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'Eyeliner' examines the cosmetic's history as a symbol of strength and protest

Penguin Books

Emerging in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, eyeliner has endured. The practice of lining the eyes has reached far beyond beautifying to serve myriad purposes through millennia — sun protection, self expression and, at various times, as a symbol of protest.

In Eyeliner: A Cultural History, journalist Zahra Hankir draws a line connecting the cosmetic across civilizations, continents, and eras straight into today, a time dominated by Instagram beauty influencers and one in which the reigning pop culture queen (Taylor Swift, of course!) sings of her cat eye drawn sharp enough to kill a man.

"To wear eyeliner and to learn about its origins is to bring not only ourselves, but also some of the world's most fascinating cultures, into focus," Hankir argues.

This deep dive into eyeliner begins in the 14th century BCE, with the singular Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, whose kohl-darkened eyes and life story "represents the epitome of true, successful female power" and whose cultural weight has carried on. The initial foray into eyeliner's Middle Eastern beginnings could have been a book of its own, but is only the first stop on a trip that winds from Egypt, to Africa, India, Japan and beyond.

Eyeliner is admirable in the breadth and depth of its research, and edifying in presenting groups like the Wodaabe tribe in Chad and Iranian women — whose appearances are policed so heavily that it's become a matter of life and death. But because it covers such a sweeping expanse of time and space, readers will need to be prepared for — and remain committed to — the demands of an ambitious journey.

Hankir's personal investment in this sophomore book is tangible, and helps to bring the reader along. Eyeliner is at its best when the author infuses the cultural history with her personal history as a British Lebanese wearer of eyeliner who has spent considerable time perfecting its application. (She reminds us of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's declaration that "No matter who you are or where you're from, no matter what you achieve in life, eyeliner will always humble you.") She also paints engaging profiles of women like Winnonah, a Texan who wears the thick-winged liner topped with white eyeshadow of chola style as a way to hold on to her culture, or Charlie, who performs as Anya Kneez, Brooklyn's very own Lebanese drag queen.

The notable persistence of eyeliner throughout history surfaces fascinating themes about the way makeup serves as a mechanism to feel control, love and expression, the way human ingenuity and creativity has led to these adornments, and how makeup has long been linked to protest. With millennia of make-up to cover, readers might find themselves puzzled by what warrants an extended pause — like when they hit a lengthy passage on women joining the labor force in Japan's Taisho period of 1912 to 1926 — or overwhelmed by the volume of details provided on topics like the preparation of variations of natural Arabian kohl (Palestinians use olives, Emiratis use date seeds).

The cross-cultural journey nears its end with a detailed portrait of Amy Winehouse, she of the tragic story and famed winged liner. It is among the last of what ultimately amounts to a collection of case studies into various cultures and eras. The author notes in her opening that the eyeliner journey is "freighted with meaning." In closing, beyond observing that eyeliner "speaks a universal language," she understandably sidesteps the impulse to try and package such a rich array of historical figures and forces into an overly simple conclusion.

So, how should the reader understand the larger story about communicating our identities and desires? How do they reconcile the paradoxical quality of makeup — the way it's simultaneously subversive and mainstream, capitalist and collectivist? Having guided us through an impressive, rigorously researched, winding path through centuries and over continents, Hankir ultimately leaves it up to us to decide what we do with the wealth of knowledge gathered along the way.

Elise Hu is the author of Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.