The Myth of the Cool Girl, Debunked

“Who are your favorite ‘cool,’ low-key beautubers?”

 The subreddit r/beautyguruchatter is full of similar requests. In a space full of big personalities, professional production and beat faces, it’s easy to see why the low-key beauty vlogger might be “cool,” seeing as she’s the antithesis of everything that’s trendy right now. The big “beautubers” — a portmanteau of “beauty” and “YouTuber” — are still doing the heavy, drag inspired makeup that’s dominated the beauty community for the past five years. Smaller creators are taking things in a different direction, leaving behind the baking and the beat for something a little more natural.

Trend-wise, this is the way the pendulum swings: after years of heavy coverage, full-on glam makeup, we’re looking for something simpler. But it’s too easy to write the “Cool Girl” off as something purely trendy.

The Cool Girl has permeated our culture for years, her name associated with author Gillian Flynn and her 2012 novel “Gone Girl.” The “Cool Girl” monologue, after going viral with the release of the 2014 film adaptation, defined the juxtaposition of the Cool Girl’s identity. 

“Being Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker and dirty jokes, who plays videogames and chugs beer, loves threesomes and anal sex and jams chili dogs into my mouth like I’m hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang-bang while remaining a size 2,” Flynn wrote. “Because cool girls are above all hot.”

Coolness in women is, ultimately, defined by men. Be hot, brilliant and funny — just don’t make it look like you care.

The Cool Girl is international and beyond the scope of “Gone Girl.” How many times have you read about Cool French Girl style in magazines and blogs? The Cool French Girl wears a white t-shirt, jeans and no makeup other than red lipstick. She never spends time on her hair or her appearance at all, she’s just naturally that beautiful. There are other international iterations of her: there’s the Cool London Girl (edgy, slightly punk, rocks Dr. Martens, has an ear full of piercings) and the Cool New York Girl (wears only black, struts around the city in heels regardless of how far she has to walk).

The one thing they all have in common is some kind of effortless “it” factor. From Paris to San Francisco, these city girls are too busy to care about their appearance, yet they are somehow still polished and beautiful. 

As beauty trends focus less on heavy coverage makeup, the Cool Girl is the image that brands are now trying to sell you. Glossier, Milk Makeup, RMS Beauty and similar companies all are branded as being easy to use and foolproof, but no brand has mastered this marketing better than Glossier.

The Glossier brand is an entire aesthetic — from the ad copy to the little pink pouch your order comes in, which is encouraged to be carried as a clutch. The packaging is sleek, minimal and millennial pink. Their models have gorgeous, clear and untextured skin. Their products would look beautiful on your shelf and, perhaps, make you look beautiful as well. Their website declares that “makeup is a choice.” Even their perfume is meant to do nothing else but smell “like you.” Glossier’s products work for you, not against you. And selling a lifestyle with a product — in this case, becoming a Cool Girl — is a successful, age-old advertising tactic.

So you may be wondering… what exactly is so revolutionary about Glossier? The long and short of it is: nothing.

Their formulas are simple and their style is trendy. They’re not doing anything special compared to other brands in their vein. RMS Beauty Uncover Up is similar to the Glossier Stretch Concealer. Milk Makeup and Glossier both sell sheer liquid eyeshadows. Clinique’s arguably most famous product — the Almost Lipstick in Black Honey — preceded Glossier’s Generation G lipsticks by about 30 years. And their perfume? Nothing we haven’t seen from Juliette Has A Gun.

Effortless beauty has been around for a long time, and it wasn’t until the 2010s that makeup truly came into the mainstream as an accessory, something to wear the way you would an amazing jacket or killer pair of heels. Color cosmetics have come a long way in the last ten years. If Clinique is your mom’s makeup, Glossier might just have taken it out of its iconic mint green packaging and put it in millennial pink to sell it to 20-somethings.

As we move out of the “Insta Glam” decade, there’s nothing indicating that the visible effort of the full coverage look is going away anytime soon; “no makeup” makeup has a skill set of its own. But not for Glossier. With their “skin first, makeup second” ethos, Glossier tells you where the effort in your routine should go: skincare. It’s less visible than makeup (someone’s skin can be naturally beautiful, versus having naturally gold eyelids). But even Glossier’s skincare is supposed to be easy. Glossier’s website proudly claims, “Our entire skincare lineup is about immediate results and easy-to-use formulas.” Like their makeup, Glossier’s skincare is intended to be something you just slap on and go. The Cool Girl doesn’t have time to let different serums and exfoliators sit and absorb into her skin.

It’s a striking contrast to the Korean 10-step skincare routine. Growing in popularity in the West, K-Beauty makes the effort part of the fun. Your skincare routine becomes time to relax and enjoy yourself as you wait for the different layers of essences and serums to absorb into your skin. A K-Beauty routine doesn’t mean you’re doing all 10 steps every night, but it’s still multi-step, and much less “slap on and go” than a company like Glossier is trying to sell you. Both types of skincare routines produce results, but why is it only Glossier’s style that’s associated with the Cool Girl?

The answer: there’s a difference in perception between the skincare-focused look of Korean beauty versus French beauty.

What does Glossier sell you with their imagery? Until recently, it was the image of a white, thin, conventionally attractive model with flawless skin. The Stretch Concealer had only three shades at its launch: light, medium and dark. As a MAC NC20, I used medium. Dark couldn’t be used by anyone past NW/NC45, which is on the lighter side of the spectrum for most women of color. They later added shades Deep and Rich to their lineup but didn’t expand their shade range to include a variety of depths and undertones until January 2019. With this expansion, Glossier ditched the shade names, choosing instead to use a numeric system similar to MAC’s. G1 is now the deepest, while G12 is the lightest. The models are incredibly diverse in race, ethnicity, gender and age, but it also took Glossier five years to get here.

Why do we put so much effort into looking effortless? There’s something about the low maintenance look that screams “cool.” We spend ten minutes “throwing” our hair into a messy bun. We smudge our eyeliner to make it look like we slept in it. We pull pieces of hair out of our braids to make it look lived it. Sometimes, doing these things make our morning routine take longer than the polished version.

No matter what your brand of Cool Girl is, from glam to goth to gamer, the Cool Girl’s “Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on!” aesthetic downplays the skill that goes into a look. Makeup can be hard and finding skincare that works for you can be even harder. Why discount everything we’ve learned about how to make beauty work for us? It’s the impossible dichotomy that Flynn presents in “Gone Girl.” Be a size 2 and eat whatever you want without going to the gym and working hard for it. Have gorgeous skin and hair without spending hours on your beauty routine.

A woman who puts effort into her appearance isn’t sexy. Remember the “take her swimming on the first date” challenge?

The beauty industry as a whole upholds the standards set in place by white men in power. Glossier’s natural style of makeup may feel revolutionary right now, but it’s the product of influence by European, racist and patriarchal beauty standards. Its Cool Girl marketing tactics unintentionally play into that, and we’re buying it. I love Glossier’s makeup and use them in conjunction with my heavy coverage products, but I won’t lie to myself about the reason I was drawn to them in the first place:

If I used their makeup, maybe I could be as gorgeous and cool as their models.

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About Author

Sia is a senior at UNC double majoring in Peace, War and Defense and Russian. She writes to share her love of all things makeup and beauty, from both a technical and cultural standpoint. When she's not in school or working, she can be found cooking, reading or marathoning House Hunters.