In the girls’ bathroom women take back ownership of beauty

8 Mins read

The Cult of Beauty exhibition at Wellcome Collection reveals how important the girls’ bathroom is for women to take back enjoyment of make-up and beauty.

Above a stainless steel sink, there are three large mirrors that double up as screens and five smaller screens. The double-sided mirrors create a half-virtual, half-physical space and flash between an endless scroll of beauty culture videos and your reflection.

The screens show videos of make-up tutorials, nail art, “get ready with me” videos and slideshows of selfies from bathrooms around the world. Stickers and graffiti plaster the sink. The words “take a selfie” are scratched into the metal sinks and the beats of a distant rave pulse throughout the space.

On the back mirrored wall of the installation, written in electric blue pen “you’re beautiful” is enclosed in a heart and “que guapa,” translating to “how beautiful”. It wouldn’t be uncommon to hear these phrases of affirmation bouncing around the walls of a club bathroom at 1:00 am.

Installation view of Mirror, mirror on the wall, beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll [Sadie Pitcher]

But I’m not escaping the swell of a club dancefloor to reapply my lip gloss. I’m at the end of The Cult of Beauty exhibition at Wellcome Collection where curator Janice Li and Xcessive Aesthetics, an all-female architecture collective, have created an immersive club bathroom that explores the impact of social media on contemporary beauty culture.

“I don’t think anyone’s made a nightclub bathroom in a museum ever before,” Janice says, revealing that after over fifty interviews no one had asked her about the bathroom installation, titled Mirror, mirror on the wall, beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll.

Janice was an assistant curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum for the V&A East project before becoming a curator at Wellcome Collection and embarking on extensive research for an exhibition about beauty that came to be The Cult of Beauty.

The exhibition explores how beauty has evolved across different cultures, from the bust of Queen Nefertiti to Rhianna and her Fenty Beauty make-up collection.

The bathroom installation got me thinking about my relationship with make-up and beauty ideals and how interactions in the girls’ bathroom can transform self-doubt into confidence and self-acceptance.

Make-up can be a women’s armour to face the world and the friends and strangers met in the girls’ bathroom are the supporting troops. In her book Eyeliner Zahra Hankir, a journalist and editor, writes about the power that the simple act of lining the eyes holds across cultures and continents.

She writes in the preface: “When I stencil my eyes with black pigment, I am performing not only an act of self-love but also one of self-preservation.” The ritual and enjoyment I have recently found in applying make-up and spending more time on myself was something I considered as my reflection stared back at me from one of the installation’s darkened mirrors.

Close-up of Mirror, mirror on the wall, beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll [Sadie Pitcher]

In a recent interaction in a cocktail bar toilet in Covent Garden, a woman complimented my make-up, asking about my pink shimmery lip oil. I bought the viral NYX fat oil lip drip in the ironic shade ‘newsfeed’ after my TikTok page was full of influencers raving about the product.

Slicking the oil across my lips, I felt more confident and like I was part of an online beauty community of women.

I’m not alone in my fascination with TikTok beauty trends. According to a 2024 Adobe report exploring the use of TikTok as a search engine, 29% of TikTok users have looked for beauty advice on the app, with TikTok being the go-to search engine for 64% of Gen Z.

In a Similarweb x Statista report, TikTok: Reshaping the Face of the Beauty Industry, approximately 85% of the most purchased products on TikTok Shop derived from the Health and Beauty category.

The trends reach further than the video app, with online make-up and beauty retailer, Cult Beauty having a dedicated TikTok Trending page. Much make-up and beauty journalism tests TikTok products and reports on TikTok beauty trends.

In one Teen Vogue article, they list the 41 Viral TikTok Products You Need and in one Nylon article they list the 10 Beauty Products TikTok Made Everyone Buy this Year.  

When I chatted with my close group of girlfriends about their make-up experiences in the girls’ bathroom 23-year-old Ana Sirjusingh, a student and the group’s resident make-up guru, commented “I always share a tampon if someone needs it. Also touching up each other’s make-up- sharing lip gloss, fixing any mascara smudges. Or just general compliments, saying how pretty a girl looks and then everyone joins in.”

Another friend, 24-year-old junior editor Meg McGregor, said that the girl’s bathroom “is always just a hype room without anyone even knowing the story. It also feels like a space where girls can complement random girls like just washing hands or when they are doing their make-up, when you wouldn’t do that randomly at the bar.”

Installation view of Mirror, mirror on the wall, beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll [Sadie Pitcher]

This sentiment is echoed in my conversation with Barbara Penner, a professor and expert on public spaces and gender. When I asked her about the specific space of the girl’s bathroom she said “the temporary sense of solidarity amongst women at finding themselves stuck in a long queue and watching men just sail by into theirs, no queue. Few things seem to bring women together more than these moments, however temporary they may be. It’s kind of like a secret knowledge that binds women together.”

The idea for Mirror, mirror initially came from a meeting in the girls’ bathroom between Janice and members of Xcessive Aesthetics Janice tells me with a laugh. “We were in the Printworks toilet. And so that’s how it happened.”

