Unreality isn’t just about rewired propaganda, conspiracy theories and political dystopias. Unreality also creeps into our everyday routines, as Nina Lutz, an MIT Media Lab researcher on computational geometry and interactions, explains in the following essay. Nina examines how cosmetics — both physical and digital — can be used to completely transform identity, and how these transformations impact our understanding of real and fake.
— Ethan Zuckerman
What is the real face? Is it the face you are born with, your face without makeup? Or is it something more nuanced? If your face is your identity in the world, a world in which many identities exist on a spectrum of gender, age, and race, which of its characteristics play a part? Can we truly say that a face with makeup is not a real face?
Now that more and more of the faces we are seeing are on digital screens, technology is blurring the line between real and unreal even more. No makeup but still want to post? No problem: apply a filter via Snapchat, Facetune, or Meitu to change your face, to make it “pretty.”
When I learned about this issue of the Journal of Design and Science, the concept of Unreal struck a chord in me. Makeup has been in my life for as long as I can remember and it’s one of my favorite things. But I knew I had to talk about some of the dark rabbit holes of makeup and technology that I have found myself exploring at 2am. Makeup is complex. Its use is growing, and it’s affecting all of us whether we want to admit it or not. Makeup, whether manually or digitally applied, affects what we see, how we see, and how we feel about the faces around us, even leading us at times to doubt the human face.
My early history with cosmetics may explain why I spend what some may consider an ungodly amount of time thinking about makeup. I watch online makeup content. I have a bathroom full of products. When I turned 18, my mother, who had eyeliner tattooed on in her high school years, encouraged me to do the same. Between classes at my high school, girls of all different colors and sizes would squint into their 5- by 5-inch locker mirrors as they freshened their eyeliner and lip gloss. Even now, I spend 30–90 minutes applying my own makeup every day. Makeup is, for me, a kind of armor. Applying it is a routine that grounds me.
Now, as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, my research broadly focuses on cosmetics and interactive technology. In particular, I’m interested in how we can create immersive and often identity affirming experiences by using cosmetics, technology and art. This ranges from room-scale optical art with cosmetics to AI-generated makeup designs to designing computer systems that help someone gender their face. These days as I do my eyeliner on the train, I often think about complex models and how we can make the world better using code and a bit of glitter.
But as grounding as I find my personal relationship with cosmetics, the rabbit holes I have explored while researching makeup and contemporary culture both fascinate and discomfort me. “Unheimlich,” a German word for something creepy or uncanny, comes the closest to describing it. The exploitative influencers I’ve encountered, and recent trends in Facetune and other advancements in image enhancement, have started me thinking about makeup as a tool for more malicious activities than just the art and armor I know and love.
Entrepôts to the makeup rabbit hole are all around us. If you watch makeup-oriented content on YouTube or scroll through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you are bombarded with images and recommendations. Some are relevant, some are less so, and some are very disconcerting.
Among the most disturbing are transformational makeup videos, usually filed under “Viral Asian Makeup Transformation!” and often shared as YouTube or TikTok or Instagram posts. If you follow any makeup accounts you don’t have to scroll for long on Instagram discovery to see one.
Almost all of these videos follow the same script: a woman starts off plain and bare faced (her unremarkable appearance sometimes exaggerated with fake teeth and unevenly applied bronzing products), and after applying spray-on products, scar wax, and lots of makeup, she looks like a completely different woman. This transformation is… uncanny. Some of the images have additional digital filters applied to them so the transformations look even more exaggerated and intense. The facial proportions are wrong. The women’s eyes are huge, their chins are very small, and their skin is ashen and pale. It’s an in-your-face transformation fueled by years of social conditioning. This is no longer a person, but a caricature that society has developed and drawn.
“Viral Asian Makeup Transformations” are a type of transformation that warps our reality, as they physically and digitally remake the human face — and not only of its features but of its race or gender as well, as I’ll demonstrate later.
But first, for this exploration, let me propose understanding makeup on a spectrum beginning with accessory and ending with transformation. The steps I propose are makeup as: Accessory → Enhancement → Concealment → Expression → Performance → Transformation.
We can add other components to complement this spectrum and consider how factors like co-creation, sharing, imitation, and more interact. But for the purposes of this exploration, let’s consider the full Accessory → Transformation spectrum and trace its progression to see how people are using makeup. These uses range from boosting one’s “look” to fooling the human eye and warping our perceptions.
