TikTok mascara trend: meaning of code explained - is it about make-up?

People are using mascara as an analogy to discuss their relationships and sexual experiences
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Trigger warning: this article includes the mention of sexual violence

If you’re a regular TikTok user, you might have seen lots of users, who are mostly women, suddenly talking about mascara in deep and meaningful ways. On face value, the things people are saying might sound a little strange - but it’s not what it seems. The users aren’t actually talking about the make-up product at all, instead mascara is a code word for something entirely different.

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The hashtag #mascara has had over 10 billion views on the platform, and the #mascaraexplained has also had over 1 billion views, as users also seek to explain the meaning behind this latest trend. So, what exactly does the TikTok mascara trend mean and what are people really talking about?

What is the TikTok mascara trend really about?

TikTok users are using the word mascara as a code word for all things relating to love, sex and relationships. Some people are using this as an analogy to talk about their current partners, while others are using it to speak about their ex-partners or express a desire to have a partner. The word could be used as a substitute for love or sexual activity. In a more serious interpretation of the trend, some users are also using the word to discuss sexual assaults and sexual violence that they have suffered, which they would not otherwise be able to discuss due to the social platform’s strict community guidelines.

Explaining the reasons behind the word mascara being used as a substitute for words such as a sexual assault, one TikTok user said: “This is probably because these terms can be triggering to other survivors and victims, and it’s also easier and safer for the victims to replace those words with mascara because it might make it easier for them to share their experiences.”

Some people have commented that the way that the word mascara is used interchangeably for a broad spectrum of things, from love to violence, means that it’s very difficult to understand what each individual user is actually trying to convey in their video. One TikTok user said: “I still don’t get it, the way people are phrasing it it’s like “I gave someone mascara and they gave it to someone else” like does that mean?”. 

People supposedly talking about mascara is trending on TIkTok - but it's not what it seems.People supposedly talking about mascara is trending on TIkTok - but it's not what it seems.
People supposedly talking about mascara is trending on TIkTok - but it's not what it seems.

How is the word mascara being used?

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As previously explained, the word mascara is being used as a substitute for various other words. There are also some other associated terms which people are using. Broadly speaking, this is what each of the words and phrases relate to.

  • Mascara - a male partner or other associated person

  • Lipgloss - a female partner

What stories are TikTok users sharing using the word mascara?

One woman, seemingly using the word mascara as a substitute for the word partner, shared a video where they said: “I found the best mascara ever, but it changed and made my lashes completely fall apart and now I don’t know if I’ll ever trust another mascara”.

There are also others who are revealing the sexual abuse they have suffered through the trend. For example, one user said that their mum’s boyfriend had “forced” them to wear mascara when they were young.

Other people are, however, using the trend to discuss their relationships more positively.  One person said: “I’ve had my mascara since I was 14. I’m now 24. Only mascara I’ve ever tried but I know there’s nothing else like this one anywhere else. I even made a smaller version because I like it so much”. Here, it can be interpreted that the woman has been with her partner happily for ten years and they have had a child together.

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Another person said: “Since everyone is talking about mascaras, I finally found my perfect mascara and it’s perfect for my lashes. It’s what I’ve been looking for. My mascara looks so pretty and makes me feel happy whenever I use it. I really hope my mascara doesn’t run out because I’ll never be able to find another mascara like this one”. In this instance, the user is using the trend to explain that they hope their relationship will last because they are very happy with their partner.

How have people responded to the TikTok trend?

The reaction to the mascara trend has been mixed, depending on the specific content in the videos people have shared. On the videos which are related to consensual sexual activity, for example, some people have complained that the trend has gone too far and nobody needs to share these explicit details - whether using an analogy or not. On videos that are related to sexual violence, however, people are sharing their messages of support for the original poster. One user even related the trend back to the actual mascara product and said: “When I think of mascara I think of beauty and there's beauty in y'all sharing your stories.”

Is the mascara TikTok trend helpful or harmful?

Experts believe that the mascara trend has the potential to be both helpful and harmful to people.

Instagram expert Estelle Keeber said that she thinks it is a positive if the trend is helping people to speak up about difficult circumstances. She said: “As someone who has worked in the social media space for more than eight years I think it’s always refreshing to see new trends emerge that are going to raise awareness of domestic abuse, bullying and many other causes that can sometimes be a little taboo to talk about openly. This is the whole point of raising awareness and something that I'm incredibly passionate about. 

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“What allows content to trend or become viral is the fact that it's relatable. If something resonates and we connect, we are more inclined to engage, spend time watching and even create content ourselves or support the creator. That is exactly what has happened with the TikTok Mascara challenge. What started as a way for people to use a code word to talk about relationships has now merged into a way for people to speak more freely about sex and sexual abuse. Lots of related words will flag to social platforms that the content should be restricted so to avoid this users are now using 'code' words to enable them to share content and connect with other like minded people.”

Keeber also, however, raised the issue that code words could also be used to discuss other topics which may be dangerous or damaging - and that could make it hard for them to be detected. She said: “The danger here is that if code words are being used to keep content from being flagged, what other sorts of content will go under the radar of the platform's guidelines and moderators?"

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