The lifecycle of a beauty hack, trend, or “it” product is a ruthless one. What’s in today can easily become a relic tomorrow. But part of what makes beauty fun in the first place is looking back at what used to be cool, even if it’s deemed completely cringe now. Hence, the millions of “I can’t believe we used to do this to our faces” posts on social media or the “How I Used to Do My Makeup” tag on YouTube. But as obvious as some of these beauty mistakes were —and let us call them what they are: mistakes— there was once a time when even the most outrageous rituals had a place in our routine.
Rachel Weingarten, a beauty historian, says this is all par for the course in beauty. The concept of cringing over our past appearances wasn’t invented in the 2020s, although the new terminology might’ve been. The truth of the matter is, very few people emerge from any era unscathed by beauty trends. She points to Jackie Kennedy, 1960s elegance icon, as one of the few whose looks has survived the test of time. “The reason that someone like Jackie always looked perfect was that, for better or worse, she almost always looked the same,” Weingarten says. “Aside from her White House days as First Lady when she was married to JFK, her hair was almost always the same length, her glasses were large and oversized, and even her pants and tops were the same proportion. She found the look that worked best for her and stuck to it. That's an option for everyone, but is it fun? Not even a little.”
You know what is fun? Spraying lemon juice in your hair on a beach day and seeing if you can DIY your own highlights or crimping the absolute life out of your hair before a high school dance. But like so many beloved beauty hacks of years past, the speed, ease, and bargain price point tend to come with consequences. Sometimes in the form of orange highlights. For example, it may seem cheaper and more efficient to use hairspray as setting spray (a beauty trick originating among the drag queen community that’s gained populous traction in the past few years), but the potential problems outweigh its benefits. In that case, potential results include irritation, rashes, and clogged pores. It seems most disastrous beauty hacks, particularly from the early aughts, seem to involve something being employed in a way other than its intended use.
Weingarten cites using tape on the delicate eye area to create a cat’s eye effect as a perfect example. “You should never sacrifice your skin's wellbeing for a temporary beauty fix,” she says. “I would see people yank off the tape and proudly show off great eyeliner… along with a red and irritated delicate eye area.”
The list goes on and on. From walnut scrubs (which can damage your skin barrier) to melting blackheads by sealing vaseline to your face with plastic wrap (which doesn’t work and can cause pore congestion), there’s no end to the skincare crimes we’ve committed in the name of fast beauty. While individually, we hopefully learn our lessons after committing these beauty sins only once or twice, certain things seem to pop up in every generation. Even though it’s been debunked, a quick scroll through TikTok shows that even Gen Z is buying into the idea that putting toothpaste on a zit is a reasonable thing to do. But, the good news is, while drying and irritating, it’s not life-ruining.
We’re still on the same path as we were twenty years ago. Only now, with TikTok and Instagram, those beauty decisions are better documented and spread faster than ever. In just a few years, we’ll be looking back on 2021 and wondering what were we thinking. The stakes, however, are heightened as plastic surgery becomes more and more common.
“We are absolutely making similar beauty mistakes now, though some of our goofs are now more permanent. It's easier to spot things like really bad cosmetic surgery and over-Botoxed faces on celebrities, but not on themselves,” says Weingarten. To demonstrate how fast things change she says, “The duck lips we now avoid were once a novelty.” Many have moved on from that look but she continues, “The incredibly poofed up faces with too many fillers is already a dated look, but we haven't quite figured it out yet.” People in glass houses and such.
Perhaps we can use the embarrassment of the 00’s craziest trends to humble us. We can look back on our time in the skinny eyebrow trenches to make better choices and approach new beauty trends with the knowledge we’ve earned. It’s important to note that participating in some trends might have a longer tail than others. Trying a new lip color is always low risk, even if you discover that brown lipstick isn’t for you. But when it comes to Botox and fillers, maybe think of it as more akin to plucking your own eyebrows or using a 450˚ flat iron every day (as so many of us did in the early 2000s). Go slow and proceed with caution, with the knowledge that certain choices can take time and patience to undo if the tide turns on a trend.
“We are absolutely making similar beauty mistakes now, though some of our goofs are now more permanent.”
“While we can kid each other about beauty trends, we're right on track for making the same silly choices,” says Weingarten. So if you ever feel bad about not participating in a beauty trend, have some reassurance that you might thank your present self in the future. But human beings are doomed to repeat the past, everything will eventually make a comeback. (See: platform flip-flops, butterfly clips, and even duck nails.)
At any rate, beauty is all the more fun when it’s not taken too seriously (unless it involves chemicals, needles, or the like, in which case, some research and an expert hand are key). If you look back in a few years from now and laugh, so what? After all, who among us has been too good for the occasional beauty faux-pas once in a while. And you might end up discovering something you really love.
“I'd rather take some chances with beauty from time to time just to mix things up. Will it stand the test of time? Doubtful. But that's half the fun of it anyway,” says Weingarten. “Also, there's a time and place for everything.” So take your frosty blue eyeshadow and crimped hair out for a night on the town. There are always other occasions to try to be timeless.