Updated: May 12
In theory, beauty and feminism are not contradicted. Beauty should always be about self–care and self–expression. And feminism, in its essence, is the fight for women's rights and social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Those rights include bodily autonomy and freedom of self–expression. While early feminists often eschewed beauty all together in order to be taken seriously, third–wave feminism specifically advocates for "expressions of femininity as a challenge to objectification" and it "dismisses any restrictions that define or control how women should dress, act, or express themselves." The ability to make autonomous choices about self–expression, about our bodies and our looks, no matter how trivial it may appear to some, can be seen as a fundamental right and an act of resistance.
In this way, beauty and feminism could comfortably overlap on freedom to be your authentic self. However, in practice, this relationship is more troubled and complex than that.
"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." – Marie Shear
History of “Beauty Is Pain”
We've all heard "beauty is pain" so many times that we might not even stop to think how damaging this idea is. As Alessia Cara sings in "Scars to your beautiful":
"She has dreams to be an envy, so she's starving You know, covergirls eat nothing She says, beauty is pain and there's beauty in everything What's a little bit of hunger? I could go a little while longer, she fades away"
Throughout history and still today, women have been submitting themselves to absurd, painful, and often dangerous practices to achieve ever–changing and fleeting beauty standards. From corsets so tight they broke ribs to toxic lead face powder when looking pale was all the rage in the 1600s. We cringe now when we read about Victorian women ingesting arsenic for "improved skin translucence." But to paint this not–so–beautiful picture, we don't have to go far in history, as dangerous beauty practices are just as prevalent today. If you think lead paint is a thing of the past, think again, lead acetate was approved by the FDA for use in hair dyes until 2022. And liposuction, butt injections, surgical rib removal, dangerous diets and detoxes, or even the acceptance of absurdly uncomfortable "killer heels" that cause twisted ankles, back pains, and foot deformation, are just as alive and well today as ever. In fact, Dove’s 2016 Global Beauty and Confidence Report revealed that shocking 90% of women have stopped themselves from eating or put their health at risk in other ways in efforts to look ‘better’.
Almost 200 years difference and not much has changed: Victorian era corset and waist trainer sold by Hourglass Gal
Capitalism Is Making Us Miserable For Profit
Recently, Jameela Jamil wrote a powerful essay for Paper in protest of a NY Post article with an infuriating title "Bye bye booty: Heroin chic is back." I love and admire her effort to squash unhealthy and dangerous diet culture, but I feel that the article didn’t emphasize enough that the issue is much bigger than just the toxic diet industry. Whether our bodies are wafer–thin, plain fat, or somewhere in between, it is nobody's business but ours. Whether the industry today pushes a narrative of curves and tomorrow a narrative of skin and bones, all women lose regardless, and not just the ones who are on the "wrong" side of a trend.
Opposite trends, both equally damaging (Source: Reddit)
The problem is that today, the pursuit of beauty ideal is not internally–driven. Instead, women are caught in a well–orchestrated machine of capitalism that uses and exploits our bodies for the purpose of selling more stuff. We are told how we are supposed to look and what we must buy to achieve that. Marketing, advertising, and social media are powerful and ruthless tools often used to fuel insecurities and feelings of "never–good–enough" in women with a sense of urgency for a quick fix, as a way to sell more beauty products.
Beauty products have historically been advertised almost exclusively to women. Women are the only ones expected to buy into the dream of perfect, ageless skin, and ever–changing body ideals. According to a recent study, women spend, on average, almost an hour a day on beauty routines, and yet 60% of women and 78% of teen girls have something bad to say about their looks. So women spend far more money and time on beauty products and treatments than men, and yet they feel much worse about themselves and their looks.
"Capitalism uses a woman's body to sell everything to men (from food to cars to sex). But what does it use a woman's body to sell to women other than shame, insecurities, and unrealistic beauty standards?"
Women also face gender–based price discrimination, as personal care products marketed to women are often priced higher. "Pink tax" is another example of economic inequality affecting women's financial well–being. Not only are women paid 80 cents for each dollar a man makes, but we are also charged more for the same products, and expected to invest significantly more time and money into beauty and personal care, which in the end makes us feel even worse about ourselves. Talk about a double double whammy.
In this way, the beauty and fashion industry are not only cashing in on women's low self–esteem that they helped create, but they also undermine a woman’s choice to look and be who she wants, while negatively impacting her financial freedom and her time. This in itself can be seen as anti–feminist.
