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Episode 15: Worldbuilding with Nina Lutz (with makeup!)

Y'all, makeup is so cool! I've been sleeping on this whole category of products that can be used to affirm people's gender, create spooky sci-fi monsters, and protect people's identities during protests?! Nina Lutz is here to tell me what I've been missing.

HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist


Nina Lutz is a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab who uses computers to remind us to think of other people. You can follow her on twitter at @ninalikespi and you can learn more about her work on her website:


Moiya 0:07

Hey there, and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional worldbuilding. I'm your host Moiya McTier, and I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. A couple months ago, I binged the entire second season of "Glow Up" on Netflix, and it totally changed the way I view makeup. On the show- different makeup artists have to compete in challenges to show off different makeup skills. So maybe they'll compete in a special effects challenge where they have to do the type of makeup that might go in a fantasy or a sci-fi movie with all of the bumps in the prosthetics and the blood and the ears and everything. And in another challenge, they might have to do a glam red carpet look. So I really saw you know, the entire gamut of makeup potential. And it made me realize that makeup can be used as a form of worldbuilding. I mean, obviously, in this special effects makeup case, you know, they're putting on makeup to make people seem like different species - like speculative creatures, and that is a type of worldbuilding, for sure. But even the type of makeup that people wear every day can be a type of personal worldbuilding, a way of choosing for yourself what the world sees when they look at your face. And I thought that was really beautiful. So I reached out to my Twitter network, I asked, "do any of you know a makeup artist who's also studied chemistry or art and color theory, and can talk about the science of makeup art", and lo and behold, Twitter delivered and within I want to say 20 minutes. I had a recommendation for Nina Lutz who it turns out is an amazingly talented scientist and a makeup artist. So let's hear what she has to say about makeup as world building.

Nina 2:07

Yeah, no thank you Blakely. A shout out because I think she was the one who was like, "Nina it's your bat signal", because every once in a while, it's whenever someone tweets about makeup or glitter or like math, and usually like those weird combos, they're like, Nina, it's you, it's your moment". I'm like, "ah, yes. Good. Very good". So yeah, no, it's great. It's great to talk about makeup, talk about anything having to do with science and stuff. I think we're all kind of like in our own little echo chambers right now. So it's always nice to meet new people and talk about stuff that we're passionate about.

Moiya 2:39

Yeah. Agreed. Um, can you say a little bit about who you are, what you do, so that the listeners can like, hear you talk about yourself?

Nina 2:49

Yeah, sure, that's a good point. Hi, I'm Nina Lutz. I am a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. I am a research assistant, which is just our wording for a graduate student. I'm in the Poetic Justice research group. Currently, I'm working on a lot of really great work around art and participatory voice portraits, and also participatory video portraits. I'm actually working on a sign language computer vision project for my thesis. And previously, I was in the object based media group doing a lot around optics and architectural lighting, as well as makeup and identity. So I've kind of had this interesting arc from computer science and architectural design in my undergraduate working in the Media Lab during my undergraduate and now as a grad student, I've kind of gone from like architecture to lighting to interactive displays to interactive installs, and the now this artistic identity and accessibility kind of space. So it's been an interesting path. Throughout all of it. I've always really cared a lot about aesthetics. I really cared a lot about art. I grew up in Arizona, and I've been someone who has been either doing makeup or really into makeup ever since I could remember. My mom is one of those people who will not leave the house without makeup on. She has her eyeliner tattooed. She told me when I was 18 she's like, "Nina, it's time". Like, no, I'm afraid of needles.

Moiya 4:12

Wow, in the eye?

Nina 4:16

She has it on her top line and on her bottom line - her eyeliner. And when I was 18, she was like, "this is your birthday present." Like she saved up money and like wanted to get me a tattoo for my 18th which is very uncommon for parents.

Moiya 4:28

I mean, my mom did the same.

Nina 4:30

I was way too much of a wuss for eyeliner. I don't know how they did it. Like I feel like so many of our moms like have tattooed eyeliner and tattooed lip liner. And I'm like such a wuss. I'm just like, "get me out". Yeah, I've also done some various makeup in context with some freelancing work. I've always kind of been around it. So it's been cool to, in my past work, kind of quantify it. I really wanted to bring a makeup kind of pipeline to the Media Lab in some ways. So I did a lot around simulation around makeup, but also how we can use makeup to express ourselves. So I was, for example, working with a lot of transgender spaces and talking about gender affirming makeup. So thinking about how makeup can be used for gender affirmation and that type of experience and actually thinking about how it interlaces with things like facial recognition and how we can actually use what we've learned from makeup and use from color science to actually make systems that can actually be adaptable for any skin tone. And to allow people to actually go through those interactive experiences, no matter what they look like, and no matter what face they're bringing in. I know, that's a very coherent path ...

Moiya 5:39

No, it sounds great. Honestly, I feel like I'm fangirling over here. I always ask all of my guests what fictional worlds they're inhabiting right now. And that can be books, TV shows, movies, video games, whatever. So what fictional worlds are you inhabiting right now? Oh, man,

Nina 5:59

There's like so many things. My roommate and I are solely watching "Bates Motel". Which is a TV adaptation of the movie "Psycho". I've [also] been watching "The 100", all throughout college. So I'm still watching "The 100". It's in its last season, and it's just been one of those things where it's like, I think that universe is very interesting. You know, I love those kind of post apocalyptic with a twist things. One of my favorite sci-fi movies, it's like "The Time Machine". It's also like a great book. So it's like thinking about what happens to a world after it goes to waste and who actually becomes the aliens, right? Like, those types of worlds are really interesting to me.

