How Eyeliner Became a Symbol of Beauty and Power Around the World

Eyeliner is one of the most popular and versatile cosmetics in the world, but it is more than just a beauty product. It is also a cultural artifact that reflects the history, identity, and values of different societies and individuals. In her new book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History, journalist Zahra Hankir takes readers on a fascinating journey across time and space, tracing the origins, evolution, and impact of eyeliner in various contexts and communities.

Hankir, who is the editor of Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, was inspired by her own personal connection to eyeliner, especially kohl, the traditional black powder used in the Middle East and other regions. She writes that she carries her history with her through the lining of her eyes, and that her mother encouraged her to explore the stories of her culture through this cosmetic. She also wanted to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that often surround eyeliner, especially when worn by women of color.

How Eyeliner Became a Symbol of Beauty and Power Around the World
How Eyeliner Became a Symbol of Beauty and Power Around the World

Eyeliner as a Tool for Health, Protection, and Expression

Hankir’s book covers a wide range of topics and perspectives, from ancient Egypt to modern-day Japan, from drag queens to geishas, from Nefertiti to Amy Winehouse. She reveals how eyeliner has been used for various purposes throughout history, such as:

  • Health: Eyeliner has been used as a form of medicine, especially in harsh desert environments, where it protects the eyes from the sun, dust, and insects. It also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and can help prevent eye infections and diseases. The Prophet Muhammad, for example, regularly wore ithmid kohl for its health benefits.
  • Protection: Eyeliner has been used as a form of magic, especially to ward off the evil eye, a curse that can cause misfortune or harm. It is believed that eyeliner can create a barrier between the wearer and the evil forces, or deflect them with its dark color. Some eyeliner pots are also adorned with beads, coins, or other symbols of protection and luck.
  • Expression: Eyeliner has been used as a form of art, especially to enhance the beauty and personality of the wearer. It can create different effects, such as enlarging, elongating, or accentuating the eyes, or adding drama, glamour, or mystery to the look. It can also convey different moods, emotions, or messages, such as confidence, defiance, or rebellion.

Eyeliner as a Tool for Resistance and Empowerment

Hankir also shows how eyeliner has been used as a tool for resistance and empowerment, especially by marginalized or oppressed groups, such as:

  • Women: Eyeliner has been used by women to assert their identity, autonomy, and agency, especially in patriarchal or conservative societies, where they face restrictions or discrimination. For example, in Iran, where women are required to wear hijab, they use sormeh, a type of eyeliner, to express their individuality and creativity. In the US, where women of color are often excluded or erased from mainstream beauty standards, they use eyeliner to celebrate their heritage and culture, such as the chola aesthetic of Mexican Americans.
  • Men: Eyeliner has been used by men to challenge gender norms and stereotypes, especially in heteronormative or homophobic societies, where they face stigma or violence. For example, in India, where men are expected to be masculine and heterosexual, they use kajal, a type of eyeliner, to perform kathakali, a classical dance form that requires them to play female roles. In the US, where men are often ridiculed or rejected for wearing makeup, they use eyeliner to create drag personas, such as RuPaul or Divine.
  • Others: Eyeliner has been used by other groups to resist colonialism, racism, or capitalism, especially in the global south, where they face exploitation or domination. For example, in Chad, where nomadic tribes are threatened by climate change and modernization, they use eyeliner to participate in a male beauty pageant, where they compete for the admiration of women. In Japan, where geishas are often misunderstood or fetishized by Westerners, they use eyeliner to preserve their tradition and dignity.

Eyeliner as a Tool for Connection and Celebration

Finally, Hankir demonstrates how eyeliner has been used as a tool for connection and celebration, especially among diverse and diasporic communities, such as:

  • Family: Eyeliner has been used to bond with family members, especially mothers and daughters, who share the ritual of applying and wearing eyeliner. Hankir writes that her mother taught her how to use kohl, and that it was a way of passing down her history and culture. She also interviews other women who have similar experiences, such as a Palestinian American who learned how to use eyeliner from her grandmother, or a Nigerian British who inherited her eyeliner pot from her mother.
  • Friends: Eyeliner has been used to connect with friends, especially those who share the same passion and style for eyeliner. Hankir writes that she met some of her closest friends through eyeliner, and that it was a way of expressing their solidarity and friendship. She also interviews other people who have similar experiences, such as a group of Iranian women who use eyeliner as a form of socializing and activism, or a group of drag queens who use eyeliner as a form of entertainment and support.
  • Fans: Eyeliner has been used to admire and emulate icons, especially those who have made eyeliner their signature look. Hankir writes that she was inspired by Amy Winehouse, who wore eyeliner as a tribute to her idols, such as Cleopatra and Brigitte Bardot. She also interviews other fans who have similar experiences, such as a woman who copied Nefertiti’s eyeliner for her wedding, or a man who recreated David Bowie’s eyeliner for his birthday.

Eyeliner: A Cultural History is a captivating and enlightening book that celebrates the diversity and beauty of eyeliner, and its role in shaping the history and identity of people around the world. It is a must-read for anyone who loves eyeliner, or wants to learn more about its fascinating and complex story.

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