The Beauty Industry and False Empowerment
Why you shouldn't buy what they're selling
In recent years, there has been a surge of female empowerment and girl boss-style advertising campaigns. The world is marching forward and media is becoming increasingly open to positioning women as leaders of that march.
But there’s a certain language and imagery used around these campaigns that make it clear they aren’t all about women and their power. Not really.
Though this type of advertising is seen across a wide variety of companies, I want to focus on its prevalence in the beauty industry. Throughout various campaigns, numerous companies reach out to women with the implication that their beauty makes them powerful. Buy makeup to feel beautiful and confident. Dye your hair to feel beautiful and confident. Lose weight to feel beautiful and confident.
How did we get here?
The idea behind this kind of promotion is to convince women that “fixing” what they dislike about their appearance – facial features, hair colour or texture, their weight or figure – will help them love themselves, and thus functions as an act of self-care. (Harkness 2017) Some brands may instead push images of more diverse beauty, including a range of skin colours, hair textures, body sizes, and perhaps even ableness. Even still, these companies are selling something that hinges on the importance of the female body as something that draws worth from its appearance. (Kite 2016; Tolentino 2016)
The latter type of beauty campaign somewhat draws upon the ideals of one of two schools of thought regarding beauty as empowerment. This school of thought posits that there need to be more women’s bodies that are considered beautiful – that is, a broader definition of female beauty, rather than one that is Eurocentric or heavily airbrushed or otherwise confined to narrow standards. This perspective, however, does not actually alleviate or reduce the shame women feel toward their bodies, nor does it offer any kind of true, long-lasting empowerment. (Kite 2016) By seating women’s source of power and self-worth directly within their body image, (Tolentino 2016) we create an “epidemic of self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance”, (Kite 2016) which only serves to dehumanize women while simultaneously pushing us to spend massive amounts of time, energy, and money worrying about our appearance instead of focusing on more productive tasks and goals. (Kite 2016)
The second school of thought argues that a woman’s body should not be the most important thing about her; she should have more value than as an object to be admired and consumed. (Kite 2016) From this perspective, the enemy of true empowerment is not mainstream beauty ideals or a need for more diverse ideas of beauty, but rather objectification and the promotion of any sort of beauty ideal in the first place. (Kite 2016) Presenting more diverse examples of beauty is only treating a symptom of the larger problem of female objectification. (Kite 2016)
If there is ever any doubt about the validity of these claims, one needs only to look toward beauty ideals for men. They exist, to be sure, but in a much different form. A key example is the relationship toward men and makeup. Men can have any number of the same “flaws” used to convince women that they need to wear makeup, be it thin eyebrows or skin discoloration or acne. Yet men are not expected to wear makeup – quite the opposite. Makeup is not pushed toward men as a solution for these flaws or a source of confidence and empowerment. This is because men’s power doesn’t lie in how appealing they are to a system of objectification and consumption. Men’s bodies are not products. (Harkness 2017)
The answer to this should be obvious, though it is perhaps somewhat layered. The beauty industry and the brands that put out so-called empowerment campaigns are the ones who reap the rewards of the ideology that beauty is empowerment. The brands (which include Dove and Aerie) see significant profit gains from these campaigns. (Tolentino 2016) This is not, however, a case of preying on a societal problem that exists outside of these companies.
Women use the products created by the beauty industry to fix their appearance, enhance their features, express and celebrate their unique bodies – whatever the flavour of the week for beauty campaigns happens to be. But the beauty industry is not a bystander or neutral participant in this process. These companies and their advertisements are the ones who made women regard their features as flawed in the first place, and now that the tides are shifting and conversations are turning toward the question of empowerment and objectification, they’re jumping on the bandwagon to promote their products as confidence building and important for self-love (Harkness 2017).
This does more than just increase their profits. This is part of a process of depoliticizing the concept of empowerment. It’s no longer about seeing the structures of oppression and acting against those structures, or about viewing one’s “personal competency as fundamentally limitless.” (Tolentino 2016) Instead, empowerment is a buzzword. It imitates power, creating a hollow shell of it without ever touching or altering the actual societal structures. This empty buzzword feminism is highly marketable and easier to swallow for the business world because it is entirely detached from any real political concerns or movements, and thus is wholly non-threatening. It looks pretty while accomplishing nothing – which is what women are pushed toward becoming. (Tolentino 2016)
Where do we go from here?
None of this is to say that makeup is evil or women who appreciate how they look when they pass a mirror are bad. The point is that it shouldn’t matter. Women should be able to look however they want and it should be of little consequence.
If we spent more time emphasizing women’s accomplishments, strengths, and abilities instead of and separate from their looks, this would go a long way in communicating that they are more than just their bodies. If our media celebrated women for what they do instead of how they look while doing it, the stranglehold the beauty industry holds over women’s sense of worth would be weakened.
More importantly, we need to challenge ourselves and others. When we talk about women – especially powerful women – we need to start leaving style and makeup out of the conversation. What a senator or an activist or an influential creator wears should matter far less than what they say and do.
Harkness, Jane. 2017. ‘We Need to Talk about Makeup and Empowerment.’ Medium. Retrieved January 30, 2019 (https://medium.com/athena-talks/we-need-to-talk-about-makeup-and-empowerment-ae9d82ff2012).
Kite, Lindsay. 2016. ‘Empowering or Objectifying: The Clashing Camps of Body Positivity.’ Beauty Redefined. Retrieved January 31, 2019 (https://beautyredefined.org/empowering-objectifying-body-positivity/).
Tolentino, Jia. 2016. ‘How ‘Empowerment’ Became Something for Women to Buy.’ New York Times. Retrieved January 31, 2019 (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/magazine/how-empowerment-became-something-for-women-to-buy.html).