A photo of a book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History

New book taps into the cultural history of eyeliner

For centuries, eyeliner has been seen as a staple, and often the only beauty item some women and men wear. In culture journalist Zahra Hankir's latest book, "Eyeliner: A Cultural History," readers learn how eyeliner isn't just some superficial beauty hack and that in many cultures around the world, it has been revolutionized and popularized by people of color for medicinal purposes, authority and its cultural ties.

The World

There's more to eyeliner than meets the eye.

For centuries, different cultures— using natural forms of eyeliner, such as kohl — have celebrated, embraced and promoted its ability to protect and empower. 

In her new book, “Eyeliner: A Cultural History,” Zahra Hankir taps into the origins of the use of eyeliner and crafts a beautiful argument about how it's not just a part of some superficial beauty routine.

“This is a book that celebrates contributions of people of color to the beauty industry, and also that eyeliner has been used as a tool for rebellion,” she said.

From ancient Egypt to the Bedouin men of Petra or the Woodabe members in Chad to the geisha performers in Japan, Hankir takes readers around the world and delves into the personal relationships and cultural traditions that lead to captivating parallels of how many know eyeliner at home.

She caught up with The World to discuss what she learned in the process.

Carol Hills: Zahra, you did some serious research for this book. What's the earliest example of the use of eyeliner that you found?
Zahra Hankir: So, eyeliner originates in ancient Egypt, where it was known as kohl, and it was used for purposes that go far beyond beauty, as you mentioned. In ancient Egypt, it was used to honor the gods, to ward off the evil eye, to protect from the sun’s glare and to treat the eyes medicinally. But, I will say it did play a significant role in making people look more attractive.
And when you say kohl, you mean k-o-h-l?
Correct. It's k-o-h-l. And it's important to note that this material was made from natural substances. So, it's not at all like Western eyeliner. Those materials could be things like minerals or soot. Oftentimes, kohl can be made from substances that people might be able to find at home, such as nuts or plants. And what would be done with those materials is that they would be burned, and you would take the soot from the burning, and then that would be the darkened pigment, which would then be applied to the eye. So, what makes kohl so different, besides the fact that it's used for purposes beyond beautification, is that it is made with natural substances.
A colorful display showcasing how organic kajl is made

Backstage Kathakali preparations show kajal, a greasy black kohl, made from natural materials such as coconut tree leaves and coconut leaf sticks. The leaves serve as palettes for the men to mix their makeup and the sticks serve as applicators. 


Courtesy of Zahra Hankir

You mentioned ancient Egypt, and in your book, you talk a lot about a famous user of eyeliner, Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, and she's someone you idolized as a teen. I wonder ... what about her captured your interest back then? 
So, I grew up in the UK. I'm Lebanese, but I have Egyptian heritage as well. I think I was always looking for something that connected me to my culture, knowing in the UK that I was quite different from everybody else and being made to feel that I was quite different. My father was obsessed with Egyptology, so he'd have magazines about ancient Egypt around the house. I stumbled across this picture of Nefertiti, and she was so transfixing. Many people still find her transfixing today in that she had a very striking, regal look, a perfectly symmetrical face, very high cheekbones and a very tall crown. What’s most important here is that her eyes were lined with kohl; therefore, she seemed to be quite beguiling and alluring. And I always felt that I could connect to her because she connected me to something far bigger than myself. 
The way Nefertiti used kohl or eyeliner continues to resonate even today. Give us some examples of people in recent years who've kind of used the same look and the same use of kohl or eyeliner.
I think Nerfertiti’s classic cat-eye look has been ubiquitous in culture for the past 100 years, especially in the West, I think. One thing I tend to say about Nerfertiti is that she's the original beauty influencer, whereby when her bust was discovered — our interpretation of her beauty is from her bust — when her bust was discovered and later displayed in Germany [it was taken from Egypt to Germany], people clamored to kind of emulate that beautiful look. One of the ways they could do that was by buying eyeliner and lining their eyes with that eyeliner. And cosmetics companies caught on and started marketing eyeliner within the context of channeling that exotic beauty that was part of a form of fetishizing Nefertiti. It was also part of what you would call Egyptomania, which was a fascination with ancient Egypt, which was quite orientalist in nature. Therefore, what I try to argue is that Nefertiti helped propel the use of eyeliner in the Western world throughout the 1900s, starting in the 1920s, and that today, 100 years later, she remains as transfixing and beguiling as she once was, and people still emulate her look knowingly or unknowingly.
A man in eleborate face paint and costume

