It would be easy to paint the beauty industry as an outright villain, trafficking unrealistic images of youth and perfection that have blighted the lives of millions of women – and not a few men too. There is plenty of evidence to support such an assertion; many have come to the same conclusion. But the rude health of the global beauty business suggests that the truth is more complex.
Across many ages and cultures, women painted their lips and darkened their lashes. They attempted to whiten their skin long before Fair & Lovely was created. Their desire to appear more beautiful can be attributed to many things – status, sexual selection, even empowerment – but it cannot be entirely ascribed to pressure from male-dominated cosmetics companies abetted by a misogynistic media.
Examples of make-up being used to symbolize emancipation surface time and time again in the history of beauty, from the Greek women who stepped out of the gynaecea to the suffragists Elizabeth Arden saw marching in bright red lipstick. In her (2010) book Glamour, Carol Dyhouse mentions Iris Storm, heroine of ‘Michael Arlen’s cult bestseller of 1926, The Green Hat’, who ‘flaunts all the signs of modernity: she has attitude, sexy clothes, red lipstick and a fast car’. For Dyhouse glamour – and beauty – could ‘offer a route to a more powerful and assertive female identity’. The Renaissance women who cooked up alchemical beauty recipes sound hardly less impressive than Iris Storm and her flapper contemporaries.
Many of the skin creams that emerged in the 19th century were based on recipes that had been concocted by women at home and passed down for generations. The industrial revolution allowed for mass production of these creams, while the emergence of the women’s magazines provided an ideal advertising vehicle. It was against this background that Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden created the first global beauty brands.
Rubinstein and Arden were shameless social climbers who successfully turned their own aspirations and desires into packaging, advertising copy, department store counters and salons that invited women into a dream world. Their promises of eternal youth were only part of the mix; progress, science and status were closely intertwined with the allure of their pots of cream. Estée Lauder came from much the same mould. Their communications did not create a new myth of beauty, but rather fuelled and magnified atavistic needs, drumming the message home so often that women became convinced they would be ‘letting themselves go’ if they did not use cosmetics
Eugène Schueller, Charles Revson and Max Factor were towering figures in the history of beauty – but some of its most influential names have been women. In the late 1970s, just as feminism was gaining traction, Anita Roddick sold a new kind of status: it was hard not to admire the globetrotting human rights activist, an image that she successfully packaged and sold along with her products.
In her famous (1990) book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf hints that the contemporary advertising image of beauty may have been a reaction to feminism itself. ‘Feminists… broke the stranglehold on the women’s popular press of advertisers for household products, who were promoting the feminine mystique; at once, the diet and skin care industries became the new cultural censors of women’s intellectual space… the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood.’
Wolf does not propose that women reject beauty entirely, merely that they embrace a broader definition of it. ‘Maybe we will adorn ourselves with real delight, with the sense that we are gilding the lily,’ she suggests. She embraces the pursuit of pleasure, even of ‘radiance’.
The global expansion of Western beauty companies does present serious issues, however. One might accept that ‘paleness’ and ‘purity’ had been associated with beauty for millennia, but the unbending manner in which a narrow, Caucasian vision of attractiveness was sold in markets where it was not the norm is quite distressing. In a related matter, while I was researching this book I was surprised to discover the distasteful political connections of certain beauty pioneers. Eugène Schueller of L’Oréal and François Coty both had close ties with Fascist organizations; Gabrielle Chanel espoused anti- Semitic views and spent the Occupation in the arms of a Nazi officer. It is too much of a reach to connect the attitudes of three individuals with those of the early beauty industry, but that troubling preoccupation with ‘purity’ ticked away in my mind.
It is fair to say that the beauty brands – helped by Hollywood, television and fashion magazines – successfully globalized standards of beauty. Marketing has made us all aspire to being taller, thinner and fairer. Fortunately, in recent years, the situation has improved. Brands hailing from Asia and Latin America have begun to conquer Western markets; a more flexible approach to product development and marketing at the global giants has led to a wider range of formulations and advertising images. In Europe and the United States, cosmetics brands have begun to more accurately reflect multiracial societies.
Having dealt with sexism and racism, let’s consider ageism. Although they can’t seem to settle on a figure, researchers agree that anti-ageing products take up the largest slice of the vast global skincare market. To this must be added the growing trend for aesthetic surgery and temporary solutions like Botox and dermal fillers. Once again, the beauty industry did not conjure this demand out of thin air. It merely reinforced the fears of an ageing population. In 2002, during the United Nations Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid, it was stated that the number of senior citizens in the world would have risen from 629 million to 2 billion by 2050. At a more micro level, concerns about appearance were exacerbated by the global economic slump, which placed people in their 40s and 50s back on the job market. The beauty industry is cynical, but it panders to our vanities and insecurities.
Do anti-ageing skin creams reduce wrinkles? Yes – but in a way that is barely significant. Do they provide hope, comfort and sensual pleasure? Judging by the number of people who continue to buy them, even though they are well aware they may not work, the answer is, again, yes. It is contemptuous to dismiss consumers as suckers who’ll believe anything. As the great adman David Ogilvy said, ‘The consumer is not a moron – she is your wife.’
I do not consider my wife a moron. I hope that I am not a moron, yet the moisturizer and soothing under-eye cream are sitting there on the bathroom shelf. Applying cosmetics is a ritual, and rituals ease stress; they represent stability in an uncertain world.
Arden, Rubinstein, Revson, Lauder, Roddick… they were all brilliant storytellers. If the beauty industry has changed the way we look, it has done so chiefly with the written word. In almost every sector, globalization has killed the art of copywriting – a strong logo and a powerful picture cross borders effortlessly – but in beauty, ‘claims’ continue to fill press and poster advertising, not to mention websites. The words inveigle and caress, skilfully blending poetry with science.
The power of beauty companies to manipulate is waning. The very technology that has allowed them to build vast databases and raise the art of customer relations management to new heights has given the purchasers of cosmetics access to information that they could previously only guess at. Thanks to the internet, consumers can determine the ingredients and effect of almost every tube, pot and tub on shelves today. But something interesting has happened. Instead of recoiling in horror and renouncing cosmetics forever, they have embraced a new generation of natural and organic skincare brands, some of whose claims are as poetic and improbable as those concocted by the global giants.
It seems that, as long as beauty brands carry on telling us stories, we will carry on listening to them.