Using makeup to accessorize or enhance one’s features and conceal flaws (real or perceived) is not a new concept — humankind has been using cosmetics in these ways for millennia — yet there is still a worthwhile conversation to have about how cosmetics change our reality, especially in the digital age. Makeup has always been popular, but the Internet, with its influencers, memes, and viral content, has pushed its popularity to new heights. On the Internet, you can not only learn about products, looks, and how to do them, but also explore and experience the power of makeup to make you look different.
In 2015, when one of the most popular “Power of Makeup” videos came out, we saw a popular makeup artist who made up one side of her face and left the other side bare, showing how dramatic a transformation could be. Now there are more examples of these transformations and many tutorials for looks, ranging from just getting out of bed to full glam. These people still look like themselves, they’re just very glammed up.
Related to these transformations is a belief that much of the internet holds: that makeup is lying and deceitful. (You may have seen memes such as “take her swimming on the first date,” and some analysis of its nature .) This belief goes deep. It goes deep even between women, in the queer community, in communities of color, and more. The idea that makeup is a tool for expression and empowerment can be misread as dishonesty, the idea that makeup is a tool that people, especially women, use to “trick” others to gain approval or sex or attention. Simultaneously, there’s the expectation that if you don’t look a certain way, you’re not desirable and should put on some makeup. It’s a juxtaposition that makes for an unwinnable situation.
Accessorizing, enhancing and concealing are the surface levels of transformation. As these intensify, we experience the transformations that warp reality in a different way. The deeper levels of our spectrum — Expression, Performance, and Transformation — lead us down the rabbit hole.
Expression goes a step (or more) beyond using makeup to enhance one’s features and brings them closer to an ideal. Expression is makeup as art, where the face becomes a canvas for color, texture and materials. Makeup as expression is where the glamour of makeup lives: festival makeup, special effects, and artistic challenges are all examples of expression and artistry. Expression goes beyond enhancement; it’s all about creating a signature look and invoking artistic license that goes beyond what most consider glamorous makeup.
Makeup as enhancement and expression are often taught at institutions and schools for cosmetics, which have standardized many of the techniques and tools. As a discipline, makeup as expression is ever evolving. It is now the driver of new products and an expanded grammar for artistically enhancing and modifying the human face. These tools and grammar also enable makeup as performance.
Performance is a type of expression that borders on transformation. Performers create a new persona, give a performance, or accomplish an effect with their makeup. Some examples include cosplay, drag, or special effects makeup. Performance goes beyond enhancement and expression and is its own genre. Often the act of applying the makeup becomes part of the performance itself.
Makeup has been part of artistic performance for centuries, and many cosmetic techniques have a deep history in theatre and performance . The rise of the Internet, however, has brought it to new prominence and visibility. YouTube, Instagram, and other visual-based platforms have paved the way for the application of makeup and conversations around makeup, themselves, to become performance and entertainment.
From makeup artists (MUAs) and influencers, such as Jeffree Star and Nikkie de Jager, to drag queens focused on creating videos of their makeup process, these are creators staking their art (and their livelihoods) on cosmetics and performances enabled by them. These artists not only produce content about makeup but host live events for fans across the world. They have impressive followings and in many cases impressive fortunes — some of these “beauty gurus” have as many as 16 million followers and personal fortunes in the millions .
Drag is a rich phenomenon that lies on the border of performance and transformation. Whether online or offline, drag relies heavily on makeup. It has evolved over time into its own culture complete with its own conventions, performances, and even television shows . Rising from theatre culture with rich roots in performance, music, and the LGBT+ community, drag is a unique art that typically consists of men who use costumes, cinching, tucking, and cosmetics to become a character “queen.” Observers often cannot recognize the person underneath the makeup, but the performance is always memorable . Some drag performers link gender identity to their expressions, others do not . A queen is not meant to be an idea of a woman, but rather an artistic character whom the artist creates and performs as. The very point of drag is not necessarily to pass as a woman, but the transformation into a character who is profoundly femme, but not necessarily passing as a woman.
