‘Make up helped me feel beautiful from the outside, in.’ These are the words of Jkissa, a Los Angeles-based make up artist who has been running her own beauty blog and YouTube channel since July 2013. Jkissa’s statement initially seems to confirm negative messages women are often taught about our worth (that a woman’s value is found in her appearance) rather than supporting the more empowering message (that true beauty comes from within). Dig a little deeper though, and Jkissa emerges as part of a current cohort of beauty bloggers who are helping to break down distinctions between internal and external expressions of self in ways that allow them to generate new ideas of beauty on their own terms, rather than according to society’s expectations of what women (or men) should look like.

Jkissa’s story started during her childhood and teenage years. ‘I was extremely bullied emotionally, mentally and physically in school, so I never felt beautiful,’ she told me. Make up helped her regain a sense of self-worth. ‘When I got my make up done for the first time, I looked in the mirror and felt beautiful. Everything that people had said about me seemed to vanish at that point, and all the color that was on my face took over and made me so happy. After that moment I was obsessed with make up and the idea of it. I would go home from school after being bullied all day, and go in my room and sit in front of a mirror for hours. I created my own world where no bullies could ever get to me.’

Jkissa’s looks are fiercely inventive and vibrantly colourful, and she is uninterested in teaching people to cover their flaws. In fact, she doesn’t seem to believe in flaws; rather, she wants to help people embrace what makes them unique and use it to celebrate their own personal style. She started her make up site for precisely this reason. ‘I felt that if there was a gap [in the industry] it was for all the non-cool kids in school, the outsiders. Together we created our own group, and we may be different but that is beautiful.’

There’s a whole host of other beauty bloggers with similar aims. Batalash Beauty, Chrisspy, Miss Ellarie, Alex Faction, Desi Perkins and Nikkie Tutorials are just some of the bloggers producing serious make up tutorials, but with a playful and highly experimental edge. Artists like Teni Penosian, Australia’s Chloe Morello and Lauren Curtis, and the guru of all beauty gurus, Wayne Goss, tend to favour more natural looks, but are equally as skilled. No discussion of beauty bloggers/vloggers would be complete without mentioning Michelle Phan and Promise Tamang, who are best-known for their insanely convincing celebrity look-a-like tutorials and costume make up.

These YouTube channels are popular. Seriously popular. Most channels have tens of thousands of followers, if not hundreds of thousands. Some have millions of fans, the majority of whom are teenage girls and young women. It’s a lucrative business, due to the high number of fans: many make up companies will pay bloggers to feature or positively review their products. This artist sponsorship is ‘a good and a bad thing,’ says Jkissa, ‘But we all have to make money somehow.’ Some artists, like Michelle Phan, have gone on to release their own successful make up lines.

The popularity of beauty blogging stems in part from the easy-to-follow instructions most artists provide, which makes skilful make up application accessible to nonprofessional viewers. The experimental approach to personal expression is also appealing. Make up tutorial videos are also compelling due to the process of transformation that takes place before your eyes. It is simply incredible to watch Phan actually make herself look like Jennifer Lawrence, for example, mostly through highlighting and contouring techniques.

While it could be argued that such videos encourage women to try to look like celebrities, look-a-like tutorials act primarily as a showcase for the art of costume make up. And it truly is an art form, with faces and bodies as the canvas. Importantly, these artists are interesting because they are not ashamed of their natural appearance. The women (and men) frequently post pictures of themselves without make up, and speak unabashedly about the fake eyelashes, wigs, hair extensions, contact lenses, and fake tan products they use. This gives the sense that the artists are not attempting to be dishonest about how they create their looks; rather, they are engaging in beauty in a performative, explicitly constructed way.

When Jkissa speaks about feeling gorgeous from the outside in, she isn’t just talking about meeting external (and unattainable) beauty ideals. She’s talking about the freedom to creatively celebrate and express herself through her own art, and on her own terms. It’s clear that cosmetics can be useful tools to change the way a person looks, but they don’t necessarily improve on what’s underneath. Jkissa and artists like her seem well aware that make up all gets washed off at the end of the day.