Moiya 6:41

Yeah, good shows. Um, so you talked about your mom doing a lot of makeup and having eyeliner tattooed, which is just amazing to me, because I have a lot of tattoos.

Nina 6:53

Oh I have tattoos too. I just like, I can't do the eye.

Moiya 6:57

Yeah, that seems scary. And so I'm wondering what your first personal encounter with makeup was? Was it you doing it on yourself or your mom doing it on you?

Nina 7:08

Oh, god, it's so hard to remember. I was definitely really little, I have a feeling it was probably me like playing with my mom's stuff and I wasn't supposed to. Or playing with art supplies and I wasn't supposed to. It was probably like, that type of situation from what I remember. My cousin lived with us for a little bit, and I used to like put makeup on him. He was in his early 20s. He was like, fresh out of high school kind of thing. And he was just living with us. And like, you know, if you're not paying rent, you kind of became the babysitter. So I had my own salon makeup station for him. And it was I don't know if it was like the best looks of like the early 2000s. But I think they would have been up there. I think there was definitely a lot of lip gloss that was involved. It probably just like wasn't very accurately applied for his liking, but you know, we can't be picky.

Moiya 7:59

Yeah, you got to learn these skills. You have to practice to perfect it.

Nina 8:03

The frosty lip does not come free.

Moiya 8:05

Ooh, the frosty lip. What's that?

Nina 8:08

Remember the early 2000s? That very pale like pink, kind of like glittery lipstick. And like a lot of times like whenever like people put like concealer on they would put on their lips too. I don't know if you ever did that in middle school or high school. No? Oh, man. I think it was kind of like a throwback to both like 90s and early 2000s I think it was just like one of those trends that kept coming back every once in a while. I always remember it as someone who hate[s] lip gloss. Like now that I'm older I just like hate it. But like every once in a while I see it like on Instagram or something and I'm like, "oh, it's back". frosty with pescetarian. I think that would be kind of like my first experience that's always just like been around. I always remember you know, in middle school people [would] be trading makeup and you know, definitely like, "oh, like have you tried this and tried that", like not like actually trading products that you're using like we weren't that unsanitary and nasty, but it was definitely like one of those things where it's like recommendations more so. Occasionally, I'm not gonna lie like you definitely saw girls sharing like eyeshadow palettes and like, you know, those little tank compacts for like smoky eyes. Those little compacts were like gold in the locker room. Right? Like if you had a compact with a dark eye shadow ... you were popular. That was it. I remember that. Like, that was currency. So yeah.

Moiya 9:35

That's awesome. I totally missed out on this world. I should put out a disclaimer, I've never applied my own makeup. I've worn it. Like twice when I was doing interviews for news show. That's it.

Nina 9:48

That's crazy to me. I think for me, it was also like my skin has always been on and off. I've also had that component of makeup. Like a lot of times like I have days where people are like, "oh, you're not wearing makeup today", and I'm like, "I am wearing a primer, concealer, color corrector foundation, powder contour, mascara. I filled in my eyebrows and I put tint on my lips so that you knew that they were there. Um, I am wearing makeup". I've had both like the glam like, you know people see me and they're like, "oh like it's Nina she always wears like the red lip and the eyeliner". A lot of people in the lab are like, "oh, yeah, you'll see her. The girl with the eyeliner wears - all black". That's that's insane to me. I know people like that though. I met so many more people like that when I went to MIT. I don't know if it's like a Southwest thing, or maybe because Arizona is like so close to California but makeup was just so popular. Like I knew girls who didn't wear it. But I feel like that was kind of the minority when we were growing up, versus like, when I got to MIT, it was definitely like very much ... [the] tables have turned in. And so many people were like, "what are you - why"?

Moiya 10:59

Yeah. No, it was never like a judgement thing. It was never like, "ooh, makeup is gross". It was because my mom never wore makeup.

Nina 11:08

It is such a knowledge thing. I think it's also like, if your parents don't wear it, you also like don't really, you don't see like the habits to of it. And it's not as like big of a temptation to. There was never really a solid point where it was like, "this is when I started wearing makeup full time". I feel like it was just kind of like a gradient of like, stuff was around. And there were just moments where my mom was like, "you're gonna get your own eyebrow pencil and like your own stuff, like stop stealing my stuff". There is also this really weird sense of judgment on both sides. It's so interesting. And I think it just like draws back to like the idea of like, a lot of people if they see you wearing makeup, they're like, "oh, you're wearing makeup for someone, or for society, or because society told you", like, the amount of times I've been in a space talking about makeup, or like doing my makeup or touching up my makeup, or I make a joke about makeup because I can't stand silence. People are like, "oh, that's only cuz society told you you had to be pretty". And I'm like, "literally, there's no one to impress right now". So I did my makeup today. And I didn't see that many people. It's just one of those things where it's like, I think a lot of people do it for themselves. And I think for a lot of people, it's also just a routine thing. You know, it's a self care thing. It's an expression thing. And yeah, for some people is also tied to confidence. And it's like, there are so many things that we do for our own confidence and like our own sense of like what grounds us. Some people do like various manifestations and meditations and like those types of exercises. Some people pick up running, some people pick up makeup.

Moiya 12:43

I think that that's a really great point that people approach makeup in different ways and use it for different things. So what are some other examples, aside from like a self care, almost like a meditative act? What are some other examples of things that makeup can be used for?

