The makeup trend called “boy beat” has become Instagram’s version of the Telephone game. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different definition.
My definition of boy beat is based on what my friend Ross told me. He regularly performs in drag as Lemon Chiffon but just started wearing makeup as Ross. “I’ve started to wear boy beats, and I want this to be a regular thing,” he texted me the other day. (For the uninitiated, “beat” is a term that originated in the drag community that refers to immaculate makeup application.)
It’s when I wear makeup as a boy and still identify as male.
I asked him what boy beat means to him. “It’s when I wear makeup as a boy and still identify as male. I’m not putting on makeup to be a drag queen or female passing.” His boy beat includes highlighting his cheekbones with a low-key luminizer, filling in his brows, and occasionally applying subtle smoky eye makeup. “If I’m going out, it’s to make me feel more glam,” he explained to me. “Because I wear the same clothes from day to night, the makeup makes me feel fancier.”
Over the past couple months, makeup artists on Instagram, on the other hand, have interpreted boy beat as a no-makeup makeup technique that embraces so-called imperfections such as stray brow hairs, dark circles, freckles, and redness in the way that men do. Many have been crediting YouTuber Sarah Cheung for inspiring them to try out the look. She created a tutorial video in January and explained boy beat as “accentuating features that we usually would consider flaws, like rosacea, acne, dark circles, while still making it work and adding a lot of structure. It’s kind of a reversal of the Instagram perfect skin look.” Basically, Cheung does her makeup to look like the way that guys who don’t wear makeup look every day, completely flipping Ross’s definition around.
It’s accentuating features that we usually would consider flaws.
To accomplish her boy beat look, Cheung started off by applying foundation on the spots where she “needed it” with her hands. Then, she tapped a brown cream blush along the tops of her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. “I’m trying to make it mimic rosacea or sunburn,” she explained. Next, Cheung filled in her brows with a pencil to create a bushy look and make them seem “like your brows have never seen a pair of tweezers before.” The same pencil was also used to speckle her face with faux freckles. Then, Cheung swept eye shadow on to emphasize her dark circles and create discoloration on her eyelids.
The Beyoncé Connection
Coincidentally, Cheung based her boy beat look off of what makeup artist Sir John said in an Allure video breaking down some of Beyoncé’s most iconic music video looks. “I’ve never been so inspired by a makeup-related video because Beyoncé’s looks throughout the years are so iconic,” she tells Allure. The part where he brings up boy beat particularly caught her attention, though.
When the video got to one of her “Formation” looks, Sir John said, “What we like to call this is a ‘boy beat.’ All it was is giving the eyes a shape, giving the cheeks a shape. I gave a lot of contouring to the sides of the face. You see how much chiseling is happening here? That’s on purpose. I was really looking to just capture her essence and give her tons of structure to the face.” However, he never brings up “flaws” or skin conditions.
Cheung says she interpreted his words as such, “Sir John’s look is chiseled cheeks and bushy brows, a break from Beyoncé’s usual polished glam. And it had this boyish charm that’s playful and carefree. So I started to explore other ways that we can break free from the hyper-femininity in the beauty world and subvert some of the makeup routines we’ve too easily fallen into, like covering dark circles, hiding freckles and rosacea, to look unpolished but still beautiful.”
Just to be sure, I asked Sir John to clarify his definition of boy beat. “[It’s] an androgynous way to look at makeup being masculine and feminine at the
same time, adding a bit more structure than you would have naturally,” he tells Allure. Reason being? “Women’s faces tend to be more round, whereas men’s are a bit more square.” To add said structure, he softly contours along the sides of the face, including the jawline, cheekbones, temples, and forehead. Then, he likes to highlight with a shimmer-less product like a balm or night cream for “a more emollient look.” Sir John’s definition of boy beat pre-dates today’s era of Instagram makeup, too. “The phrase came from my early days working at the M.A.C. Harlem location,” he says. “Even now, what is called the ‘Instagram brow’ came from M.A.C. Harlem,” he says.
It’s an androgynous way to look at makeup being masculine and feminine at the
same time, adding a bit more structure than you would have naturally.
