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Are Elaborate Makeup Selfies a Legitimate Way to Grieve?

The idea of "tragedy makeup"—where popular vloggers share looks crafted with mourning horrific events in mind—has long been controversial in the makeup artist community. After Orlando, some feel it's gone too far.
Screengrab via Instagram

In the aftermath of a tragedy, people—whether directly affected or not—have different ways of dealing with the ensuing onslaught of feelings. Some write, some make art, and some, well, take makeup selfies. After the attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, people around the world took to social media to extend their thoughts, condolences, image macros, and rainbow heart emojis to show that they stood with the victims. But one interesting element is the sheer number of people using makeup (almost always involving rainbows) as a way to express grief and support. Sometimes referred to as "tragedy makeup," the category encompasses numerous rainbow eye and lip looks (and this); hashtags like #RainbowNailsForOrlando; and other rainbow-based looks that have appeared on social media since the attack. The use of rainbows in makeup as a way to show support for the LGBTQ community is nothing new, but after the attack at Pulse, it's taken on a new form—one that lives outside of the joy of Pride parties and parades.


The first time makeup looks being posted "in solidarity" started to really appear online was after the November 2015 Paris attacks. Makeup bloggers started to post the occasional lip or nail look alongside the ubiquitous Eiffel Tower peace sign and the hashtag #prayforParis. It can seem weird to use makeup—something made to beautify—to commemorate a terrorist attack, but some defended the practice as a way to use their art to grieve, the same as writing poetry or songs. This is not a new thing—the bright, recognizable colors of the French and Pride flags make them easy to duplicate in makeup looks, and rainbow looks have been a mainstay of every Pride makeup tutorial since Pride immemorial—but the context is different. When you recreate a flag not in celebration, but in mourning, where do you draw the line? Is it OK if a straight makeup artist (MUA) does a look? What if a non-French artist does a nail tutorial about the Paris attacks?

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While the Paris looks flew under the radar, posts about Orlando came hard and fast. One of the first popular videos came from Netherlands-based vlogger NikkieTutorials, who posted a rainbow eye three days after the attack. In the YouTube description of the video, she admits that she had originally planned to do the same look for Pride, but had shifted the focus to one that was also a "tribute and to show my respect to the beautiful souls we have lost in Orlando." Most of the feedback appeared to be positive, but some took to Twitter to voice their displeasure, which resulted in some now-deleted pushback from Nikkie. While Nikkie also originally stated on Twitter that "ads would be turned off" so that she wouldn't profit from these tutorials, the description on the YouTube video page was later changed to say that all ad revenue would be donated, along with a link to the official Orlando GoFundMe campaign.


The idea of "tragedy makeup" is divisive within the MUA community. Some see it as a way to use their art to express their feelings or solidarity; others have taken to message boards to voice their concerns that the looks can be seen as tacky or self-serving—that making yourself look beautiful in the wake of a massacre is a solid faux pas. As a makeup enthusiast and a queer woman, I get where they're coming from. At worst, "tragedy makeup" can feel like a prettier version of slacktivism, where all eyes are on the MUA mugging for the camera rather than the people actually affected by the event.

Alana, a Toronto-based woman who self-identifies as gay, felt less charitable. "Posting something that shows solidarity, without really adding to the conversation—but with an added element of self-promotion—really depends on who is doing it, how it's being done, and why," she said. "Like, a queer person quietly sharing a selfie with rainbow lips is one thing. A straight person with an online following, sharing a rainbow eyes photo with a 'click here for the tutorial' tagline is a problematic other. The latter reads like, 'Hey, this tragic thing happened. P.S. I'm leveraging it to my benefit—subscribe to my channel!'"

I was so torn with how to feel, especially considering I got so much attention for such a sad thing.

But it's not a cut-and-dry issue. After her Orlando-inspired look became popular on Twitter, queer New Zealand makeup and SFX artist Tegan Tinsley says she feels torn about the whole idea of tragedy makeup. "There are people who will be doing it for the wrong reasons, but at the same time there are those who have good intentions," she said. For her, it was less about her makeup artist brand and more about the effect on the larger community. "It wasn't my own personal identity that struck me so hard with the tragedy, though. I've always been brought up in the LGBT community," she says. "I can see how it looks like some people are using the tragedy as a platform. In my own personal case, I did it for myself; I wanted to make a tribute how I know best. I definitely did not expect it to go viral like it did. I was so torn with how to feel, especially considering I got so much attention for such a sad thing."


Some members of the LGBTQ community feel it's not enough to just post a pretty picture if you want to express genuine support for queer people. For those in Orlando, and for those in the community who fear violence from strangers or even their own families, the reality of queerness can't just be wiped away. "What I didn't appreciate, and I realize this is cynical, was the sheer volume of empty gestures—blanket Facebook statements, rainbow heart emojis, hashtagged slogans," Alana said. "I realize that these folks posting are coming from a really good place and maybe the torrent of solidarity posts like these are heartwarming to some, but to me, people posting empty, two-second gestures aren't adding to the helping or healing process and are [instead] adding to the rehashing of a hurtful occurrence we're already well aware of."

For her—and many people I spoke to—it's less about pictures and tweets and more about showing, not telling. "What I did appreciate were real, actual, loving gestures—my mom calling to say she was attending her first PFLAG [an organization formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] meeting; or my friend texting from halfway across the country to check in and send her love."

In a recent This American Life episode, writer and director Lulu Wang that talks about how funeral guests in China are expected to cry in a way that demonstrates to others that you are obviously grieving for the dead. Social media has allowed—or forced—us to expand that idea outwards, creating a world where we have to let others know our grief—even we aren't affected directly.

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It goes without saying that members of the queer community want allies to speak out and show support and say yes, we are here, and we will help however we can. But an eyeliner tutorial—even one that carries all the #supportive #hashtags and will purportedly result in ad dollars being donated to charity—doesn't really do anything. For Alana, "wearing a rainbow out in the world [rather than online] is performative, in that you're outing yourself as a queer or an ally to others and you're not racking up points or likes by doing so. Instead, you're trading smiles, sharing friendly nods, and starting real conversations." Chances are, lots of the makeup artists on Instagram or YouTube will immediately wash their looks off once the webcam is turned off. It becomes performative grieving, and it runs the risk of just being literal lip service.