Nina 13:00

I mean, I'll just take one example that I was working with a lot, which is folks who are using it for gender affirmation. If you are someone who depending on where you are within your transition journey, or even if you're just like starting to think about gender, makeup can be a really affirming experience, because the human eye and the way that the visual cortex is developed, we're really good at seeing faces. That's why like, it's really frustrating. I think, for a lot of people and computers got faces so wrong. It's amazing actually how good the human eye is at detecting face - at understanding face. Part of it's like a survival thing, and there's like neurologists and neuroscientists who can explain a lot better than me, but it is such an important factor. And for a lot of people face is also very tied to gender. And this is because as you develop for your life, if you are someone like myself, I'm a cisgendered woman. And when I went through puberty, my body started making more estrogen. Estrogen changed my face. My face is very feminine, if you look at me, and if you're living in the gender binary that we are in, in the United States, and very westernized culture, it's very much like that is a lady face versus for some folks, if they're starting transition very early, they might be fighting kind of against that. And that's why we have tools like facial feminization and facial masculinization surgeries. But those are very expensive, because they're surgeries, and they are surgeries, which means that it's something that you don't go through lightly. And makeup is this very low barrier entry [in which] you can actually start experimenting and sculpting your face in different ways. And actually started playing with those feminine and masculine features. So even if you're someone who's maybe non binary or gender fluid, you can also use it to express that or to feel it for yourself. I know so many people, when I was doing this type of work, I was interviewing them and they were like, you know, "I will put on full face just to feel grounded because everyone was misgendering me that day and then I'll take it off because I'm not ready to show the world yet but it's for me". I ended up in that space because I was actually going through endocrine issues basically. So my body was having a lot of issues with its own hormonal system. I actually had a hysterectomy in the summer because of some of these issues. And basically, I was in endocrinologist offices all the time. And I was doing a lot of research studies. And I was there with a lot of folks who were transgender women. And a lot of these women came up to me, and they're like, "your makeup is so good. What are you using"? And suddenly I was kind of like this informal, like makeup consultant and these waiting rooms and I loved it, because like, what else are you gonna do? It's like, "hi, I'm just sitting here waiting for my synthetic estrogen". It was actually just a really nice space, I kind of ended up integrating further into these spaces. And I was kind of always like, "I'm not sure if I should be here, but I'm here". And you know, so many people were just like, so happy just to have these level conversations because for a lot of them, you know, they did not grow up with their parents telling them like, "oh, here's eyeliner", you know, that wasn't their childhood. And that wasn't their reality for a long time in contacts of makeup. And for them, it was kind of like, this hidden passage towards a part of womanhood that they wanted to experiment with. I have a ton of friends, that's how I met them, like I met them, like doing their eyebrows, like in the bathroom of MGH. Like, there really is that camaraderie within makeup. For a lot of people, it's empowerment, its expression, its affirming. And for a lot of people, it's something that ties them towards not just femininity, but a type of expression that is important to them. Because you can do the same thing with masculinity, like there are a lot of trans men who fill in their eyebrows and who use like eyebrow gel to accentuate their "peach fuzz" that's coming in, you know, and like, you can do that, like you take eyebrow gel and you just like put on your mustache hairs. Everyone has hair on their face. Like that's normal, like everyone has hair on their face. Like if you're a human, you have some, they're like little baby hairs most of time, but if you put gel on them, they'll look darker, and they'll come out more.

Moiya 16:56

That's so cool. What are some more of those tips? Like how can you use makeup to make your face look more feminine or masculine or androgynous?

Nina 17:08

Yeah, it is a little bit different per face. But if you look at my face, like this area, which is kind of like my cheekbone and my temple, it's a little bit in and a little bit soft. If I had more testosterone in my body, this would just feel a little bit more angular. So you might apply contour very differently. A lot of people have figured this out way before me I was the person who was like, "we're gonna do this on a computer". Examples of feminine features, you have a forehead and like, basically the entire jaw line that's very soft. It's kind of like a C versus we're more masculine features, you might have a jawline that's more squared, and you might actually have cheekbones are going in more in a more angular level. And that's just also based off how testosterone develops in the body. Like there's different things that happen around the temples. And a lot of people have figured this out in context of things like cosplay and things like theater. And a lot of the trans community has figured this out, in context, like how you can contour so for example, like, women tend to have like a more open forehead in some ways and like, men have to have their forehead tend to be more triangular, and like, more broad around the widow's peak, like as their hairline might start to recede, etc. So the biggest trick is not only where you put the contour, but what shade so for example, like you think about shadows, shadows are cool, they're cool toned.

Moiya 18:28

What does that mean?

Nina 18:30

Basically, within colors. And within makeup, especially a lot of times you hear people talk about your undertone of your skin. So we all have melanin that creates pigment in our skin, at some level, and for example, I'm quite pale, but if you look at my veins there, they tend to be a little bit more green. So that means I actually have a bit warmer of an undertone, it means that my skin tends to skew a little bit yellow.

Moiya 18:54

So green means warm?

Nina 18:56

Green can mean warm.

