Generation Z will never understand the hype
When I was 13, print magazines gave me some of my favorite things: personality quizzes (“Which Lizzie McGuire character are you?”), Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio posters to hang on my bedroom walls and Valentine’s Day skincare routines that I'd follow religiously, despite neither having the required products nor the required boyfriend.
But most importantly, tucked inside plastic sleeves, magazines often gave away free tubes of hair mascara, much to my (and my friends’) delight. In the late 90s and early aughts, hair mascara was as ubiquitous as flared blue jeans. You could choose from a rainbow of colors: hot pink, icy blue, and neon green, if you had supportive parents, or brown and bronze if you didn’t.
Like lash mascara, hair mascara came in a round tube with a plastic bristle wand, except it wasn’t meant to go anywhere near your eyes. In fact, one of the most memorable things about hair mascara, besides the pureed texture, was its stench: it smelled like a mixture of nail polish remover and wood lacquer but more putrid still — a chemical abomination that wouldn’t have fared well in today’s all-natural, organic makeup craze.
The application method was as follows: hold a strand of hair between your index finger and thumb, preferably at the front of your face, and comb through it using the mascara wand, applying several layers of the stuff, until your hair looks both dry and greasy and sticks to the side of your face. Repeat on the other side.
If you used a brown or bronze color, the final effect wasn't unlike puke crust on a heavy night out, when you projectile-vomited on the pavement, and your best friend forgot to hold your hair. I remember being aware on some unconscious level that hair mascara was worsening my appearance rather than improving it. Still, it never occurred to me I could wash it off; instead, I did the logical thing, which was to apply more.
At the time, I believed in everything that women’s magazines told, sold, and gifted me. Engrossed by the alliteration-heavy headlines that made womanhood sound uncomplicated as long as you followed a strict set of fun rules, I considered magazines a blueprint for successfully bypassing the awkward teenage phase. And so I trusted that free product samples, like hair mascara, would help me do just that.
(A decade later, when I worked in a beauty manufacturer's marketing department, I learned that brands typically provide product samples as part of an advertising deal. Some use this as an opportunity to offload excess products sitting in storage. It turns out that hair mascara wasn’t quite the ultimate celebrity makeup must-have, after all. Leftovers, anyone?)
Now that we’ve established that hair mascara was a suspicious beauty invention and maybe even a bit of a scam, why would anyone push for a comeback? Truth be told, I doubt I’d ever use it again — and yet if hair mascara became the next target of Gen Z’s attack on Millennial culture, I’d be the first to defend it. Let’s face it, Zoomers are already trying to cancel our skinny jeans and middle parts — they’re coming for our makeup next.
With this in mind, I’m getting pre-emptively ready to strike. What I’m advocating for, above all, is the principle of the thing. I may not be into hair mascara anymore, but I care deeply about what it represents: a time where it was totally fine to put questionable-looking substances in your face and your hair because you didn’t know better, like applying blue eyeshadow with your fingers all the way up to the eyebrows, or squeezing gooey liquid out of your Lancôme Juicy Tubes every 20 minutes while licking your lips in-between. By the end of the day, you’d feel mildly sick from ingesting copious amounts of lipgloss.
Now, some 90s makeup looks were objectively more revolting than others, but prettiness was beside the point. The ugly makeup trend — if we can call it that — was similar to the ugly sneakers trend, but for your face: while it might look undeniably unflattering, everyone thought you looked cool.
Then there’s the reality of learning how to apply makeup before the advent of social media. In the absence of Get-ready-with-me-s, ugly makeup was destined to happen — like amateur art connoisseurs, we could appreciate a good makeup look when we saw one while having zero clue what products were used and in what order. While today’s teenagers can re-create Bella Hadid’s Cannes 2019 face just by watching TikTok, those of us who grew up with no internet just had to wing it, quite often with hilariously bad results.
Nowadays, if your makeup looks imperfect, you’re doing it wrong. The assumption is that if someone’s wearing ugly makeup, they’re either bad at googling things or they might be taking part in a new sub-culture, where artists and activists are using makeup to look grotesque on purpose. Messiness doesn’t have a place in today’s aesthetic, often referred to as “Instagram Face,” where makeup is used to contour, highlight, enhance, and plump. Nobody besides professional makeup artists or skilled beauty vloggers dares to experiment with blue eyeliner or glitter any more.
Although beauty journalism is still alive and (moderately) well, women’s magazines are no longer the purveyors of knowledge when it comes to makeup tips and trends — that’s now the remit of influencers. Many command such large audiences that even household names like Cosmopolitan and Elle can no longer compete for attention. What’s more, brands are increasingly reliant on influencers to help market their products, and a disparaging review from a famous beauty influencer can have serious repercussions on sales. Needless to say, a company like L’Oréal wouldn’t dare send Zoella a single sample of excess hair mascara that flopped at launch.
That means Gen Z won’t know what it feels like to waste mountains of money buying bad makeup, but they’ll also never experience the sheer joy of discovering that your brown kohl kajal doubles, or rather, triples, as a lip liner AND a fake beauty spot applicator. So, yes, I’ll make the case for whatever dubious beauty product manufactured this kind of happiness in my teenage years, even if it smelled poisonous and may or may not have looked like dried-up vomit.
Also, I’m happy to report that despite having access to the same beauty tutorials as Gen Z, I’m still stuck in the ugly makeup phase, which is to say I’m 31 years old and have never learned to paint my face properly. Quite often I leave foundation on my lips on purpose, and I’m pretty sure my favorite red lipstick doesn’t do my skin tone any favors. Occasionally, when I mull over my life decisions, I wonder whether I’ve wasted my twenties wearing the wrong makeup, or aggravated my teenage angst by insisting on doing awful things to my face.
And yet, I regret nothing, except for that one time I tried to apply the glittery variety of hair mascara to my eyelashes, because what’s makeup even for, if not impulsive experimentation? I swear I almost lost sight in one eye.