This Hollywood awards season has been marked by the twin phenomena of La La Land’s Cinderella story—and tata land’s special glow. No, it’s not just your imagination that actresses’ chests have looked especially perky and highlighted lately. At the biggest red carpet of the year this weekend, keep your eyes peeled for the telltale signs of boob contouring.
If you thought contouring, the makeup mode favored by the Kardashians to add definition to bone structure via shadows and highlights, was just for faces, think again. Celebrities can and do apply makeup all over their bodies, from a streak down their shin bones for a little shimmer to, yep, some shadows on their breasts to add volume and depth. Welcome to beauty in an age of high-def.
Rachel Weingarten, a former celebrity makeup artist who has developed cosmetic products and taught and written on beauty history, told me that celebrity body contouring has become “aggressive” in the past few years. “When you have the president of the United States who people are teasing about his fake bake, then body contouring doesn't quite have the stigma or drama that it might have had 10 years ago. If you hear that somebody is now brushing their boobs with some highlighter to make them look bigger, you go ‘OK, that's kinda cute.’ ”
Whether this is a new trend is also debatable: As with face contouring, which makeup pioneer Max Factor mastered as early as the 1930s, it’s possible that all that’s changed is that now nonstars have more access to what’s going on in makeup chairs behind closed doors. In the past, contouring “was very much an industry secret,” according to Hillary Belzer, who has curated the online Makeup Museum since 2008. “This has been going on probably for decades. We’re just becoming more aware of it now because of social media.” Last month after the Golden Globes, Refinery29 ran a piece pointing out all the boob contouring on the red carpet, and it included a picture from actress Kristen Bell, who was happy to share a snap of her chest being powdered on Instagram in the leadup to the awards. “With the advent of social media and makeup artists wanting to make a name for themselves, they’re absolutely putting it out there,” Belzer said. Makeup artists want to gain followings, but stars themselves also want to build their brands and perform authenticity by sharing behind-the-scenes snippets: you know, cute, relateable stuff like photos of a team of people applying makeup to your chest.
The practice of contouring, especially boob contouring, has long been a staple of the drag queen community, where the need to create the appearance of cleavage out of nowhere is a regular challenge, and pop culture’s embrace of drag culture has also helped it spread and gain salience. “If you are a gay and you know nothing about makeup at all, you’ve never done drag, you can still talk about contouring because everyone watches Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” said Miz Cracker, a New York drag queen and columnist for Slate.
How do you spot a well-contoured chest anyway? “Once you start to look, you sort of can’t turn off noticing it,” said Weingarten. Taking into account the body’s propensity to sweat more and differently than the face’s, a boob contour can be accomplished with pretty much the same products you’d use to contour your visage. “If you see those shadows and they are perfectly uniform, If you see the two curves over somebody’s cleavage and they are perfectly uniform, if you see the light hitting with a certain gleam and it is identical to the other side, then you know it’s fake,” Weingarten explained. “The overall effect is to make [the breasts] look a little bit lifted, a little bit more defined,” Belzer said. “It looks gorgeous, but nobody’s chest looks like that without some highlighter.” That’s when done properly, anyway—as Kylie Jenner learned a couple years ago, boob contouring can also go very wrong.
That Jenner’s great boob contour malfunction of 2015 garnered the attention it did speaks to the way that modern celebrities are constantly under a microscope. If it’s not professional photographers, it’s fans with camera phones. “The body makeup also helps because so many people have their phone out, and they’re taking pictures,” Weingarten said. “Celebrities can’t wait for Photoshop anymore. They can’t wait for photo approval anymore.” Miz Cracker echoed that point: “That everyone has access to Photoshop and Facetune and all that stuff has created completely different expectation for what you’re supposed to look like in person and on camera. Contouring and using every available method you have to make yourself look like you look on Instagram: Everyone’s trying to avail themselves of those things.”
Weingarten pointed out that “the idea that you’re supposed to have this incredibly thin body and then these perfectly proportioned breasts, and they should jiggle in just the right way, it’s completely false.” As Miz Cracker put it, “Our actresses are supposed to look younger and younger and more and more latex-like all the time.” But Weingarten’s not quite ready to condemn boob contouring as yet another unrealistic beauty standard for women; in fact, she thinks it’s a great alternative to more drastic measures like plastic surgery. “I don’t think it’s a bad trend, even if it sounds goofy,” she said. “You can create these wonderful shadows or enhancements and maybe people don’t feel pressured to go under the knife.” Amen to that—and glow on, celebrity boobs.