Again, Sir John doesn’t mention dark circles or rosacea. Why not? “It has nothing to do with your flaws as much as it has to do with a modern approach to masculinity,” he says. “It’s not about covering your flaws or creating new ones. It’s more about an unintentional effortless approach to beauty. No frills, pairing down excess, great skin with a structured face, prominent brows, and clean lashes.” Now that boy beat has gone through several rounds of Telephone, he adds, the look is about “[loving] yourself and the skin you’re in.”
While the underlying message of embracing what society deems as imperfections and challenging makeup’s traditional function is deserving of praise, Instagram makeup artists’ definition of boy beat has received criticism from people on social media.
For starters, this no-makeup makeup technique has “boy” in it, which clearly genders the technique. Historically, makeup has been treated as something stereotypically feminine. When something that is typically connected with female-identified people is associated or used by male-identifying people, man or boy is usually tacked on, like man purse or men’s facial. Let’s be real, makeup is an object and an art form. It doesn’t have a gender. Men can put on makeup without having to precede the technique with man or boy. Also, basing a technique on the way men don’t have to do their makeup further perpetuates the pressures on women to do their makeup to cover up those perceived imperfections.
It’s not a trend for me. It’s my actual skin.
The fact that a skin condition like rosacea is being mimicked on those who don’t have it has also been a cause for concern. In the comments of Cheung’s video, someone called Ashlyn W. wrote, “I have real rosacea, and I wish people wouldn’t equate it with a cute little blush or pinkness. It’s totally awesome to see it being more embraced, but faking it or trying to recreate it with makeup is just kind of pointless to me.” In reality, rosacea can be uncomfortable and itchy. Some people spend hours in the dermatologist office to help treat it and spend hundreds of dollars on products to help conceal their chronic redness. (A similar argument has come up in regards to faux freckles.) With makeup artists temporarily trying out the look of rosacea, people who actually have it are expressing frustration. At the end of the day, they don’t get to wipe away their makeup and remove their skin condition with it. “It’s not a trend for me,” Cassandra Lily wrote in Cheung’s YouTube comments. “It’s my actual skin.”
Cheung understands where this frustration is coming from. “I was faking rosacea the same way we fake longer lashes with mascara and fake fuller lips with lip liner,” she explains. “The important difference is we are normally taught to hide some traits and accentuate others. And the whole point of this look is to realize these differences are arbitrary and we shouldn’t be afraid to experiment outside of the standards of beauty.”
Lauren Elyse, a Chicago-based makeup artist, recreated Cheung’s boy beat look and received similar criticism on her Instagram post. She tells Allure that she can understand why people would be upset. “For a lot of those who actually have it, it’s something that they’re insecure about and have always been taught to see as a ‘flaw.’ Then, here are some makeup artists and beauty bloggers creating an illusion of it to make it ‘cool’.” However, she adds that her blush look is called “sun stripping,” which she often incorporates in her viral makeup looks. “It’s a technique that gives the effect that I’ve been out in the sun all day, which really does happen to me,” she explains. “That’s more of what I was going for than truly looking like rosacea.”
In regards to the gendered element of the look, someone who goes by @Beautybyagnesmatilda on Instagram commented on Lauren Elyse’s post saying, “The technique I feel like should be named after what it does not who it’s being or meant to be applied on. To enhance what is considered flaws shouldn’t be exclusive to one gender.” Lauren Elyse responded to her, writing, “I in no way think it’s saying that ‘flaws [equal] masculinity.’ Women are constantly told to embrace their flaws and imperfections but still in traditionally feminine ways.”
She went on to add, “Also, I don’t even think it’s that deep. It’s a name for a makeup look. I wish people would stop putting so much focus on trying to find deeper meanings to things just because it has the words ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ in it. At the end of the day, it’s just a makeup look. There are other things revolving around gender that are way more important to have conversations on.” Fair enough, but this look is a good place to start the dialogue.
Read about people helping change conversations about gender and makeup:_
Now, watch Sir John break down more of Beyoncé’s most iconic music video looks: