Sometimes I wish the Internet were an object I could hold because these words and images that I come to love, statuses and tweets, and excerpts and videos, they disappear so quickly. I’m reminded, always, of mortality. Mine and yours. The virtue of living with/in a digital simulacrum is the reminder of our “selves” as constantly re-organizing bodies: physical, emotional, avataric. Bodies that extend outside our bodies into the political, the cultural, where collectives and formations are stimulated, where ideology meets action, and where bodies fail and are failed constantly.
Lately, caught between winter and spring, lethargy and manic over excursion, I’ve been watching dozens of make-up tutorials on YouTube. Women coat their faces in different selections of expensive liquids, powders, and chemical materials. They gloss, shine, matt, and spray with eloquent efficiency, sometimes utilizing genius methods for light play. Through sheer facial costuming, they stave off: zits, redness, under-eye circles, sun-burns, dark spots, acne, black heads, shine, and any other slight distinctions from Kardasian flawlessness your natural face might have.
What’s alluring to me about these videos is perhaps what was alluring to me while growing up watching “Fashion Emergency” with my mom on E!, the before and after, the process of morphing one kind of person into a completely different kind, all the while asking the fundamental questions: Who are you? Who can you become?
What is your best self? The latter question is the most nauseating, as “best” here is already conforming to notions of production, both capitalistic and reproductive/sexual. What self will make guys want to fuck you? What self will make you fuckable in your own eyes? What self will depend upon buying the most/most expensive (excessive) products?
This being said, there is a mastery to these videos. Some of the techniques are really special. One technique is called “Clown Contouring” where the contouring is applied in geometric patterns all over the face that mimic clown make up, but then get rubbed, patted and brushed out to look as natural as any other contouring technique. There are women who spend hours learning to create the perfect shape for their eyebrows, teaching other women how to make their cheekbones stick out, or how to cover their chapped lips, and cracked skin.
When I was in middle school, before YouTube was a thing, I would get up every morning, do my make up in the mirror (concealer, purple eye shadow and a tinge of mascara) and pretend to have my own “Morning Make Up Show.” This imaginary show was basically the same thing as these videos. I would talk to myself in the mirror, talking to an audience inside my head, teaching them my laborious method, experiencing a deep satisfaction with the process. That my own 12-year old imagination lead me to such a similar creative process as thousands of women across the world leads me to believe there is a collective desire from women, for women, to open up to each other about these secrets, to display not just our faces, but the labor and pleasure we get from engaging in these routines. There is also a shamelessness to the before versions of these women. Here they are with their red spots and circles and acne and discoloration, and they are not ashamed. They will transform themselves, for themselves. For the pleasure of the technique, and the sensation.
There is a lot of care that go into these routines. Everyday these women give themselves a facial massage with expensive brushes and crèmes, lathering the face in tenderness. The caresses remind me of a child touching herself for the first time, discovering the force of her sexuality. By her own small touch she experiences the tingling sensations of arousal and pre-orgasm providing herself comfort in the absence of the mother’s breast.
These women are comforting themselves. Perhaps, through this touching, they are re-discovering an innocent and tender part of themselves, finding a virtual self-intimacy that goes beyond masturbation pornography (all for the men.)
Found in these videos is a contradiction between narcissism and the erotic, where the self is and where the other meets self. As always, within this confrontation with ‘other’ lay the revelation of an unknown force that threatens and makes whatever ‘self’ is vulnerable. This vulnerability in the face of the other connects us.
The woman contouring pleasures herself and denies an immediate other (being with a lover), for the sake of other (teaching the student), while she re-invigorates touch for herself. The woman teaches me her secret language of inviting play and confidence into my relationship with the mirror. Her ritual theater intrigues me.
And yes, there is narcissism, masochism, and some shame there too—think of the language of “cover-up”— but where isn’t there shame? Who isn’t ashamed and performing their shame and living out their shame in one-way or another?
The shame at the root of all of our experiences, virtual and real (if that distinction even matters anymore,) lies in a bed of vulnerability and sadness: the confrontation with mortality, our deaths, and the deep seated suspicion we are not good enough for the life we’ve been given.
These women collect their objects, master their tools, paint themselves the way people have painted ourselves throughout all time and across cultures—the ritual of displaying and decorating the sacred self—each one confronting subliminally, virally, world wide, the sadness of the unknown, are beacons of self-adoration in a world that systematically, cruelly disenfranchises and alienates women from our labor and own self-image.
Each video is a kind of Mo(u)rning Make Up Show— the dawn of a new self, the ritual transformation from societies derogatory ‘animal’, to ‘civilized,’ created (techne). Yet, the videos will get absorbed into the virtual collection, and as in nature, they will be grown over, eventually they will disappear, as the women themselves will disappear. The videos conform to society’s latest fads, while managing to display a quiet beauty in the erotic routine of these techniques. The videos open us up to the play of light and dark, morning and mourning, the virtual and the real, the self and the other, narcissism and the erotic.
And we are once again complexly organized selves. Thinking and aestheticized. Sold and consumed. Paid and under paid. Glowing in $100 foundation and holding onto our confidence layer by layer. Glazing over our sadness with sparkle, and energizing ourselves to find the momentum to live another day.
Cornelia Barber is a Senior Editor at Queen Mobs Teahouse, and runs the Queen of Pentacles section on intimacy and self-discovery. Her poems, essays and conversations can be found in in Prelude, Weird-Sister, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Berfrois, Imperial Matters and elsewhere. She curates poetry and performance art in New York City and is devoted to creating spaces for sharing deep artistic intimacy.