Moiya 18:57


Nina 18:58

Basically, skin tones exist just because of how your skin is structured. And you can be warm, you can be cool, you can be neutral, there are more modern scales now. So people, for example, might say like, I"'m an olive undertone", "I'm a peach undertone". There's a lot of like very complex vocabulary around it because for centuries, we've been very interested in the nuances of humans and how we are different and how we are also very common, and they're a different test that people have developed to get more accurate color matching for people of different complexions because for so long, a lot of the makeup world was very much focused on a very light skinned approach. And basically it was companies like Rihanna's that basically called this out and said like, "listen, we have to start making foundation that is actually representative of skin" because you actually have people releasing foundations for darker skin clients that were kind of gray tones. So if you've ever heard someone say like, "my makeup is ashy". That's like a gray tone like the the color isn't right because skin ... It's alive. There is a natural warmth, even if you're a cooler undertone, which I know is confusing -welcome to make up. It's all made up, it's all it's all fake, everything's fake. Um, but you know, skin is alive and skin is complex and the colors of skin and of melanin are gorgeous and so diverse, that we need new vocabulary to talk about those color sciences. And that's why people are actually colorist like, there are people who their entire job in the cosmetics world is just developing skin colors for foundations. There are also people who just focus on meeting up with clients and talking about like, what colors complement their skin. What colors compliment their eyes, like, how does the science of color in the human body work? And thinking about that and thinking about that interface. And it's just starting to get to a point where people can actually like, have more nuanced like understandings of it, I think a lot of people are finally starting to, like, see more representation of models with darker skin and of people who are actually celebrating this and actually making products geared towards these things, which is so great to see. But it took us a very long time to get there.

Moiya 21:17

Yeah, I mean, Rihanna's line only came out in the last few years. That's super recent.

Nina 21:22

And there were lines that were doing, like some things that were really good. But I think Rihanna's is just like a very good moment, because it's really what brought it out into like the new standard. Like before, if you saw a foundation shade range that was like, I don't know, like 20 shades, you'd be like, "oh, that's so many colors", versus now. Rihanna's line was like 40 when it first launched. And that was like a lot, but when you think about it, that's actually not that many colors. Like when you think about how diverse people actually are. Like to go all the way from someone who's even more fair than me all the way someone who's like very dark skinned, like, there are more than 40 colors between those two people. You know, and that's like where it gets like so much more nuanced. And that's where we weren't thinking. We as like, the cosmetics industry. And it's like, a lot of people were pointing out and it was something that I always remember growing up, like, I knew a lot of people who would do really creative mixing of colors. So for example, they would use color correctors, which are basically concealers that tend to be like quite thick and very pigmented, they tend to be in undertones like purples and blues and greens and yellows. And they would actually mix those colors in with different foundations to either make the foundation more dark, make it more warm, make it more cool. People have been doing all these creative things that they kind of had to do because foundations themselves weren't catering towards their skin tone.

Moiya 22:50

So I just watched Glow Up on Netflix, and I saw them doing that like mixing different pigments together before they would put it on a models face and how do you know what colors to mix together is that what color theory is?

Nina 23:06

Kind of. I mean, in visual arts, color theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and visual effects of a specific color combination. I would say there's color theory and then there's color like law. And then there's like makeup law. For example, like I used to work in optics, and it's like in optics, if you take red and green and blue light, you get white light. If you take red and blue and green pigment, you will not get white. You just won't, especially if it's like an actual makeup product, like you're not gonna get white, you're just not. You might get like this really interesting, grayish kind of brownish shade, but you're not going to get back to white because of how pigments work. There's like a very famous, I think it's like color dot foundation technique where people literally do like dot contouring, but they also do it where they do color theory. Yeah, it's the color theory foundation hack, where they literally take white, black, yellow, blue and red because that's kind of the baseline standard. It's like in pigments, you actually have to start with a base and usually that base is a white. And then you add in color, and then if you need to even darker, you might add in like a black or gray or even like a dark brown. It's kind of like an inkjet printer in some ways, a little bit less elegant that because again, you have to account for that base layer. Because when you're right going for a printer, you're assuming that you're printing on white paper, versus when you're making a foundation you're really making a paint. So you need some type of base, but that's kind of like the difference between like pure color theory and like optics where you're like combining light and light works differently than a lot of things in the universe and in particular works very differently than paint. So then you also have things like powder where you could actually like set powder on your face to make it look lighter in some areas or darker in some areas, you can also do things like color correction. So think about like right now, I have a big zit on my chin, but like, if I wanted to kind of cancel out that red, what's opposite to red on the color wheel - green. So if I took some green concealer and put it on my like, one big pimple I have right now, like I would do that, and I would probably put foundation over it. And what might be nice about that is that the redness would have a harder time peeking through. And a lot of times you have people use like green tinted primers to cancel out the redness, it doesn't actually make their skin look that green. If you do a color corrector concealer, you're gonna look a little bit green. But if you have on enough foundation under it helps cancel it out. So there is kind of this level of not just like the actual color the foundation, but also cancelling out what you don't want.

Moiya 25:48

I just had no idea how any of this works. This is incredible that you can actually manipulate your face in this way. How much can you use makeup to change your appearance?

Nina 26:00

A lot. If you're on Instagram, you're on TikTok, Twitter, people have seen the amazing transformations that makeup can do. And is some of that also Photoshop? Of course, is some of that also angles and lighting, of course. But even in real life, like if you are someone who doesn't wear makeup, and who doesn't really know about makeup, you'd be surprised what people can pull past you, especially when you're not looking for certain things. And you know, what I always tell people is like, no one is looking at your face as closely as you are looking at your face. Like, I wish someone had told me that when I was 14, it would have saved me so much time, just in my life. But no one is looking at that one crease that you know about. And it's like yeah, like when I was doing this type of work, like every day, I definitely noticed flaws in people's makeup just because I was teaching computers how to understand makeup and the skin. But in reality, you can get away with a lot and especially like when you think about like transforming your face. Like what is a transformation? It kind of depends on what the person thinks, right? Like, are you doing special effects makeup special effects, makeup can go really far if you think about like how people do like fake ears and you know, like rips in their skin. And like all that stuff like that can go really far. But there's also things like handling stuff like hyperpigmentation, which people can be self conscious about.

Moiya 27:21

What is that?