The beauty industry should be about self–care, self–expression, feel–good rituals, as well as about economic fairness and product safety; and not about corporations and brands creating, amplifying, and profiting from our insecurities while making us feel miserable.
Can Beauty Industry Be a Feminist Ally?
Beauty is beautiful. From ancient history to present day, our fascination with beauty has been a focus of philosophers, artists, and scientists. Beauty has always brought a certain aspect of admiration, joy, or excitement to our lives. Whether looking at a beautiful piece of art, dance performance, nature, or a human, psychology studies show that aesthetic experiences make us happier, more joyful, less stressed or even less depressed.
But it is important to look at beauty, cosmetics, and fashion as means of self–care and self–expression on our own terms. This places focus on self–acceptance, owning your desires, and the right to be, do, and wear whatever you want. Beauty seen in this light is about choices. Any woman should be able to choose to do anything she wants with her body. And if looking at colors in your makeup palette, exploring textures, experimenting, or having a bedtime skincare ritual, brings you joy, then these can all be positive aspects of our personal relationship with beauty and cosmetic products. And there is nothing inherently bad about it. Achieving this in practice, however, requires certain vigilance on both consumer and brand side.
Being Anti Anti–Aging
Let's start by recognizing how important language used in beauty marketing is because it sends a powerful message. A study done by Roc revealed that 90% of women ages 25–69 feel anxious about getting older due to the way they look (e.g. lines, wrinkles). More women (60%) are worried about their aging appearance than about having enough money for retirement (43%). Survey conducted with pro–age brand Look Fabulous Forever showed that 91% of respondents feel represented inaccurately, insufficiently or are ignored by advertisers and 97% said that they like seeing older models or celebrities in beauty ads. In 2020, the Department of Health estimated that 41,000 Botox procedures were carried out on under–18s (since banned for minors). This fixation on women’s age is sad, damaging, and alarming.
Beauty brands need to eliminate anti–aging language and end the obsession with promoting youth as the ideal of womanhood. This is far from trivial, as the research shows. Marketing terms like 'anti–aging', 'youthful look', 'age rewind' need to be replaced with age–positive language centered around skin care, nourishment, skin glow, skin health, or even just having fun with your cosmetics through exploration of colors and textures. As Jamie Lee Curtis puts it:
"This word 'anti–aging' has to be struck. I am pro–aging. I want to age with intelligence, and grace, and dignity, and verve, and energy.” – Jamie Lee Curtis
Taking the lead, Allure banned the term 'anti–aging' in 2017 and never looked back. As they say:
"No one is suggesting giving up retinol. But changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging."
It is time for beauty brands, magazines, and industry
players who claim to care about their consumers, to
follow the suit.
Add Ads on To–Do List
Similar to usage of anti–aging language, brands need to reconsider their overall advertising scripts and imagery. Research by Unilever revealed a stark difference between how women are portrayed in ads versus reality: only 3% of ads feature women in professional roles, 2% show women as intelligent, and 1% as funny. The time to change this damaging narrative was yesterday!
As a consumer, start paying attention to beauty product advertising. Does the ad for your favorite lipstick feature a model without any human–like lines or pores? Is that cleaning product you were about to buy always shown with a housewife who does her chores with a smile? Is cleavage all you can see in that beer ad targeted to men? These things are important.
"The images of women used in advertising and media write the script for our culture. Embracing the right ones and rejecting the wrong ones goes a long way in changing that script."1
Doing Good: Support and Create Beauty Brands That Drive Meaningful Changes
Today, more brands make giving back a part of their mission. They might donate a percentage of profits to 1% For The Planet, One Tree Planted, etc. Consumers are also driving this change as they are looking not only for good products, but for brands with a purpose that aligns with their values. Considering that the beauty industry profits from, and heavily depends on the female consumer, it is logical (and a bit overdue) that more beauty brands should focus on giving back to women’s organizations, funding female founders, or even starting their own women–focused funds and non–profits.
As consumers, we should support brands that genuinely care about us. There is enormous power in our beauty purchases. The revenue of the US cosmetic industry was around $50 billion in 2022 and$3.5 billion was spent on advertising in 2021. We need to be smart and use that power to our advantage. This means voting with your wallets and supporting brands that support women. And as a brand, this means dedicating your efforts and profits to furthering the rights and opportunities of your key customer. Without them, your brand and your bottom line would not exist.
