People magazine's Most Beautiful issue features Beyoncé on the cover, but inside, there are pages and pages of more Beautiful People, including a 10-page spread of female celebrities photographed wearing "not a drop of makeup." Ben Watts shot intimate, natural portraits of Rose Byrne, Julie Bowen, Paris Jackson, Zooey Deschanel, Lily Collins, Jessica Paré, Sandra Lee and Paula Patton. And they all look beautiful, sure. But of course they're not on the cover. The cover sticks to formula: Makeup, hair, lighting, Photoshop.
A couple of years ago French Elle ran some covers of stars SANS FARDS, and I had mixed feelings then, as I do now. Unlike Star magazine, where the celebs are mocked for daring to appear in public without spackle, the People editors gush, "bare is breathtaking," and declare that the women are showing off "natural beauty." And they are. They are.
But when it comes to trying to figure out the point of this exercise, it's very confusing. Take 14-year-old Paris Jackson. Yes, she is gorgeous. Stunning! And slightly reminiscent of the Afghan woman from National Geographic. But don't we usually see her without makeup? Are we supposed to be gawking at her because she's beautiful without makeup, or beautiful, period? Is the lesson here that you don't need makeup to be beautiful? Because, uh, it helps that she is 14.
With Mad Men's Jessica Paré, it is interesting to see her face without makeup, because most of us see her in character as Megan, the new Mrs. Draper. That means red lips, lots of foundation, '60s eyeshadow. Who knew she had freckles? Or that her eye color is so striking? Showing us someone in an entirely different light, that's quality journalism. That's a story.
But let's talk about Zooey Deschanel, seen here without her signature false lashes. We've seen her sort of bare before — in Elf, for instance — but lately she's been doing the doe-eyed eyeliner and fluttery lashes thing. So she looks different. It feels like a set-up, in a way: If you think she looks bad, aren't you just thinking as a member of the oppressively rigid society that keeps women feeling that they have to be flawless? And if you think she looks good, which, by the way, I do, then what is the point? What is the "what" here? Is the takeaway "beautiful people still look beautiful without mascara"? Are we meant to revel in the wonder of the human form and throw away our Maybelline Great Lash, en masse?
You could argue that ladies like to look at other ladies. And we like to look at pretty things, so clearly we like to look at pretty ladies. But the female-on-female gaze, in this context — we hid the people without makeup on the inside, so as not to scare you! — feels strange. There's very little text accompanying these images; the photos themselves are the point. Look at these women! No makeup!! If the cover, or the entire issue featured women without makeup, it might be a lesson, reminding us how most of the images we see in magazines are based in reality yet completely unreal. But this way, it feels like bait, the kind that we, as highly visual creatures, can't resist.
Which is not to say that it's a bad idea to print photographs of celebrities without makeup, jarring us out of our glossy image haze. It's a good idea. I just wish it didn't feel like (or have to be) a stunt.