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Are teenagers really hiring MUAs for school?

17-year-old Aniya tells Dazed that she got her make-up done for her first day of senior year because she ‘wanted to stand out’

When 17-year-old Aniya woke up for her first day of school this year, she didn’t stuff a pen in her pocket and grab a slice of toast before bolting out the door like most teenagers. No – she woke up at the crack of dawn, hours and hours before the school bell rang, and headed out to a 6am appointment with a make-up artist. 

“In Birmingham [Alabama], it’s like a fashion show on the first day of school. Everyone puts on their best outfits – it’s fun,” she tells Dazed. “That’s why I decided to get my make-up done. I wanted to stand out a little.” Aniya has certainly succeeded in standing out from the crowd. In August, Valencia, the make-up artist who did Aniya’s make-up, posted a video of her and another one of her clients on TikTok. It went viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views, and sparked an impassioned debate about whether it’s healthy or right for high school students to be hiring professional MUAs for the first day of school.

Some have argued that we shouldn’t ‘police’ young women’s choices, and it’s certainly true that publicly passing judgement on young women doesn’t seem the most kind or productive thing to do. If getting professional make-up done for school helps them feel less anxious and more confident, why not? “I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with it,” Valencia tells Dazed. “Some people are just extra – like me!” Plus, this is hardly a widespread trend – Valencia says Aniya and her other client in the TikTok video “were the only two” she’s had who booked “back to school” appointments.

“Honestly, I feel like as long as you’re not a parent of these students, or as long as these students aren’t violating any codes of conducts at their schools, then you shouldn’t be sharing any negative opinion on this,” Valencia says. “We should be promoting young Black women expressing themselves. This is a new era. Just because back in our day we weren’t able to do stuff like this, it’s not fair to try to limit young girls now.”

While it would be absurd to accuse Aniya – a teenage girl – of ‘perpetuating impossible standards’ by wearing a full beat for one day, the idea of young women paying for a professional makeover for their first day of school is undeniably symptomatic of a wider problem. Since time immemorial, women have indisputably been subject to arbitrary beauty standards and felt pressure to look ‘perfect’ at all times and it has only been made worse by the rise of social media. 

According to internal research leaked to the Wall Street Journal, Instagram has made body image issues worse for one in three girls. In one study of teenagers in the UK and the US, more than 40 per cent of Instagram users who said they began feeling “unattractive” after using the app. Another study, published by the British Mental Health Foundation found that 40 per cent of teenagers said images on social media had caused them to worry about body image.

I asked Aniya whether she felt any pressure to look perfect for school. “I wouldn’t say I feel pressured to look perfect, and definitely not because of social media,” she says, pausing to think about it. “I would say to the people who think it’s wrong: you only live once!”

@valenci.aga They extra just like me 😮‍💨🫶🏾 #33333 #viral #fyp #mua #makeup #mls ♬ ALL MINE - Brent Faiyaz

It’s cheering to hear a young woman say that she’s genuinely unfazed by social media – but sadly, this is an issue which affects thousands of other girls, if not Aniya. “As a teacher I can truly attest that they are growing up way too fast because of social media influence,” one Twitter user wrote. “My students talk about wanting to get BBLs, lace fronts, lip injections… in middle school.” It is causing a self-esteem crisis. Numbers of cosmetic surgery procedures and non-invasive treatments like filler are skyrocketing and the age of the women having them is falling. The Department of Health estimated that as many as 41,000 Botox procedures were carried out on under 18s in 2020 (the UK has since banned the procedures for minors). Meanwhile, eating disorder rates are rising, and half of both men and women experience body dysmorphia.

These are cold hard facts, and they can’t be swept under the rug with platitudes about ‘doing whatever makes you feel good’. It’s like sticking a plaster over a gaping, festering wound – a short-term fix, perhaps, but certainly not a long-term one.

Plus, paying for professional make-up for school is an expense that few can afford or justify, especially when the economy is going down the pan. It’s unquestionably becoming increasingly normalised to fork over a sizeable chunk of your income for beauty-related purchases: from ‘make-up collection’ videos featuring stacks of high-end eyeshadow palettes to the Kardashians inviting us into their ‘glam rooms’, many of us have subconsciously absorbed the message that our appearances are something that can be ‘fixed’ if we just throw money at the right people. This isn’t to say Aniya shouldn’t spend her hard-earned money on whatever she wants, but it is worth questioning whether young girls are feeling like they need to spend their money on beauty products and services.

On top of watching others on social media, today’s young women also have to contend with people watching them. Again, this isn’t new – John Berger famously wrote that “men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at” back in 1972 – but is something which has become exacerbated by the omnipresence of social media. How many of us have felt our self-esteem plummet after glimpsing an unflattering, candid photo of ourselves? Increasingly, we’re priming ourselves to be photo-ready, at all times – even, it seems, in a school classroom. As Valencia says, “this is the era of content, and they want to look good in their content.”

Maybe, as the Gen Z proverb goes, it’s not that deep. Or, as Aniya puts it: “YOLO”. There are, ultimately, bigger fish to fry than two girls getting glammed up for the first day of school, and it doesn’t seem as though this is a widespread trend. But one of these bigger fish is the appearance-obsessed context in which young girls are coming of age – the era of social media, of endless comparison, “of content”, as Valencia says. While Aniya says she doesn’t feel pressured to change her appearance – and this is fantastic – countless other young women do feel the need to look perfect at all times. For their sakes, at least, those upholding unrealistic beauty standards – celebrities, influencers, mainstream media – should do everything in their power to take this pressure off young women – before it becomes the norm to sacrifice your lunch money to book in an appointment with an MUA.