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Photo via Map My Beauty / iTunes Remix via Max Fleishman

What happened when an app tried to teach me how to use makeup

Makeup is a skill, not Paint By Numbers.


Jaya Saxena


Posted on Jun 2, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 4:31 pm CDT

Makeup is confusing. Anyone who’s tried to follow makeup tutorials has heard the dozens of descriptors we have for our faces. Are your eyes almond-shaped or hooded? Is your face oval or heart-shaped? Just where are the apples of your cheeks? And on top of this lesson in facial taxonomy, we’re supposed to be able to paint ourselves with our eyes closed half the time.

You can see why an app like Map My Beauty would be useful.

Map My Beauty uses facial-mapping technology to help you achieve certain beauty looks. “Snap a selfie and answer a few questions to see what our beauty stylist has pinned just for you, and to get custom how-tos,” the app promises. Its step-by-step guides highlight where on your face to apply every color.

I’m OK at makeup. I’ve certainly come a long way from the days in middle school where I’d fill my entire eyelid with glittery black eyeliner because I didn’t know how to follow my lash line. But contouring confuses me, and I always get lipstick teeth. I also have no idea what sort of colors or “looks” would look good on me, so the idea of experts customizing makeup tips specifically for my face was really enticing.

“Trying to recreate a look based on a how-to video or someone else’s image is a nearly impossible feat, unless you are a professional makeup artist,” Map My Beauty founder and CEO Annabella Daily told me. “You need know where and how to apply the different products, what products to use and in which combination, to accentuate your unique features.”

By literally mapping out your face, the app figures out exactly where different products should be applied. Daily said each “look” has 45 different versions based on the shapes of users’ faces and eyes.

Mapping my eye.

Mapping my eye.

via Jaya Saxena

The app’s goal is to turn the average user into a makeup artist by helping them understand their own face. YouTube tutorials are great, but ultimately, you’re watching someone do makeup the way it works on them, not the way it will work on you.

“We give you the type of tips and how-tos a professional makeup artist would give you, to help you apply makeup on your own,” Daily said. Map My Beauty plans to expand to skin care and hair care, too.

But the app’s “looks” are still limited. They’re designed by different partnered brands to feature their beauty products, which you are prompted to buy in the app, thus evoking the feeling of getting a makeover at a mall beauty counter and then feeling guilty for not buying anything.

If you don’t buy products from them, you can find equivalent products in your own collection. Since I’m cheap, I went for the latter.

via Jaya Saxena

I decided to try out the “Hudson Green” look from Make Beauty, a combination of dark green and yellow eyeshadow and red lips that is about 300 times bolder than my everyday look. It calls for ten products, and I rummaged through my makeup bag until I found what I figured would be equivalents for most of them.

Buying the entire “look” through the app would have cost $290.52.

via Jaya Saxena

The first step made it look like I should just cover my eyelids with shadow, but the description said I should blend it “beyond the outer corners of your eyes, to elongate your eyes and create a cat-eye effect.”

Map My Beauty, why do you think I’m here? Learning how to create a cat-eye effect is what I need you for. Otherwise I just look like I got a black eye.

There were some other instructions that, to my disappointment, assumed I knew what I was doing, and I became increasingly frustrated that my face did not look like the model’s. The one plus side was that I could skip the brow powder entirely, as there is no way my brows need any more definition. But my chin was wider than the model’s, my skin was darker, and she didn’t appear to have those natural under-eye circles that I do.

via Jaya Saxena

By the end, I looked good, but nothing like the model I had seen. I didn’t even know if I wanted to look like her in the first place, but the “after-selfie” punched me right in the self-esteem. I had followed every direction to the letter, and I looked totally different. My look wasn’t as dramatic. What was my problem? Hadn’t I followed the instructions?

Sorta but not really.

Sorta but not really.

via Jaya Saxena

The thing is, makeup does not work like Paint By Numbers. There are guidelines, but no matter what instructions you follow—or whether they’re from a makeup artist at Sephora, a YouTube demo, or an app that pastes guidelines onto your selfies—you have to know how to translate those instructions to the shapes and contours of your own face.

Applying makeup well is a skill that takes time to learn, even if it’s a skill we often diminish and devalue. The idea is it’s frivolous, feminine, and generally not something to which it’s worth devoting time or effort. We mock women who seem to be obviously wearing makeup, yet we perceive women who don’t wear makeup as incompetent.

Thanks to Map My Beauty, I know I have a rectangular face and almond-shaped eyes, which is helpful information. And with time, I can get better at applying winged eyeshadow. But if doing makeup is a skill you want to master, it’s one you’ll still have to work at to get it right.

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*First Published: Jun 2, 2016, 11:29 am CDT