They decided to recreate a club bathroom for the exhibition together “because like, that’s where you check other girls out. But you also talk to people, and you fix them. These are the spaces where women come together and in an informal way, and there’s so much power in that.”

By creating an immersive installation, rather than just exhibiting the videos on the walls of the gallery, Janice Li and Xcessive Aesthetics transport visitors to their own experiences in club bathrooms.

The installation is a fun, safe space to reflect on positive and negative beauty and make-up trends and female connection.

“I knew that I wanted Mirror, mirror to be a last piece because I wanted people to leave with a more fun note,” Janice says.

“I wanted the whole exhibition to be non-judgmental, we didn’t want anyone to come in, if you have any work done to feel that you’re judged. So, we spent a lot of time getting the angle and the wordings right, so that we’re talking about these things, but we’re not placing any moral judgment or moral value on them.”

“People have been associating beauty with vanity because women were the primary users…beauty is not a vain topic.”

Janice Li, Curator of the Cult of Beauty

The bathroom installation was inspired by a previous, playful nail salon installation created by Xcessive Aesthetics that re-created this space where women come together.

Augmented Salon was an installation and workshop inspired by a typical beauty salon. With colourful stations and nail polishes, the installation explored Brazilian beauty salons as a traditionally female hub of social interaction.

During the time of the installation, members of the public were invited to have their nails done while discussing the role of digital networks. Similarly to the nail salon, the girls’ bathroom is a space where beauty rituals and conversations happen.

Installation view of It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly, by Makeupbrutalism [Sadie Pitcher]

Another bathroom recreation appears earlier in the exhibition in the installation It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly.

The work was created by the artist Eszter Magyar, who goes by the name Makeupbrutalism and has been creating and uploading images, about beauty and the female gaze, to Instagram since 2018.

By posting images on Instagram, Makeupbrutalism is disrupting the feeds of curated beauty and filtered perfection, showing that make-up can be used as a positive form of art.

The installation features a bathroom wall, covered in close-up images of lips, eyes and hands that are unsettlingly made-up.

One image features a close-up of a woman with blue eye shadow, pink lips and heavy mascara with the phrase “put this on a cover” written in lipstick across her forehead and lips.

In the middle of the wall, a mirror is mounted with the phrase “I’ve mistaken social pressure with self-expression” also written in lipstick.

Below the mirror is a bathroom shelf with five products that have been solidified in resin, a needle lipstick, self-expression remover, bug lashes, false promise mascara, and lashes crusted with salt.

“In the images I create, I try to force people to face reality and to face themselves. That’s what the quotes are about too, the title and the writing on the mirror, to provoke people to question themselves. The pressure to look beautiful is as real for me as it is for everybody,” Magyar, a trained make-up artist, explains in the exhibition audio guide.

“One day I have looked at myself in the mirror and told myself that I needed a facelift, but then I realised ‘Ohh, maybe I’ve mistaken social pressure with self-expression.’”

Close-up details of the bug lashes in It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly, by Makeupbrutalism
Image by [Sadie Pitcher]

Both bathroom installations reveal how make-up and beauty ideals can be both celebrated and harmful, and that the negatives can be overcome in the safe space of the girls’ bathroom.

Jia Tolentino, an American writer, considers this difficulty in her book of essays Trick Mirror. In the essay Always be Optimising, she discusses the ideal woman, and the pressures women face today to constantly pursue perfection.

She writes “When you’re a woman the things you like get used against you. Wanting to look good, taking pleasure in trying to look good, does.”

Emma Dabiri, author, and co-curator of The Cult of Beauty who helped conceive the Racialised Beauty display within the exhibition also comments on this impossible reality women face in her book Disobedient Bodies.

“How might we possibly reconcile the reality of the joys and pleasures we can find in our bodies, and in rituals of beautification, as well as the whole sphere of female knowledge bound up in it with the age-old and sometimes fraught feminist discourses, and the justified pushback against an overemphasis on our looks as not only a drag on our time but a form of control?” she writes.

The Cult of Beauty aims to redress this imbalance. “People have been associating beauty with vanity because women were the primary users” Janice says, continuing that “beauty is not a vain topic.”

Something shifts from the outside world to the interior of the bathroom, where women are safe to love one another and take back enjoyment of make-up or use it as a form of protest.

Speaking on TikTok beauty trends and the need to highlight the positives of social media Janice says, “People need a platform like that to be expressive, right because to a lot of people without that they probably had nowhere else where they felt they could express themselves or have the access to learn about make-up and beauty and kind of subculture and finding communities that like similar things.”

She also wanted to explore how “make-up and obviously, social media platforms as a form of active voice. I want to show this strength and power and something that is more subversive.”

Confronted with my own reflection in these bathroom recreations, surrounded by videos of make-up tutorials, beauty trends and make-up products I considered how my own perceptions of beauty are positively influenced within supportive female spaces.

Janice hopes the exhibition encourages people to “feel comfortable challenging the preconceptions and be confident to embrace whichever new definitions they want to make for beauty for themselves.

“The way we think about beauty and perceive beauty and pursue beauty is mainly a reflection of how we see ourselves and how we want ourselves to be and our expectations for ourselves, but also for other people.”

Featured Image by Sadie Pitcher.

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