"Before/After": Makeover Narratives on Social Media

Clearly, I am invested in my appearance, and am cognizant of the performance I construct, so it struck me as critical in nature when a makeup artist said to me, "Sometimes you see these girls that are all perfect and done up, but then someone normal like you comes in..."

Just before this exchange, the photographer took a "before" photo of me sitting in the chair in my robe, a black satin reproduction from a vintage 1940s pattern. As instructed, I had arrived at my photo shoot with a bare face, hair clean, air-dried, and free of product. What she was reading as "normal" is a side of me that is markedly not normal for me - a bareness I consider a kind of rough draft, of the sort one would share with close companions but not offer to the public as representative. The stylist was reading my bare state as "normal," and constructing her own narrative of performativity, and how a "normal" person like me prepares on a "normal" day, and how a "beautiful" person (her term) represents herself in all circumstances. I admit that her implications hurt my feelings, but the timing of the exchange and what it implies is really what I think about. Specifically, the "before" and "after" photos enthusiastically shared by glamour photographers and cosmetologists, and the misreading they offer.



​​The assertion that minimal self care is normal and more extensive self care is extraordinary is an odd generalization; if a person does not wear makeup then going without is certainly their normal, while it is normal for a person who wears makeup everyday to wear cosmetics. There is no greater or lesser value on either side, no divisive marker of worth or values or aspiration to a fictional ideal of loveliness or womanhood. Like makeup and updos? Wear them, whenever you please. Don't, or prefer to put that time to other use? Skip the hairspray and eyeliner. Each is a choice that reflects the individual, and neither is less normal on a cultural stage. A competition of taste and performativity is dangerously divisive, when there are far greater reasons to unite for common good - like, perhaps, equal treatment under the law? Yeah. My look may not be to another's taste, and that's fine - I don't make myself up for "you." This difference does not impact the worth of either, and marks only a completely acceptable difference in taste and preference.


The suggestions of these comparative collages are fairly ugly: they say "look how attractive I made this woman!" as opposed to celebrating the individual and temporary work of the stylist. This is an "ugly ducking" narrative which removes some of the agency of the photographed, and suggests that the subject is a product as opposed to an active producer, something in need of help and refinement as opposed to a consumer or creator seeking temporary assistance of a professional in a moment of purposeful performance. For those who enjoy the practice and the aesthetic, it is fun to be done up by someone else, but it is not necessary. What's more, "before" photos are entirely unnecessary for the appreciation of the artistry of the completed look. When teaching technique, process photos are certainly helpful - such as showing hair being curled before being teased into a much sleeker bouffant - as are comparative images demonstrating more lasting changes such as cut and color. In these circumstances, the images provide a professional narrative for the maker, focusing on the product of labor as opposed to a reading of the performance of the subject. But the transience of glamour professionals does not require this comparative analysis - the focus is the temporary final product, which communicates its own worth and value on completion rather than the raw materials. In these cases, the binary images suggest that the primary participant has less value, that they should be read critically, until the efforts of the cosmetologist gift them beauty. And this is wrong.

The significance of "before/after" narratives is not nearly as critical as other social spaces of gender politics, but this micro level of sublimation, at a time when women specifically, but also people generally, are condemned for both wearing cosmetics and not wearing cosmetics, speaks to a larger understanding of agency and representation, and the lines of objectification even on spaces purportedly celebrating the individual. Stylists: show off your work, but don't erase women to rewrite them.

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