I met Michelle Phan the same day I received my first laptop, a gift so exciting that I hastily unwrapped the slick white device and threw away the user manual by accident. Powering up my beloved new device, I did a quick Internet search: something along the lines of “mac tutorial.” Intrigued by a colorful Youtube thumbnail, I clicked.
The video, it turned out, wasn’t a tutorial for newbie Macbook owners. It was a girl with long, dark hair demonstrating how to achieve something called a smokey eye using MAC Cosmetics. Captivated by her soothing narration, I sat immobile for the entire clip, watching her blend various eye shadows into a seamless, shimmery gradient of black and silver.
I clicked to another video, then another.
So it goes.
Like any girl growing up with an unapologetically feminist mother – shout out to Joy Lustig – I was never “taught” to wear makeup. In fact, my mother still doesn’t wear lipstick unless I achieve something notable (think high school graduation or my bat mitzvah ceremony). Which meant, by high school, I still didn’t know how to apply mascara very well, much less how to “use my ring finger to gently pat concealer” over my “imperfections.” Covering up zits, lining lids, and darkening lashes simply weren’t priorities in my house.
But there was something about this video, about this girl, that made me want to care. That made me consider makeup more than just face paint for the patriarchy. Michelle Phan had a different username back then. She didn’t have a billion viewers and millions of subscribers. She wasn’t a Makeup Mogul or a Beauty Guru. She was just a 20-something with a knack for art, and it showed with every inky eyeliner stroke. She didn’t have a makeup line or international notoriety or even an HD camera.
But she had my attention, and the attention of a small following of similarly inept teenage girls. I coveted her skill and her confidence. I liked scrolling down to the comments section and seeing women interacting with her content. I liked partaking in this tiny sub-community, complete with lingo and inside jokes. I liked the self-love mentality Michelle brought to makeup. She made even the most difficult techniques seem simple. She used products I could afford. She taught without condescension. And above all, she inspired countless girls to set up Youtube channels of their own and make videos, too. Many of those girls are still making videos in the beauty community today–some are even filming professionally, building their career on a format Michelle pioneered.
That’s hella empowering, IMO. Which is why her recent interview with Cosmo kind of broke my feminist heart.
“When you read about the real history of where feminism comes from, it came from a very political point of view,” Phan explained. “I don’t believe in bringing any politics to an idea like feminism. I love the idea that women should be celebrated, but I also believe men should be too. We need both—yin and yang. I wouldn’t even say I’m a humanist. Because what about animals? Ego places humans on top. I believe in making harmony with everything.”
Okay, BUSTies. Breathe. Stay with me.
Michelle’s right to bristle when interviewers compulsively ask celebrities to claim or not claim the capital-F-feminist label. It’s becoming a modern Salem witch hunt, tracking down famous women, hurling this question, and forcing them to reduce something as expansive as feminism down to a three sentence soundbite.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to ask, to discuss, and to critique their response, particularly when it’s categorically misguided and ESPECIALLY when the celebrity in question holds such sway with girls ten and older. Because when Michelle speaks, LEGIONS of young women listen. Listen isn’t even the word for it–they believe.
When Taylor Swift claimed her feminism, I danced in my pajamas in celebration (to the tune of 1989, of course). And should Michelle eventually do the same, you better believe I’ll swipe on some lip gloss.
But until then, I’m staying barefaced. At least, most of the time.
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