In Eyeliner (Penguin, Nov.), journalist Hankir traces the cultural history of the cosmetic.
What are eyeliner’s origins?
Eyeliner originated in ancient Egypt, and in other parts of the East you can trace its use back centuries. I argue that Nefertiti herself is the original beauty influencer because when her bust was revealed to the West a hundred years ago, so many women clamored to emulate her look, especially her eyeliner.
Can you talk about how eyeliner often symbolizes independence and strength for the wearer?
Many different communities across the world use eyeliner as a form of rebellion and a means of self-expression. In the drag community, for example, using eyeliner is crucial to the performer’s transformation into this persona that might be very different from the way that they present on a day-to-day basis. We saw that with Amy Winehouse, too, in the way that it gave her that additional confidence.
One of your examples is how eyeliner is worn in Iran.
The way that women are wearing eyeliner is very interesting right now in Iran and other strict conservative Muslim communities. It can be considered permissible by Islamic authorities since the Prophet Muhammad was said to have worn it, but at the same time it should not be worn with the desire to attract attention. So there’s a very fine line there—and I know that’s a pun—in the sense that it might not be controversial to wear a line along your waterline [the inner rim of the eyelid], but then the decision to wear a wing, for example, is really making a statement. In Iran, Gen Z in particular is more and more often, especially on social media, wearing eyeliner in very creative ways, where the line is distinct and it can be seen from a distance.
What was one of your favorite moments while conducting your research?
I was under a juniper tree in Petra, and a tour guide showed us how Bedouins create kohl. They scratch at the tree to extract the sap, which has a very gummy texture, then burn it and use the soot to make the kohl. Then I watched this Bedouin man apply the kohl to his waterline, and it was beautiful seeing how happy he was with the way that he looked and how effortless it was for him. There’s a little undercurrent of humor there, because the Bedouins often say, “Oh, we use the eyeliner to protect our eyes from the sun,” but really a lot of them do it for aesthetics and they know that, and they kind of do it with a wink. And he was talking about the reason he wears eyeliner, and his wife kind of side-eyed him and said, “Really? Come on, we know why you’re wearing the eyeliner. Stop joking around.”