Three 20-something women sat down with our beauty editor — and changed her perspective.
As a 37-year-old woman (an elder millennial, if you will) with two young children, my social circle is generally devoid of anyone from the generation below me.
So, when I started watching the Netflix reboot of Australian teen drama Heartbreak High a few months ago, it was quite a culture shock. The colourful eyeliner, the stick-on face jewels, the unique hair styles and the eclectic fashion
In real life, I started to notice Gen Zs (those born in and after 1996) out and about, embracing Y2K trends such as claw hairclips, cropped tees and baggy cargo pants with such effortlessness and natural ease — a vibe I am certain I did not give off when I wore those exact outfits in 2003.
For me, that was a time when every weekend I’d almost put my back out trying to get my hair straight using the household iron, because hair straighteners didn’t yet exist. When “nude” lipstick made us look a bit ill (unbeknown to us) and Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse always left a film of foundation on our flip phone keypads. Effortless, I was not.
When I see Gen Zs in the street, or on my social media feeds, I’m in awe of their sophistication. Prior to about age 23, I didn’t even know I had eyebrows — let alone how to put makeup on them. And at that time I was writing about fashion and beauty for Girlfriend magazine and still didn’t have a true sense of myself or my own style.
Back then (around 2008) social media was still in its infancy. I had Facebook, but it only served me photos of my friends from drunken nights out. There was no Instagram or influencers. Magazines were still the only place where we got to see style from a perspective other than our own and there wasn’t much diversity in that either.
I sat down with three Gen Z women to try to understand their approaches to beauty and all three agree that social media plays the most influential role in how they discover new trends and products, and how they form their own sense of style. Which, of course, comes as no surprise. What did surprise me, however, is that they were all really comfortable in their own skin — something I wasn’t expecting from women in their early 20s. Perhaps because I don’t remember feeling that way myself at that age.
Zoe Norton, 23, is an audio imager and producer for radio station Flava’s breakfast show. She has gorgeous, naturally curly hair that she used to spend hours straightening. “I would refuse to take any photos or post any photos if my hair wasn’t straight,” she shares. “And then I remember the first day that I posted a photo of my hair curly, and I had more compliments on it, more people telling me that they preferred my hair this way.”
Once she decided to embrace her natural hair, she found a community online of other “curly girls” who were also on a journey to get their natural curls back. “It’s nice to see other people that are in the same boat,” she says.
Social media allows anyone, no matter what they look like, where they’re from or how they identify to find like-minded people sharing their stories, style and beauty advice and opens up channels of communication that weren’t available to millennials and Gen Xers during our formative years.
Fashion publicist Yawynne Yem, 23, tells me that a couple of years ago she actively went out in search of influencers on social media who looked like her, after realising most of the people she was following were white. “There were Asian models, but no one looked like they were Southeast Asian,” explains Yawynne, who is a first-generation Cambodian immigrant to New Zealand.
“This year, I followed a few more Cambodian pages because I was like, I need to be more in touch with my culture and my heritage. I don’t want to be become whitewashed and lose touch with that. I found a Cambodian model who modelled for a few skincare brands, and it was really cool. But I literally had to search for them, which is kind of a shame. If you’re like a beautiful blonde person, you just see yourself everywhere. You don’t have to make an effort.”
Yawynne’s first taste of beauty came at the age of 4 or 5, she says, when her older female cousins would turn up at her house, armed with makeup, and practise on her — much to her delight. It was her “big intro to makeup”.
Zoe grew up watching her African-American mother’s own hair journey, and her older sister experimenting with makeup and straightening her hair. “For me, beauty has become more body-positive, whereas my sisters and my mum grew up in that generation where being a bigger person wasn’t really seen as beautiful,” she explains. “It was like the thicker you are, the less attractive. And so growing up, I’ve sort of distanced myself away from that thought.”
Twenty-four-year-old Megan Watts’ mother is a doctor and dermatologist, so she’s always had access to expert information when it comes to skincare and taking care of her skin. “I’ve kind of grown up always looking out for certain ingredients, let’s say, or knowing what works well for my skin or not.”
And while she has that strong background of skincare knowledge, it’s social media that Megan — a lifestyle and entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald — now turns to for her beauty advice and insider tips.
“I think now I’m very heavily influenced by social media, specifically TikTok, because it’s not even necessarily about showing you what the trends and trajectories are, but it’s more like, Vogue beauty secrets, for Gen Z. It’s like your older sister teaching you all the little hacks and stuff,” she explains.
But while social media undoubtedly serves up inspiration in the fashion and beauty sphere and provides a landscape of diversity and inclusivity, the likes of which young people have never before been exposed to, there naturally are downsides too.
The Dove Self-Esteem Project recently revealed the results of their research into the effects of social media and idealised beauty standards on young girls in New Zealand. According to the study, 61 per cent of Kiwi girls agree that influencers on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok set the standard for how they should look, and 43 per cent of New Zealand girls surveyed follow at least one social media influencer that makes them feel less confident in themselves.
After seeing idealised beauty content on social media, almost half of the girls surveyed have undertaken a procedure to look more like the influencers they see online. Some of these include teeth whitening (18 per cent), eyelash extensions (24 per cent) lip fillers (8 per cent) and tanning (11 per cent).
Following on from this research, Dove has launched their #DetoxYourFeed campaign, which offers tools for both young people and their parents to help navigate social media and create a more positive online environment. The campaign encourages people to unfollow any accounts that don’t make them feel good about themselves, with a series of films and educational resources available to help navigate changing the narrative when it comes to influence through social media.
Zoe, Megan and Yawynne, it seems, have a more positive view of social media, but perhaps it’s through being picky about who they follow that they have curated feeds that fuel their passion for beauty and style and make them feel empowered to experiment, rather than feel the pressure to conform to beauty standards that don’t align with who they are.
“There’s always going to be the, you know, comparing yourself to others, and the ‘I wish I looked like her’. In some ways, that’s never going to not exist,” says Megan, “But I feel like our platforms are so much more positive now. I feel like there is a feeling in the air of encouragement to be your own person.”
That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway for me from speaking to these women — they’re all so comfortable embracing their natural selves and, in fact, their approach to beauty is a real less-is-more way of thinking, which was the opposite of what I assumed when I went into this. After watching Heartbreak High, I thought Generation Z was all about being so experimental that it was almost like they were in costume, always.
It turns out beauty for this generation is more about experimenting to try to find the style that makes the most sense for them personally, rather than trying to look like someone else entirely. The inspiration comes from social media, yes, but at the end of the day — for these three women at least — they’re still looking to embrace their true selves above all, with a few #viral beauty products thrown in for good measure.
“I think a lot more people are thinking about themselves and being more selfish in terms of like, ‘This is my body and I can do whatever I want with it,’” says Zoe. “What I find beautiful might not be your type of beautiful, but it’s still mine.”