An Ode to High-Key Makeup: Why I Don't Care About Looking "Effortless"

selfie with high key makeup

Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

A few weeks ago, at a hip clothing pop-up shop in Venice, California, I overheard two young women talking about makeup. As a beauty editor, I love eavesdropping on everyday beauty consumers' conversations—it's fun to feel like an undercover field investigator of the current beauty market. The two women were discussing what makeup brands to buy for an upcoming wedding when one of them mentioned Glossier's new mascara. "I haven't tried it yet, but I love all their products," she said. "I just love that they look like you're wearing nothing. Like you didn't try, you know?"

The concepts of "not trying" and "being cool"—whether it's to do with makeup, fashion, or schoolwork—have been synchronous for a very long time. Even the term "try-hard" has come to mean something negative: defines the term as "a person regarded as trying too hard to achieve something, especially popularity or acceptance."

portrait of happy person

Sisoje / Getty Images

We tend to think of the effortless "no-makeup makeup trend" as something new—a product of "natural" millennial makeup brands like Glossier (which goes by the motto "skincare first, makeup second") and RMS (whose best-selling concealer is called "un-cover up"). But the concept of strategically using makeup to trick people into thinking you're not wearing it is nothing new at all. A vintage makeup tutorial from 1969 opens with the line "Go easy, or the results can become ludicrous." In a 1989 episode of Full House, Aunt Becky teaches a tween D.J. how to do her makeup: "The secret to wearing makeup is to make it look like you're not wearing any." Sure, the buzzword "no-makeup makeup" may be a recent invention, but wanting to come across as naturally beautiful without trying has long since been the Western beauty standard.

To me, though, the no-makeup makeup trend feels a little bit uncomfortable. Of course, I understand that some women genuinely like a minimal makeup look and feel like their most authentic selves in just a touch of concealer, mascara, and tinted lip balm. But over the past couple years, I've come to align with the theory that the widespread desire to look "naturally pretty" stems from a patriarchal standard.

portrait of person with bantu knots on green

Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

Last year, a Quora user posted the question "Honestly, do boys prefer girls with or without makeup?" to which a nurse named Giethel Carla Samonte answered with the following response (and I wholeheartedly agree): "Boys are not attracted to makeup. Boys are attracted to good-looking women. It's science. … In the male's subconscious beauty usually indicates good genes for potential offspring. … Most males would say they prefer the natural look. In a male's head, makeup = risk (that the bare face might be disappointing) or makeup = high maintenance."

Last year, Byrdie senior editor Hallie Gould expressed a similar perspective about no-makeup makeup and misogyny, recalling a time when a guy she was dating told her she wears "too much makeup." Hallie writes, "His comment made me think of people who say, 'I like a girl who can eat.' When really, what they mean is, 'I like a naturally slender girl who can eat whatever she wants and not gain weight.' They celebrate traditional beauty ideals but balk at the means available to get there (e.g., a clean diet or, in my case, a little bit of foundation). It's a fundamental brick in the miles-long wall of ingrained, deep-seated sexism women are inherently meant to take and accept as fact. Wear makeup, but not too much. Eat, but only if you still look a certain way."

In my life, I have certainly fallen victim to the beauty standards set by normative heterosexual culture. If I'm being 100% true to my authentic self, my instincts with makeup are to get pretty funky with it: I like bright red, orange, and purple lips. I like blindingly sparkly eye shadows, colorful eyeliners, and wearing weird tattoo stamps in the shapes of stars and smiley faces all over my cheeks and eyelids. But historically, I haven't worn these products on dates with men, because somewhere in the back of my mind, that line of thinking that women are supposed to look "naturally, effortlessly beautiful," like they "didn't try," is informing my choices.

blue makeup portrait

Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

So, consider this my ode to high-key makeup: a promise to myself—and an invitation to you, dear reader—to resist the urge to fall in line with no-makeup makeup just because it's cool not to try so hard. Let's all challenge ourselves to be motivated not by the fear that others can tell we put effort into our makeup but by what colors and textures make us feel happiest and most authentic. The result will be different for everyone. For some, try-hard makeup might look like a green Fenty lipstick and sparkly highlighter. For others, it might indeed look a little more low-key.

If you're curious what my personal, happiness-inducing version of try-hard makeup looks like, shop the products below.

Fenty Beauty Killawatt Foil Freestyle Highlighter Duo

Fenty Beauty Killawatt Foil Freestyle Highlighter Duo $36

Stila Glitter & Glow Liquid Eye Shadow

Stila Glitter & Glow Liquid Eye Shadow $24

Pat McGrath Lab Mothership I Eyeshadow Palette in Subliminal

Pat McGrath Lab Mothership I Eyeshadow Palette in Subliminal $125

Too Faced Throwback Lipstick in Cheers to 20 Years Collection

Too Faced Throwback Lipstick in Cheers to 20 Years Collection $22

Milk Makeup Tattoo Stamp Heart

Tattoo Stamp Heart - black 0.03 oz/ 1mL
Milk Makeup Tattoo Stamp Heart $12

Tatcha Kyoto Red Silk Lipstick

Tatcha Kyoto Red Silk Lipstick $55

Related Stories