Nina 27:22

Hyperpigmentation is basically where there are pockets or just like collections of pigment in your skin underneath. It's a harmless condition, everyone has some level of hyperpigmentation, it's basically where some of your skin has more pigment than others. So a lot of times, it's where you might have like darker spots on your face, or like areas of your face that are darker. I think it can come from some damage as well. But for a lot of people, it's just it's just genetic, you know, they're just born with it, it's just like something that, you know, might happen over time, and people might see it also if you have acne scarring, or if you have any scarring on your skin or face. That's kind of more of hyperpigmentation. And, you know, you can correct hyperpigmentation with concealer. A lot of people actually use color correction under their foundation just to add extra brightness in certain areas. Also, if you're someone who is doing drag, and if you get a five o'clock shadow, it's how you kind of prevent that. If I put like a white kind of cast or like a yellow or a red kind of section of like where a beard would grow on my face. And then if I put a bunch of foundation over that you're not gonna see the red, but as the darkness of my hair I have like pretty dark hair and like pale skin like as the darkness of my hair is coming through that red is going to help cancel it.

Moiya 28:39

That's really cool.

Nina 28:40

Yeah, stage makeup is a whole other art right? Like stage makeup and then there's movie makeup and then there's broadcasting makeup like you know, there's a reason why like so many people are like, "oh, I'm basically a makeup artist now". I'm like, "Ugh no, you are not". People like Pat McGrath who is a very famous makeup artist she was very outspoken about she knows how to do a variety of skin tones because she was a black woman makeup artist at a time where there weren't a lot of people who were modeling that looked like her but the ones that did look like her would be like, "oh my god please do my makeup like help me", and you read these horror stories of these models who they arrive and the professional makeup artist just doesn't know what to do with their hair doesn't know what to do with their skin. And hair and skin are two separate, very different things, but like they both face so much discrimination in these two industries and there is interlinking and for makeup in particular like what is the excuse? We can do it, we have the color theory we have the products now I want people to take this stuff seriously because it is serious. Like it or not, makeup is worth a lot of money. And makeup affects the face and the face affects ... well it affects a lot of things. It affects how you see a person, it affects how you perceive them. And unfortunately now technology and the way it's going it's also affecting things like computer vision. And that's why you even have people doing things like Adam Harvey's project, which is called "CV Dazzle", which is like dazzle makeup for protests, where it's like, you can use makeup to actually like break up facial recognition algorithm.

Moiya 30:16

What?! Is that as simple as putting like a streak across your face, or like major contouring?

Nina 30:22

So you actually can do some major contouring, some people are working on like more subtle, dazzle makeup. When you're looking at computer vision, for example, they use a lot of things in the T zone. So the T zone being like this part of your face that makes like a T, like the eyebrows and the nose area. And a lot of times computer vision does also use like, knowledge about the cheeks, but if you think about for example, like glasses, like, if your glasses aren't covering it, computer vision can still use it. So a lot of dazzle makeup has like a diagonal stripe. So you'll see it start from like one corner and just diagonal across to break up the nose bridge because when you think about like, what makes a face, it's like, here's a nose, here's cheekbones, you know, here's forehead, and there's proportions that go along with that. And the nose bridge is like, definitely a key component. So, yeah, dazzle makeup is the thing. Yeah, it's all for protests. There are certain colors that work better than others, especially like depending on your skin tone. If you're going to a protest, like you want it to last and, you know, be sweat proof me, be lots of other things proof like, you know, there is a whole layer of that. And people people use that. If you look at media coverage, you will occasionally see that and people are like, "oh, that's just like people getting ready for the protest" a lot of times. No, it's to prevent cameras from detecting your face again. And identifying as face.

Moiya 31:47

Yeah, I remember when there were protests happening in New York City. I remember seeing a lot of people tweeting out information about just logistics like where the protest is and like what you should take but I also remember people talking about how to protect your identity from cameras and facial recognition software. So it's so amazing that makeup can be used for such a really powerful thing.

Nina 32:13

You know, not that we're giving tips, but there's a lot of really great waterproof lip liners and lip stains that will get you for a lot that you could easily make a stripe on your face with. I mean, that would be my money like the 24/7 stuff from Maybelline. The lip tattoo or whatever it is. That's good stuff like that will stick.

Moiya 32:31

Hey, Remember when I said my mom did the same after Nina said her mom took her to get a tattoo for her birthday? Well, I was being serious. A week before my 19th birthday, My mom told me she was taking me to get a tattoo and I had the rest of the week to decide what I wanted. It was a lot of pressure, but I think I made the right decision. I chose to get the constellation... nay, the asterism Orion on my chest, because it's the only one I can reliably identify in the night sky. I also got the tattoo in the Bahamas in a big storage container that someone had turned into a makeshift studio, so that was fun. Anyway, I was on a really fun podcast called "Meddling Adults" and the episode came out yesterday. If you want to be impressed by my knowledge of Scooby Doo theme music trivia, and my ability to solve mysteries like Velma "the Queen" Dinkley, you should totally give it a listen. Maybe while you wait in line to vote next week. Maybe please, please vote. You can find "Meddling Adults" and the other awesome multitude shows by typing "multitude" into the search bar of whatever podcast app tickles your fancy. I don't have any other announcements except to say a big thank you to my newest patrons: Dawn, Katherine and Daniel. Patrons like you make it possible for me to keep doing the show. Also, every time someone joins my Patreon, a star is born. I'm not talking about the movie. I mean, a literal star starts fusing hydrogen into helium somewhere in the Milky Way's local group of galaxies. I'm not saying one causes the other, but I'm also not not saying that. Let's get back to the show. But remember to stay till the very end for a fun creative prompt. I want to talk a little bit more about the interplay between computers and cameras. Just basically like technology and makeup because you have done so much of that. And so I want to first talk a little bit about your gender affirming makeup project.

