The beauty industry and advertising have a unique relationship. The success of the beauty industry, in large part, depends on how effectively its advertising can convince consumers that they need to invest in new products in order to become more beautiful. Beauty product and cosmetic procedure companies have historically preyed upon women by leveraging their insecurities to be used against them. The results, while good for the success and growth of the beauty industry, have also effectively contributed to a rise in anxiety and self esteem issues, particularly among young women. 

But today, as gender and diversity, as well as the body positivity movement, become more and more prevalent among young consumers, beauty companies are finding that they’re going to have to re-define how products are advertised in the future if they want to stay relevant. While there are few signs that the beauty and cosmetic procedure industries are going to slow at any point in the near future (projections actually show the industry growing substantially over the next decade). 

Beauty has long been associated with wealth, class, and social status—but in different ways. 

It’s no secret that beauty products have long been associated with wealth. Going back as far as ancient Egypt, wealthy Egyptians would line their eyes with black makeup made of things like charcoal or even lead in some cases. Richer Egyptians could afford more vibrant makeup made from expensive ingredients, giving them a way to distinguish themselves from their less wealthy counterparts through their physical appearance. 

Throughout history, nearly every culture has used cosmetics to enhance physical appearance in some way. In Edwardian England, for example, women used makeup to very subtly enhance their features (it wasn’t in Vogue to openly wear cosmetics as society was only just starting to accept it after it was declared vulgar by Queen Elizabeth I during the Victorian era. Nevertheless, beauty products were becoming increasingly common, and cosmetics were used by the wealthy to give the appearance of effortless perfection. Even today, many still hold onto the belief that the art of makeup is in making it look like you aren’t wearing any makeup at all. But regardless of how makeup is looked at or what cosmetics trends are big in the moment, the overarching theme points to the fact that makeup, historically, has been used to associate beauty with prestige in society. 

A 2016 study looked at the ways in which men and women looked at cosmetics among their peers in relation to feelings of dominance or prestige. The study concluded, after surveying how both men and women perceive makeup, that men see makeup as a direct correlation with earned prestige, where women see makeup as a way for other women to assert dominance over one another. In other words, men view makeup as a natural correlation between success and status, where women see makeup and recognize it as a manipulation tool used to assert dominance. All of this has contributed to the ways in which cosmetics are advertised, as makeup is often advertised as a tool for success (even generation z often refers to becoming more beautiful as a “glow up” as if success and happiness are correlated to beauty). 

Cosmetics and body image

Because cosmetics are often associated with status and prestige, advertisements for them have a direct connection to an increase in anxiety, as well as lower self esteem and self confidence, particularly among young women. Beauty advertisements are designed to make women feel that there is something wrong with their physical appearance in order to sell them a product. 

A 2012 study discussed the ways in which women are constantly reminded of what beauty standards are, and how they don’t live up to them, through advertisements for new products. Even since then, an onslaught of new cosmetics, skin care products and cosmetics procedures have further convinced people that in order to be considered beautiful, they need to have perfect, young looking skin with chiseled features, a sun-kissed glow and shining, full hair. From lip size to hair thickness and even eyebrow shape, cosmetics and the advertisements for them are inherently designed to point out a person’s flaws so that they can sell a solution. 

In particular, cosmetics and cosmetic procedures designed to change a person’s appearance to make them appear more skinny or chiseled—like contouring to make your cheeks look more gaunt, or to make your jawline appear thinner—are often associated with modern beauty standards but are seldom associated with directly conflicting with the body positivity movement. Where the fashion industry is highly scrutinized for its use of thin bodies as a beauty standard—and a size standard for clothing in most societies—the beauty industry is largely exempt from that type of criticism. However, the beauty industry often places an even greater importance on thinness as a form of beauty.

Even among natural beauty companies and products, thin bodies are associated with health in ways that larger bodies are not. Recent movements to further canonize the body positivity movement have begun including the cosmetics industry. A 2019 Refinery 29 article pointed out the ways in which the word “skinny” is used in the beauty industry to advertise products to people. The article argues that products designed to do things like decrease signs of aging or eliminate cellulite do little to contribute to a body positive society and, in fact, are more harmful than they are effective. 

Other products, like beauty products designed to make dark skin appear whiter, contribute to body image issues among Black women and men that have darker, more melanated skin. Many Asian products, still, advertise white skin as a desired beauty standard, sending a clear message that darker complexions are a problem that needs to be fixed—like yellow teeth or unruly eyebrows–and not a form of beauty on their own.  Entire books have been dedicated to discussing colorism within the global beauty industry, yet brands continue to advertise themselves as diverse while using racially ambiguous models rather than clearly Black models.

How can the beauty industry change?

In the future, brands and cosmetics suppliers should be careful to avoid language in advertising that contributes to harmful stereotypes on what is and is not considered beautiful. In an age where diversity is being celebrated, products that advertise to whiten skin, remove signs of aging, make your face appear more slender, or use cosmetics as a way to attribute wealth and success are likely to feel more outdated and obsolete. Similarly, in a world where the boundaries of gender are stretching—especially among younger consumers—makeup and cosmetics are being attributed as a fun way to express your creativity rather than exhibit beauty and social status. 

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