Dupes: Makeup, Mimicry and Magic

In case you haven’t heard, some men, frequently ones on the internet, think that makeup is somehow a form of deception.

I mean, it’s right there in the word: makeup, make it up, she made it up, she invented it, it isn’t true. What a horrible can of worms this misogynistic cultural tendency to distrust women really is. Women are told, overtly and implicitly, that our value comes from our appearance and that there is a cosmetic solution to every flaw. But then we’re treated as tricky witches and modern Eves when we take those solutions into our own hands and use makeup in some way that seems inauthentic.

And who draws that line between just enough and too much, between MLBB (the beauty blogger abbreviation for My Lips But Better, that perfect shade that makes it seem like you’re just naturally rosy, glowy and fulsome) and OTT? Why are we so caught up on hiding the artistry, the skill, the time, and, oh god, the money, that we commit to beauty and makeup routines? I’ve spent hours of my life looking at beauty reviews, swatches, casting around for dupes for expensive and identifiable colours from designer brands. For people who can’t afford Mac’s Diva lipstick or Chanel’s Vamp nail polish, dupes are a way of attaining the necessary cultural cachet and giving the appearance of financial success as well as fashion savvy. The first lipstick was toooooo dark, the second lipstick was toooooo light, but the third lipstick, ooh, the third lipstick Goldilocks tried was juuuuust right!

But we distrust fakeness, whether we realise it or not. To duplicate, to put a copy in place of an original, is to deceive. But does makeup necessarily count as defacing or altering one’s original, ‘natural’ appearance? Can it function otherwise? Part of the devaluation of cosmetics is likely tied to the association between makeup, femininity and trickery–witches are notorious for changing their appearance in order to deceive, and within Christianity, the first woman is known almost exclusively for her role as a deceiver. But, considered as a form of skilled labour, one which requires a great deal of technical proficiency as well as creativity and experimentation, there is value in makeup that goes beyond one’s ability to look authentic.


Ursula chooses a less-is-more look for her time on dry land.

As it happens, this resentment of the inauthentic can be found throughout art history–it’s not just a makeup thing, but the province of almost any activity that deals with the appearance or representation of physical things. Art forgery, like banknote forgery, is considered a form of theft, regardless of the artistry that might be required, and, in fact, the more convincing the forger’s efforts the greater the crime. There is always the lingering aura of the original artistic genius, and even if a work looks like a real Rembrandt, has the same aesthetic affect, there is more than just aesthetics at stake. The exchange value of art is intrinsically tied to its originality.

(We can gloss Walter Benjamin on mechanical reproduction here: the more copies of something there are available, the less rare it is, the less value each copy has.)

Literature isn’t immune to this authenticity fetishism, either. KK Ruthven’s analysis of the subject in Faking Literature is a valuable resource for understanding the links between genius and authenticity in writing. She argues for redirecting our attention from a text’s provenance to its affect, and thus treating a ‘fake’ not as an inferior literary form but as a work of artistry in its own right.

“This redemptive manoeuvre puts a positive spin on the much despised simulacrum by redefining it as the site of creativity rather than the absence of reality.” (Ruthven, 2001: p. 86)

A ‘site of creativity’. Creativity of all sorts carries this dark shadow of the inauthentic, whether due to the belief that true creation is the province of God or due to a fear of immoral and dangerous deceptions. But makeup, like other art forms, can be redeemed if we recognise creation as a skill, a valuable imaginative and technical achievement. And for many people across the gender spectrum, being able to create and control their appearance is a crucial part of self-actualisation, self-care and survival. To make yourself up, whether by positioning yourself outside of what society wants to make you or functioning acceptably and legibly within social expectations, is a powerful act.