For years, makeup artists have used their craft to raise awareness for political and social issues.
The movement first appeared on social media around 2016 under the term “makeup activism” and in its early days, makeup activism tackled themes like domestic violence, gender inequality, human trafficking, LGBTQIA+ rights, and racism. Artists would create looks that spoke to them personally, often providing context and resources available for those impacted by their work. These looks were not created in the hopes of going viral— there were no trending hashtags or trigger warnings needed because these visuals were rooted in human emotion and genuine advocacy.
However, as social media and the beauty industry have exploded over the last few years, makeup activism has evolved from a powerful tool used to ignite change, to a commercialised trend rooted in saviourism.
The tipping point, it seems, was the Australian bushfires. In early 2020, photos of influencers with fiery scenes painted across their face, neck, and decolletage flooded social media. Some included traumatic imagery of koalas and kangaroos fleeing from the flames and homes being destroyed. The popularity of these shocking images transformed makeup activism, suddenly giving influencers the green-light to paint literal tragedies on their bodies in the hopes of starting the next viral makeup trend.
In the wake of the violent death of George Floyd, this trend has become more abhorrent than ever. Over the last week, makeup artists have painted their faces to stand in figurative solidarity with the Black community— using Floyd’s final words “I can’t breathe” as the center of their artwork.
Though well-intentioned, these chilling displays have sparked heavy discourse online with many wondering where the activism stops and ego begins.
Is this taking makeup activism a step too far? Is it wrong to capitalise on the shock-value of a tragedy?
And is it okay to create “I can’t breathe” inspired makeup looks?
Some of social media’s biggest stars were the first to criticise this trend, like beauty gurus Alissa Ashley and NikkieTutorials.
Both tweeted out to their millions of followers that these makeup looks are inappropriate and tone-deaf.
“White/ Non-Black MUA’s, I promise painting “I can’t breathe” on your lips isn’t revolutionary like I really promise that isn’t what we mean when we say be an ally,” Alissa wrote.
When pressed by a fan, Alissa followed up by explaining that tragedies are not makeup trends and painting triggering imagery on your face is essentially empty activism.
Instead of participating in this problematic craze, Alissa insisted jumping on Twitter to read helpful suggestions directly from the Black community themselves— such as signing petitions and donating to organisations.
NikkieTutorials also had some choice words for her fans who felt the need to jump on the “I can’t breathe” bandwagon, calling the trend “disrespectful and low.”
Though not a WOC herself, Nikkie has one of the biggest platforms in the online beauty community and has become more vocal on social issues in recent years.
Like Alissa, she also shared the call to action to sign petitions and donate.
Smaller beauty influencers have also spoken out in the hopes to educate fellow MUAs on why this is not an appropriate form of activism. Tyra Janea put it simply: You should not gain anything from spreading awareness— whether that be likes, follows, recognition, praise, or commercial opportunities.
Zay B explained that seeing these images can be triggering for the Black community, who are forced to witness Black men, women, and children dying on social media all the time. “There’s other ways to spread awareness,” she wrote.
In response to someone who challenged her opinion, Zay B says that as a makeup artist, it is important to recognise when to put the brushes down and actually take action in a tangible way.
Of course, there will always be those who believe that sharing tragedy-inspired makeup looks under the guise of raising awareness is better than sharing nothing at all.
Tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee posted a lengthy note on Twitter, detailing his perspective on raising awareness vs. taking action in these situations. As a Black man living in America with a massive social media platform, Marques copped some backlash this week for staying silent on the alleged murder of George Floyd.
In his post, Marques explained that raising awareness feels “disingenuous” because everyone is aware of racism. However, he acknowledged that everyone uses their platform differently and he urged critics to recognise that for some people doing something, even a simple hashtag or retweet, feels better than doing nothing at all. “Seeing what’s happening and not doing anything about it is the worst feeling in the world,” he wrote. “Everyone’s choice is their own, and hopefully we can respect that.”
While painting your face in a tragedy-inspired makeup look may feel better than doing nothing at all, it’s important to consider the implications of posting those images to social media.
When faced with the decision to participate in viral beauty trends, ask yourself this question: What is this particular action raising awareness for?
Will this raise awareness for an injustice that people might not know about? Will this raise awareness for a specific petition? Will this raise awareness for an organisation or cause in need of donations?
Raising awareness is only as effective as the call to action attached to the deed.
And in the case of George Floyd’s killing and violence against Black lives, the world is aware of the problem.
We don’t need more awareness.
We need more action.
To donate visit Black Lives Matter or the Minnesota Freedom Fund.