Some notable examples of beauty brands that are already doing this are: Honest Beauty, Tatcha, who invests in girls' education, Sisters Body donating 40% of profits to organizations that support women’s health, Givescent, who supports female war survivors through Women for Women International, Bossy Cosmetics, and Nuria, who donates a portion of sales to women's education.
Product Safety as Imperative – Ending "Beauty Is Pain" Narrative
In the beauty industry there is often an arrogant assumption that women will sacrifice their health and will not ask questions about the product's safety, as long as it delivers promised benefits. We are treated as gullible enough to be deceived by pretty imagery and powerful but BS marketing.
Historically and today there are countless examples of disregarding safety of products heavily advertised to women and especially to minorities. Hair relaxers and Brazilian Blowouts are just two examples of toxic products being pushed onto minority women. When consumers started rejecting J&J Baby Powder due to the issues with asbestos contamination, J&J executives didn't decide to fix the formula. Instead, they simply shifted their marketing efforts to heavily target women of color. All this is simply unacceptable.
Beauty brands that claim to care about their customers need to prove that by putting our safety first, before their bottom line.
Science, not marketing, needs to drive ingredient selection. There is no place in our toiletries bag for ingredients suspected or proven to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, endocrine disruptors, or known allergens and sensitizers.
Beauty products should follow all necessary safety testing before being placed on the market. Sounds obvious. However, in the US this is technically required but not enforced, as FDA does not monitor or provide guidelines on recommended safety testing of cosmetics. Hence, the more responsible brands often resort to following EU guidelines instead. But many smaller brands, due to lack of knowledge, budget, or care for consumers, just don't do any safety testing at all.
Lastly, we should demand ethical labeling and ingredient transparency. This means that brands should disclose all ingredients, including impurities, as well as allergens, flavors, or fragrance ingredients that are typically hidden under "trade secret" loopholes in the US.
Feminist Beauty Manifesto
So, taking everything into account, and from a perspective of a cosmetic industry expert and unrelenting feminist, here is a quick guideline for beauty brands on how to be more feminist, in a genuine, meaningful way:
Safe beauty is imperative: Beauty is NOT pain – Cosmetics should contain only ingredients proven to be safe, they should be safety tested and have full ingredient transparency. Hiding information about product or ingredient safety, or making it difficult to find, is misleading. Instead, treat your customers with the respect they deserve through honesty and transparency.
Anti anti–aging – Brands need to use age and body–positive language in their marketing and advertising. Women focused youth obsession is a sexist and damaging narrative.
Brands founded by women or supporting women: We rise by lifting each other – As a brand focus on driving meaningful change by supporting women's organizations, non–profits, and causes, as well as other brands that are female–founded or owned. Reassess your internal company culture, are you employing, promoting, and compensating women fairly and as much as men? Do you offer compensated maternity leave and reasonable work–life balance for working mothers? Do you have zero tolerance sexual harassment and discrimination policies in place?
Ethical marketing: No BS Beauty – No misleading, "fairy dust" marketing, promising unrealistic and unattainable benefits. No marketing story ingredients used at levels that are too low to give any real benefit, but for which you charge a premium. Stop misleading your consumer, they know better. Be honest and real.
Inclusive beauty – Beauty is not restrictive and not exclusive. Don’t compare and pit women against each other. Don’t set unrealistic beauty standards by overly photoshopping your imagery or by promoting only one body type in your ads. This also means that beauty products should not be marketed to women only, they should transcend genders. Celebrate the uniqueness of an individual, instead of pushing molds that women should fit into.
And as an individual, here is what you can do to be a more feminist consumer:
Reject brands promoting sexist language or imagery. Say no to brands trying to profit from our insecurities by pitting us against each other, by comparing us, holding us to impossible standards, or trying to fit us into trend molds. Ask yourself: who gets to decide who is beautiful? The answer is, each one of us does.
Don’t judge other women, yourself included. Everybody has a right to self–expression, no matter how it looks to you. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Seek out and support brands that genuinely support women. Dig below the surface and glossy, empowerment social media posts. Read instead about the brand's mission and values. Do they donate to women's causes? Do they employ women and pay them equitably? Are they founded or owned by women? Remember, as consumers, we hold incredible power over brands. We can make them, break them, or force them to change, by voting with our dollars. Use your power for good.
In summary, we should all support brands that focus on product safety and on beauty as an expression of self–care, freedom to be ourselves, and feeling good in our skin. We need to demand more feminist brands that celebrate our uniqueness and brands that truly support and actively contribute to honesty, safety, and equality in beauty.