Nina 34:27

The goal was that anyone could go through interactive tutorial guided by a machine to actually contour their face for gender expression, so feminine, masculine, androgynous. I was developing a lot of really interesting and like very novel like geometric computing algorithms around it because the goal of the project was to not collect data. The goal was to do it all there, not be saving face and provide this layer of safety and provide this layer of autonomy. Um, and also provide a layer of accessibility. If you go through geometric based interpretations of vision, you can actually address things like different face shapes, different bone structures, different skin tones. And instead of using like big data sets that are bias, and often, like always miss something. So I was working on that. But then a huge component about it was also like doing these interactive workshops where you could go into a space and actually do makeup with people in person. And part of that's just [is] because we were really wanting to like, get the technology perfect, but also to have that experience with people and like to start building community and dialogue around this. But unfortunately, it's a very bad time to do face science right now. No touching people's faces right now. That's bad. So I kind of pivoted my thesis a bit, but I am going to be going back to that project, especially as soon as I can, like, get my hands on some more community spaces and actually like delve back into that type of work. I really do miss that line of work so much. That's kind of like where the project was - thinking about, like, how can we actually develop new ways of making the computer understand not face, but actually understanding skin, actually understanding like, shape because I think right now, so much computer vision around face is about understanding, like these big data sets and can it identify a face, like identification. And then after you get through identification, a lot of computer scientists are really interested in affect, which is like detecting your emotion from your face on the video screen. And like for some reason, IBM always does eye tracking, like every year someone is like, "when I was at IBM, I did eye tracking". And it's like, you're in an ACM meeting. And you're like, "oh, that's nice. So you we've heard about eye tracking already, can we move along".

Moiya 36:43

What's ACM?

Nina 36:45

Association Computer Machinery. It's basically like one of the academic bodies of computer science. But um, eye tracking is actually super important. There are some really interesting, like assistive technology approaches for eye tracking, and they are getting a lot better. Eye tracking kind of used to be one of those things that was very bad for a long time. But like for faces, we kind of had a similar thing, but it was a slower burn. So actually Joy, who is also at the Media Lab. She's in civic media. If you Google "algorithmic Justice League", you'll find all her work. She was one of the people who kind of pressured these companies to think about, "you're approaching this face problem from a data side. And you're approaching it with these very biased datasets, which is not properly identifying people", especially people who have darker skin tones, especially people who might wear glasses, especially like all these things that you haven't thought about.

Moiya 37:37

Now that everyone is mostly interacting with other humans through computers, should people be changing the way they apply their makeup? Does going through a computer change it?

Nina 37:48

I mean, yeah, definitely. Like, for example, you have flashback for people who like, aren't familiar materials, like every material in the universe has a lot of different optical properties. So they have things like refraction, and then things like reflection, which is basically like, does light bend does light bounce back? How does it bend? How does it bounce back, we can see that a lot with chemicals that are in makeup. And we can see that a lot with things like powder. So for example, there are certain powders on your face that when light hits them, it reflects back. And that's how you get stuff like highlighters, which are like really glowy and blinding. But you don't want your whole face or parts of your face to look very bright. That's not the desired effect.

Moiya 38:28

Right, because then you just look sweaty.

Nina 38:30

Yeah, it's also just like, things might just not match. I was trying to explain to my colleagues, I was like, I've entered the stage of fall where none of me matches and he was like, "what do you mean"? I'm like, "well, my arm is a different color to my chest. It's a different color to my face. It's a different color from my neck and on Zoom, I get the white cast from the screen. So I've actually switched to like a slightly darker powder like one shade darker than what I usually do in real life during Zoom calls, mostly because I usually have my screen on bright and in order to prevent like my face for being so much more pale than like my shoulders. I tend to get my face just a little bit darker you can barely see it in real life but it does make a difference. I've also given up on blush. I don't know if other people have given up on blush I would love to know the consensus.

Moiya 39:20

What is it about blush, like do you just not find it as useful?

Nina 39:24

It's not reading on the camera well for me it just isn't, especially cuz I also have glasses. In real life, it makes me look more alive - it makes me look you know like there's like some more health to my skin because a lot of times like I'm someone that'll pile on foundation and powder because I'm like, "this needs to stay on all day. I will look like this at the end of the day". So it brings kind of back that color, but right now I'm like, "it's not" you know, I've just been like, "bronzer, contour call it a day". Um, I've also given up on mascara. I don't know what the consensus like, can't see my eyelashes anymore. Like I'm still doing eyeliner but I've given up on mascara. I think a lot of people are also just like using less makeup in general. Like, for example, like there are so many days where I just like am just wearing concealer and no foundation; just for like little tiny trouble spots. I think people are also kind of getting into skincare a lot with the pandemic because it's like, "well, I have time for a 10 minute chemical peel on a Saturday, it's not like I'm going to the bars ... might as well". We were doing a research push in June, and I answered a call in a facemask. And I was just like, "I work with all men for contacts and like, they're all like these cisgender kind of techie people I love them to death, so I answered and my face was blue, because the mask is blue. And I was just like, "I need you to know, this is who I am on the weekends". I think there's also the component of like, people, I think are starting to normalize a new, like, professional look. There hasn't been too much research on this. And I'm really curious to see like when it rolls out, but like, I think there's always been - not for everyone but I think there is some pressure especially for women to wear makeup in the workplace. To be not only like presentable in the workplace, like, "here's the type of clothes you might wear", "here's the types of things you can and cannot say" like, you know, maybe don't go to work and clown shoes, stuff like that.

