Makeup is typically linked to beautification—a palette of products marketed to make us feel more confident, attractive and put-together. This includes eyeliner, often applied in tandem with eyeshadow and mascara to enhance the eyes.
But as Zahra Hankir (Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World) explains in her new book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History, eyeliner is so much more than just a beauty tool. Starting with her own Egyptian and Lebanese background and subsequent relationship with kohl (eyeliner made with naturally sourced materials, including ground galena or soot), she describes how women in her family have used this cosmetic for generations as a steadfast support that “protected and empowered my proud lineage,” and fostered a grounding sense of community.
This personal interest in kohl led Hankir to track down and record the historical and cultural significance of eyeliner in various formulations over time. Her research is exhaustive, touching on cultures from the Middle East and Africa to India, Latin America and Japan. Each chapter focuses on a different culture or individual(s) and their relationship to eyeliner, weaving historical and cultural facts with modern-day pop-culture references and cosmetic industry statistics.
The result is a cultural perspective that is eye-opening and surprisingly intimate. Hankir peels back layers of history to reveal how eyeliner became so ingrained in various societies over millennia. She covers its more obvious aesthetic nature, with the steadfast goal “to beautify, enhance, or enlarge the eye,” as well as its role as a form of protection from evil (as believed in ancient Egypt and in some present-day Arab, Asian and African communities), a form of sunblock (as worn throughout the Middle East), rebellion (think The Crown’s Princess Diana speaking of Prince Charles’ infidelity with dark-rimmed eyes on BBC) and expression and identity (such as the signature thick black winged eyeliner worn by late singer Amy Winehouse).
Hankir’s journalism background shines through, as she includes a comprehensive number of interviews and personal stories to back up the facts she references. And her own reflections lend weight to the close-up and personal feeling conveyed throughout. Eyeliner: A Cultural History is a thorough retrospective of a product that has endured over time and continues to play a significant role for cultures around the globe.