A member of the Wodaabe, a subset of the Fulani ethnic group, in Chad.


Courtesy of Zahra Hankir

You also debunk — if it still needs debunking — the notion that eyeliner is for women. In your research, men have used it for centuries, haven't they?
They have, indeed. Actually, starting in ancient Egypt, both men and women wore kohl. You would be hard-pressed to actually find an unlined eye of any ancient Egyptian in representations of ancient Egyptians. And that goes back to the idea that I said that it wasn't all about beauty. You know, the range of uses made it such that eyeliner would be used by people of all classes and of different genders. This was because it was an inherent part of their culture that was very important in their daily lives. We see that same treatment of kohl across different cultures in Asia, Africa and the Middle East today. And, of course, part of the reason that I start with the Global South is because there is an understanding in these cultures that kohl is not simply makeup. It is an expression of one's culture, one's religiosity, one's spirituality. It's a way to protect yourself from the evil eye. So, in that sense, people are not thinking of it as a preoccupation with beauty. They're thinking of it as a preoccupation with one's culture and sort of a daily honoring of that culture and heritage.
Upclose of a man applying eyeliner

Sleiman, 46, is a Bedouin tour guide from Petra.


Lina Ejeilat / Courtesy of Zahra Hankir

Your research took you to Japan, where you spent some time with geishas and discovered that their makeup is interpreted very differently. How so? 
The geisha community is quite fascinating, really, because eyeliner for them is an indispensable component of their traditional aesthetic. So, to ensure that they stand out, geishas will meticulously apply makeup onto their faces using classic Japanese hues. So, those hues include white, for that very thick foundation on their face, a very, very deep black eye for definition. But as well as those two colors, they use a striking red often sourced from safflower petals to accentuate the eyes in performance in general. This is kind of a through line, a very distinct makeup that makes the eye stand out and helps audiences really connect with the performers from afar. It was interesting to observe that intersectionality whereby, for example, as I said, in ancient Egypt, they used eyeliner partly to protect against evil spirits, in a totally different context, in ancient Japan, they were also using a form of red makeup around the eyes to protect against evil spirits.
A Japanese woman dressed as a geisha

Miehina, 35, is a geisha in Kyoto.


Courtesy of Zahra Hankir

After all your research for this book, did it impact how you wear kohl or eyeliner? Did you kind of come upon a new style based on what you learned, or do you wear eyeliner the same way you did before you did the book?
Certainly, when I was writing the chapter on Amy Winehouse, my [eyeliner] wings were growing bigger and bigger and bigger by the day. And I actually had no idea that that was happening. And at one point, I think I did a Zoom call with someone, and I looked at myself, and I realized that the wings were so, so heavy, and people on the street would stop me and say, ‘Has anyone ever told you you look like Amy Winehouse?’ And I realized it was because of the wings. That's how much I immersed myself in Amy Winehouse and her aesthetic.
And when you say wings, do you mean where the eyeliner leaves the frame of the eye and moves beyond out along the temples?
Precisely that. Yes. With Amy Winehouse, they take on a life of their own. So, I like to say that my aesthetic is ancestral chic, whereby I'm wearing kohl on my waterline, and then I'm wearing liquid liner on my lids. So, I have a little bit of Nefertiti, and I've got a little bit of Amy Winehouse as well. But importantly, I will always have kohl on.

Parts of this interview have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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