The final stage, transformation, occurs when someone looks drastically different from their non made up self, but is not obviously wearing a costume. They have used cosmetics (and often other products) to look like a different person entirely. These transformations are accomplished using physical makeup and/or digital filters, and warp perceptions (and our reality) in a different way. It’s also important to note that transformation and expression often have very fluid boundaries. These boundaries are encountered most often in gender or cultural expressions and traditions — making the subject look like a different person, but expressing a truth of some dimension of their identity.
On this border between expression and transformation is gender-affirming makeup, where one uses cosmetics to express, affirm, and experiment with gender identity. In general, this style of makeup is meant for more everyday use and is extraordinarily different from drag. What is similar is the way both use cosmetics to leverage and change how the human eye perceives the face, particularly through the lens of gender that society has established.
Much of liberal society is comfortable with transformations around gender identity and expression. However, in some populations we find transphobia and discrimination, and there is an undercurrent of conservative misinformation reinforcing the belief that transgender individuals are trying to deceive or mislead the world. Various slurs such as “traps” and others are targeted towards the transgender community in particular, as YouTuber Natalie Wynn has pointed out . This fear of deception can target some of the everyday methods that transgender individuals utilize in an effort to alleviate dysphoria. The human face is a huge contributor to how we perceive and express gender identity, therefore making cosmetics very important to parts of the transgender community. From binders to cosmetics, contouring your jaw to be more masculine or feminine, or using brow gel for making invisible facial hair more visible, these are tools for use in everyday life. Identifying cosmetics as a tool for deception when they’re being used to address gender dysphoria is another manifestation of the unwindable conundrums that emerge when people wear makeup.
The use of cosmetics in the context of gender is an important aspect of my research. I develop computational tools that allow individuals to apply cosmetics to gender their faces in an interactive, instructional way such that gender can be easily explored at low cost and on a temporary basis. This is something people already do with makeup and have been doing for centuries, but computers allow us to do it in a way that is more universal and accessible.
But gender is only one dimension of our identity. There are some transformations that raise more complex ethical questions and provoke strong emotional reactions. These are the rabbit holes we slide down, through our new web of technologies around the human face.
If changing gender expression through cosmetic expression makes some people uncomfortable, changing racial performance raises even more complex questions. This happens in three ways: living a daily life with a different identity, donning a temporary costume of a different race, and effecting a dramatic facial transformation to fit the “ideal” of your race. These layers are one of the least comforting cosmetic transformations and the way they can intersect with technology, society, and our perception of reality is profound.
If you explore transformation videos circulating on the Internet, running the gauntlet of glam looks, drag queens, special effects artists, and radical facial transformations, you’ll encounter a darker part of the influencer hemisphere. For example, you’ll find photos of women who began as looking very Caucasian transforming to look more mixed or African. You might encounter the case of a teen influencer from Sweden “going black” to get more followers and sponsorships . This is called blackfishing .
Blackfishing is when a non-black person is able to look black or mixed with the help of cosmetics and treatments, like tanning or injections . It’s a more thorough transformation than blackface, a performance that historically exaggerates racial features to take on a (deeply offensive) character. In many cases you wouldn’t be able to tell that this person was not of African descent. This trend appeared in 2018 and has been making headlines, not only with the Swedish influencer, but with many other influencers and even celebrities accused of appropriating black culture and looks . Beauty standards are evolving, prompting some (usually Caucasian) women to put on the features of women of color while leaving the women themselves and their experiences behind.
These influencers are getting more social media “likes” as well as sponsorships via cherry picking attributes from different cultures. After tuning and posting their photos, they can wipe off their makeup, take out their inserts, and reenter the real world as white women. Not only is it an extraordinarily exploitative and problematic situation, but it’s hard to catch. Some of these “blackfish” look more like overly tanned white women who are playing into racial stereotypes, but others look very convincing.
A quick Twitter search of “blackfishing” will show you a spectrum of these transformations, as well as criticisms of various celebrities — especially those who are white and wealthy — for appropriating an aesthetic that does not belong to them . This case of appropriation is not new, and is often taken to the furthest extreme by individuals calling themselves “transracial.”
Perhaps one of the most high profile cases of transracial transformation was Rachel Dolezal, a woman who lived as black for years and became a leader within the NAACP despite having two white parents . Dolezal has faded into obscurity, though documentaries and books were published about her passing as a black woman. Others, like German model Martina Big, fade from view after a few clickbait headlines.
