges, three are still all-girl colleges, which means that—and this is something I feel very passionate about—when the university says they have almost 50-50 intake of boys and girls, what’s so screwed up is that none of those girls’ colleges are the truly nice, big, rich colleges.” 

(It’s true: According to the 2016 Tompkins Table, a system that ranks Cambridge colleges by student performance, all three women’s colleges are in the bottom third—in fact, two of them are in the lowest three.)

“It means that the really big, really rich colleges are skewed like 70% men 30% women,” Calloway continues. “Because they get offset by those all-girl colleges, the university as a whole can say, ‘Look how equal we are.’ It’s so manipulative.”

According to Calloway, these statistics play a big role in shaping the culture at Cambridge, down to how comfortable students feel talking about beauty. “It’s just another thing they have to tiptoe around,” she says.

Still, there are people at Cambridge who feel optimistic about beauty in academia—confident that places like Cambridge are becoming less judgmental of female students and the subjects that interest them. “In my opinion, for every person who looks down on you for whether or not you choose to wear makeup, there are two people who will champion your decision,” Cambridge senior Abigail Popple, a friend of Calloway’s, writes to me from her dorm room.

“I’m not very interested in what people think of me, but I like to think that there is a significant number of women who came to Cambridge looking for an education, and whether you choose to wear makeup or not while you receive it is up to you.”

Want more underground beauty secrets? Don’t miss how a secret Facebook group changed my beauty routine forever.

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