Moiya 41:21

And hair, especially for black women.

Nina 41:23

One of my former like research interns, Michaela, she actually did an entire interactive sculpture around black hair, and consent. We stan.

Moiya 41:34

So we talked about cameras and you know, makeup through Zoom. What about lighting? Because you had this whole amazing looking project on the Media Lab website called "Cosmetic Light". And can you talk a little bit about what you were trying to do with the project?

Nina 41:51

Yeah, so like in optics, like we use lasers, lasers are really cool. But what people don't realize is that, in theory, you actually really can't see laser beams. Like they're beams of light. And a lot of times when you're seeing a laser beam, you're actually seeing a diffuser, like you're seeing the beam be interrupted by particles of air. So for example, like if you're in an optics room, a lot of times you cannot see the beam, and what you do is you take like certain equipment, and it lets you know where the beam is in space because you know, I mean, you know, physics, light just goes on forever until it's impeded. And then it's either absorbed or reflected and saw or some ratio between them, depending on the material. So what we were doing in that project was just kind of an art piece around, like, what would it be like to diffuse a laser in an optics room with something like makeup? You know, and that contrast between understanding like this very harsh engineering like thing with this very, like soft and artistic thing of makeup.

Moiya 42:50

Yeah. When you say "diffusing", do you mean... So there's this box that the laser comes out of. Were you applying makeup to that box? Or were you like puffing makeup in the air?

Nina 42:59

Yeah, we were basically just puffing it in the air just to obstruct the beam. Because like, basically, we have the beam bouncing between mirrors, which is a very common optics setup. And we were just eliminating the entire path. Because basically, if you didn't have the diffuser, you would only see small dots of light on the mirrors where you're actually getting the reflection, but you wouldn't see the in between steps. And what's really cool is like when you're actually like looking at diffusion, you see, like these really beautiful glitter effects, and it's just really beautiful. It was just kind of this really cool art piece. And then I started thinking about like, "oh, could we make this like a fixture"? And I wrote like a paper about like colloidal diffusion, which is just a fancy way of saying ... have you ever driven in fog?

Moiya 43:42


Nina 43:42

So what do you not do?

Moiya 43:44

You don't turn your lights up really high?

Nina 43:46

You don't turn your lights up really high, because fog is a colloid, and colloids actually have a very special scattering property of light. And that's what makes it so bright. What I actually was doing was I was making colloids out of makeup and resin and shooting lasers at them, and they were really bright. And what's really cool is that because we've learned so much about how calloids work in context of light and context of materials, and what you could actually do is predict how many lumens and how much light we could kind of get from these types of fixtures. So yeah.

Moiya 44:21

From that project, can you kind of work backwards to figure out what types of makeup work best under extreme lightings for like theater or TV or film or whatever?

Nina 44:33

So a lot of times you just want to think about like how much light do you actually want to bounce back. So that's where you can actually start. Basically, like if you look up like different materials, you can actually see like their refraction index, which is how light my bend around them and how light might bend off them. So things with different indices are going to have different wavelengths of light bouncing off. So if you want certain parts of your face to really shine and really be bright, you might want use like a very pale matte powder. Because mattifying powders tends to be reflecting light back, but not in a shiny way. So it's like a color. Versus like, if you want something shiny, you want something more metallic. And that's actually like more reflection. So that's like refraction being more like matte and color and reflection being more like glittery. And that's like a very rough generalization. There's lots of edge cases, as you know, like light is complicated. It's also depending on the wavelength, and by the wavelength pigment because, you know, different pigments are actually a result of what light is bouncing back to the human eye. So for example, like for stage makeup, I think the trend is often to use very bright dramatic colors, but also make things matte as possible to really make the colors bright.

Moiya 45:41

Yeah, I love the languages around this where people are like, you don't want to be shiny, but you might want to be dewy, and I like what the difference?

Nina 45:52

It's all made up,

Okay, cool.

It's all fake. I mean, it changes every day. Like, I remember, like matte skin was really really in - like matte finish foundation, like that was so in just like you wanted know shine. And now everyone's all about like the "no makeup" makeup look. And like going natural and being dewy. And I mean, for so long, we're all like,"oh, contouring", but now like contouring really isn't the craze anymore, per se, like the average person, there's a little bit less pressure on it. So these types of trends and the language changes as the trends change.

Moiya 46:27

Do you have any intuition for what drives these trends? Is it big makeup companies just deciding that they want to push certain products?

Nina 46:36

There's like a whole sociology around trends, right? Take contouring, for example. Like, if you actually look at the trend of contouring, like a lot of it might have come from people like Kim Kardashian, who had this style and like these makeup artists are doing the style around her and other movie stars and other models. If we start thinking about skincare and different models that influenced that, I think overall, it's usually a combination of like key celebrities, and like artistry that expands into these celebrities, and then they kind of promote it. And then it goes into like makeup marketing ... I think trends are also kind of localized. They're localized at different decades. If we think about matte lipstick, like Kylie Jenner definitely popularized love matte lipstick. She wasn't the first person to make matte lipstick, but she definitely made it popular. And she also made [it] popular with a different audience. And for a while a lot of people were actually thinking if you want like a very matte lip, it might look dry. But that's not something that you have to worry about when you're a teenager. So you can market different things to teenagers.

Moiya 47:45

Do teenagers just have really wet lips?

Nina 47:48

No-no-no, like lines.

Moiya 47:50

Oh, okay.