But these cases are symptomatic of a duality that “blackfishing” exploits: the fact that race is something both socially constructed and categorized in our culture from visual cues. No one takes a blood sample of you on the street to determine your ethnic heritage before applying a racial category. It’s about your bone structure, skin color, and other outward appearances. And these can be modified.
The warping of race discomfits many of us because of the privileges our society gives to people with light skin. Because of the system we have created, we want to ensure that people cannot bypass socially enforced lines to steal from an experience that is not their own. That’s the root of the blackfishing issue: that privileged women are taking from an experience that is not their own, twisting it for their benefit, and facing none of the consequences or prejudices.
We have enforced a beauty standard of light skin and angular faces that many were not born with, but can use physical and digital methods to achieve. But as that standard changes, some born with traditionally “beautiful” faces are seeking new looks, while others transform themselves to align with those ideals.
Search on Instagram or a variety of platforms for “Asian makeup transformations.” The music is catchy and the steps go fast. There are quick eyebrow stamps or swigs of collagen drinks, followed by rapidly blurring and blending of makeup . Often the script is fairly simple: start with an “uglier” girl, then utilize medical tape and scar putty along with a primer and sunscreen  to make the skin look like flawless plastic. Then apply some glam makeup. The process is often sped up and set to music, and in some videos a filter, often from Chinese app Meitu  is used to distort the image even further.
These viral videos have dark undertones. Even though the entire routine shown in these videos is not representative of the everyday makeup that most people would wear (most aren’t adding scar wax every day for example), many of the ideals (lightening of skin, techniques to change hooded eyes and aggressive contouring) are extremely popular in common makeup online and as worn in real life.
The skin lightening industry in Asia is a huge one and colorism within Asian cultures is still prevalent today. The histories of many Asian cultures include imperialism and cultural fetishism, and many modern accounts of young Asian writers remind us that colorism is still being seen globally today . These videos almost always highlight this phenomenon: subjects in these videos often darken their skin before cosmetics are applied to highlight the transformation. And, unfortunately, heavy primers that make the skin lighter can be very damaging to many skin types, and skin lightening as a whole is dangerous.
The warping of the bone structure of the faces in these videos is another cause for concern. Beauty in many cultures is not just about vanity; it’s about social and and economic stability. The size of the Asian beauty market is staggering. South Korea is one of the largest consumers of plastic surgery and a culture in which the shape of your nose bridge can influence your income . Skin care, makeup and cosmetic surgery in South Korea are a central part of the culture, and apply a pressure that pervades throughout. Thousands of Koreans receive cosmetic surgery, and their desire to appear more Caucasian—from eyelid modification to skin lightening—is a source of much criticism. The processes shown in the transformational videos, however, achieve similar though impermanent looks without surgery.
Some might argue this transformation makeup is empowering—a solution that is more affordable and less dangerous than surgery. Others might argue that it still contributes to the oppressive nature of an unachievable beauty standard. These women’s faces are not shaped or colored like what we see at the end of these videos. But society, and face filters, want to make it the norm.
The most common and least time consuming option for digitally modifying one’s face is Snapchat and other social media filters. Snapchat has received both praise and criticism for its filters. Many consumers employ filters both for their novelty and their looks. Maybe you want bunny ears or a flower crown. Or just the “pretty” filter. Either way, these filters can digitally smooth your skin and pinch and shift the tone of your face to be “prettier.”
Many Snapchat filters have been called out for colorism throughout the few years they’ve been available . Even the flower crowns and cat ears filters also lighten the user’s skin tone by a considerable amount at the same time. This was met with media criticism, but hasn’t made the filters any less popular. But aren’t the results of Snapchat and Facetune filters also similar to the Asian makeup transformations—the pinched faces and light skin? This technology is letting us achieve these transformations within seconds, all under the context of fun.
We don’t quite know how looking at our images through these digitally applied lenses will affect us, especially young people who are likely to be exposed to this over the long term. But we do know a fair amount about how the human brain analyzes facial information and how we recognize faces. It’s an integral part of our development . Now, more and more of the images of faces we see are on digital screens. And these faces are being warped — not just by filters, but by editing apps like Photoshop, FaceTune, and Meitu. The gulf between the real and the unreal is closing, not just through widely-discussed technologies like deep fakes, but through digital makeup and retouching.
We think we can tell when images are edited, but, in reality, many platforms and media have shown that it is difficult to identify certain kinds of digital image editing — indeed, Adobe is even making algorithms to detect hard-to-discern edits in digital images. In response, a number of computer scientists are now developing algorithms to try and spot this type of editing, seeking to elide the negative effects of deceptive images .
Do we even know what the human face does and can look like anymore? We might not. People are coming to plastic surgeons inspired by filters rather than reality, which is concerning to both physicians and consumers alike . Despite our difficulty in identifying the result of digital image editing, many photo filters are actually anatomically incorrect — even if we don’t register these unnatural transformations at first glance. Digital filters often give people the appearance of a bone structure much younger than their lived age.
My work explores regendering via makeup, so I applied the Snapchat “girl” filter to 10 cisgender men aged 14–60, each with different skin tones. Someone transitioning to female gender expression might use this filter to experience their face in a different way . However, the transformation this filter brings about is physically impossible. For example, according to standard facial landmark data, the eye sockets in most of the resulting images (8 out of 10) were not anatomically possible.
This work is still new and evolving, and I clearly need to run formal experiments with much larger datasets, but I have to wonder... is Snapchat trying to predict something? Perhaps a new type of transformational surgery? Or is our current beauty standard and its exaggeration in digital space becoming just that unrealistic? What does this say about us?
But the Snapchat gender filter is not without its positives. While perhaps its display of gender is problematic, some may find this tool a helpful and affirming way to explore gender. I believe that a free tool for affirming gender identity is a social positive. Others, however, may find it dysphoric — an unrealistic standard they may never fulfill. As with most tech, opinions are mixed in the community overall, but with 7 billion faces to digitally modify, this will not be the last of these types of filters or questions. .
These digital makeup technologies have strong racial biases in their capabilities — they work significantly better for people with lighter skin. Much analysis and criticism of facial recognition has come out in recent years, some of the most visible from my colleague, Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League. Facial recognition software, for the most part, is extremely biased not only racially but also to face shape, particularly shapes that fit a typical XY bone structure. This is exclusive to people of color as well as individuals outside of much of the gender binary.
Yet facial recognition technology is rolling out in large scale applications across the private and governmental sectors, with lawmakers already regulating it before these rollouts. Facial recognition, from phone unlocking to smart home security, is coming to our everyday lives. And the reality of our faces as unchangeable identities, as a form of biometric identifier like a fingerprint, is warping.
Some makeup artists know this and have demonstrated that it’s possible to use cosmetics and scar wax to fool Apple’s Face ID and still look like a normal person. Sure, facial recognition will become more advanced, but so can our makeup. In an age where the human face is input and identity, modifying it with cosmetics may be the newest kind of fake IDs.
Makeup is a rich cultural phenomenon that extends back to early humanity. Humans have always made tools and art, and makeup is an art. The human face is a medium that has always existed. But what is next for its perception in this new age?
Facial technology and expression are a long, intertwined phenomenon that affects billion dollar markets and industries, art and fashion, science and technology, and societal standards and systemic constructs like race and gender. They influence the rise and fall of beauty standards; they underly much of a new influencer economy; they are responsible for the rising trend of risky plastic surgery and injectable fillers; and they can even affect the biases in facial technologies, whose usage can threaten citizens if they are implemented incorrectly. We all have a face, and in a rapidly changing technological ecosystem it’s time to acknowledge that technology and the ways it can alter the perception of the human face affects us all.
I don’t have answers to the many questions raised by the increasing unreality of the human face. I started as one of those girls wearing too much glitter eyeliner, and now I consider myself very lucky to be doing scientific research around makeup that helps ensure a wide variety of faces are seated at the table. I don’t care that a lot of people don’t take makeup very seriously for now (after all, it is glitter science, and robots seem cooler than contouring), but transformational disciplines matter and are here to stay. We have been applying cosmetics to our human faces, across cultures and religions, for millennia. There’s clearly a deep set of social and cultural forces at work here, and this space and its implications are still being explored by many, many people like myself.
So slow down and take a moment next time you catch your reflection in the mirror. What is it about your face that sticks with you? And who or what is telling you that?