Nina 47:50

So for example, as you age, your lips naturally get more lines. Obviously, some people have more or less lines than others. But like, if you're a teenager, you might just have a different look. And you might have different skin concerns. The matte lip is actually almost easier, in some ways. The younger your lips are just because of lines depending on if you wash, show or hide lines. So there's a whole trade off between every trend right? And like who does the trend work on? So yeah.

Moiya 48:24

So cool. Have you noticed any new makeup trends coming out since the pandemic started? I feel like maybe people would be emphasizing like dramatic eyeliner more or stuff with eyes that doesn't get covered by masks. But I was walking around New York today and I didn't see any of that.

Nina 48:42

I think people are really just into a natural look now. It was already kind of starting, and I think quarantine just like really has people into that look. I'm sure that there are trends, but I think a lot of people are also kind of like, "what does makeup look like in a world where you barely see each other"? You know, and that's a really interesting question, because it's also like, "well, you know, is this gonna be temporary? Or is this our new forever"? Like, who knows ... sorry.

Moiya 49:09

Fingers crossed that it's not our new forever.

Nina 49:11

I will be very sad.

Moiya 49:14

Yeah. Okay, I have a couple just like rapid questions for you before we wrap up. Is makeup one word or two?

Nina 49:23

I think it's one.

Moiya 49:24


Nina 49:25

Now I'm doubting myself.

Moiya 49:27

Well, I've seen it both ways. But I figured if if anyone would know ...

Nina 49:32

I think it's one and I'm gonna stand by that.

Moiya 49:35

You've heard it here first, folks.

Nina 49:37

I'll take the blame if it's wrong.

Moiya 49:40

Cool. Second, I imagine that there's like a whole corner of the internet that's devoted to makeup tutorials and special effects makeup and I saw that a little bit when I was watching Glow Up, but do you have favorite people that you follow if someone wanted to to just kind of dip their toe into this world on the internet, how would you recommend being introduced to it?

Nina 50:07

Yeah, so that's actually a really interesting question because I feel like makeup is definitely more of a corner. It's become like a overdeveloped cul de sac. It's very large now. I think a lot of people saw is that also there's a lot of money in makeup and a lot of people are makeup influencers and beauty influencers, and there's also a lot of drama and a lot of problematic people. So I mean, there's definitely a huge mixture of that, like someone who I've always loved and still continue to love is NikkieTutorials. She's great. I love her makeup. It's just she does very intricate eye makeup a lot of times but she also does like "full glams", "just get ready with me"s. I also like Bailey Sarian I think is how you pronounce her last name. She does a murder mystery and makeup Mondays where she talks about true crime and like makeup like she does her makeup like a full beat, and then she also talks about true crime. So I really love her stuff. And there's a few smaller creators who I also am really interested in - a lot of like, drag artists. So there was one artist their Instagram is like, @isshehungry. They do distorted drag. I love their work. There's also the channel glam and gore, but honestly, there's so many amazing creators for like skincare. I really like Terrence Williams, Terrence also does sewing, which is like really cool. Yeah, those would be my top people.

Moiya 51:34

That's dope. Third question. What are some of your, like, pet peeve, misconceptions about makeup, that you would love people to stop believing?

Nina 51:45

I wish people would both take it more seriously and understand that it takes effort and that makeup isn't like, easy, at least, you know, in context to that but it's also just makeup. Like, at the end of the day, it's just makeup. Like, there's no reason to judge someone for not wearing or for wearing makeup because at the end of day, it really is just make up. I think it could do a lot of good and I think that we shouldn't put too much but also not diminish as well. That would be my number one thing, also, if a product says it's waterproof, it's not always waterproof. You know, if you really need to test a lipstick out, like eat some fried rice. That's, um, that's fine. I think about that a lot. So yeah.

Moiya 52:30

People just be lying on these makeup labels.

Nina 52:33

Oh yeah. Like, waterproof is not always true, but sometimes it's too true. I mean it really depends. Also, like, indie brands are really awesome, like give indie brands a chance. I understand, especially in terms [of] price points, but a lot of times like the price point is actually the same, and drugstore makeup has gotten a lot more expensive than it used to be like when I was in middle school, like makeup was so much cheaper. And like I'm sure there's like some Gen Z like person listening like how old is this person? I'm not old. I'm very young, I am baby. Um, but like, drugstore prices have gone up a lot. So at this point, like indie brands, I think are on a lot of levels competing with drugstore like a pretty good pace. So just something to like think about.

Moiya 53:22

That's good to know. My last question is how can people learn more about you and what you're doing?

Nina 53:29

I feel like Twitter is usually the easiest place to find me, just because my email tends to be scary, and I think my Instagram is really just me being sad and posting charcuterie these days. But if you want some charcuterie... But usually Twitter. I'm @ninalikespi. Pi, as in the number not as in the food, but I like the food too.

Moiya 53:49

I also like pie. Thank you so much for joining, and that's a wrap.

Thanks to Nina Lutz for opening my mind to all the very cool things that makeup can do. And thank you for listening. If you want to start a creative project, but need some inspiration, here's a prompt. Imagine what makeup and other forms of body mod might look like. In a world where most of a person's body is hidden from sight. Maybe include some graphic eyeliner or bold brow shapes, but whatever it is, have fun with it. And if you're comfortable, share your work on Twitter or Instagram and tag @ExolorePod. Or you can email it to If you want to support my worldbuilding work, the first way to do that is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It's free and it really does make a difference. Second, you can support me on Patreon. Your monthly support would help me do things like pay my guests and hire an editor which would actually really be awesome because it's like 11:30 right now, PM, and I'm tired and doing this on my own is hard. So please head on over to, and support me if you're able. And if you like this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show, and that way you can catch me next time on another world.

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