Skirting The Issue

Can We Really Fix the Beauty Industry?


CVS made a bold move to banish retouched photos in its advertising, but it’ll take more than a few visible pores to remedy the problems that have been harming women for centuries.



In an unprecedented act of transparency, a major retailer is seeking to change the way women see themselves—at least when shopping for beauty products.

CVS Pharmacy, the retail division of CVS Health, the nation’s second-largest drugstore and health-care conglomerate, announced Tuesday that it will stop “materially altering” all photos—in stores, online, and in social media and print advertising—hawking its CVS-brand makeup and skincare products. Beginning this spring, CVS will have phased out the poreless, wrinkle-free faces we’ve grown accustomed to seeing announce sales on everything from makeup remover (it takes off your mascara, and every fine line on your face!) to hair color (covers greys, and makes 40-year-old women look like teenagers!).

It’s a bold move, which president of CVS Pharmacy and executive vice-president of CVS Health Helena Foulkes (of course it took a woman to do this) says was inspired by “the bigger conversation women are having over their own level of empowerment in society.” It’s a significant change, especially if CVS can convince the brands that sell products in their stores (e.g., Olay, L’Oréal Paris, Estée Lauder, and Neutrogena) to follow suit in their advertising images, or at the very least clearly label their retouched photos as such. CVS aims to implement a comprehensive labeling system by 2020.

Imagine a world in which sun spots, crow’s feet, and laugh lines are visible in the advertising of products that seek to banish them; where the frizzy hair, visible pores, and hereditary under-eye circles—or those brought on by simply surviving the past year—we see in our faces each day are reflected back at us from beauty ads whose very purpose is to make us feel the need to improve upon ourselves. It seems downright fantastical! And unlikely.

The New York Times framed the announcement as an extension of the #MeToo movement, but that’s not quite accurate. While it’s easy—and lucrative—to couch every women’s issue into a snappy hashtag, regulating truth in beauty advertising is a problem that has been around for centuries, and it will take more than just a few not-quite-so-airbrushed photos of supermodels to fix it.

Our society’s obsession with youth and beauty began long before the first camera was invented. In approximately 2500 to 1550 BCE some of the earliest civilizations concocted powders, potions, and herbal remedies to treat “ailments” ranging from ruddy complexions to greying hair. Over the centuries, emperors and snake-oil-salesmen alike embarked on a quest for serums that promised immortality—or at least prevented hair loss. And before J.Lo allegedly started filling bathtubs with jars of $300 Crème de la Mer to keep it tight, Cleopatra took daily baths in donkey’s milk and lined her eyes dramatically with kohl, becoming perhaps the first global beauty icon. Of course she herself was constantly trying to achieve an unattainable Godlike apperance. Even the beauty who brought down the Roman Empire was never pretty enough.

Thousands of years, millions of products and billions of dollars later, the modern-day beauty industry has more wealth than the GDPs of Ireland, Austria, or all island nations combined, and its followers are loyal to the death—by design.

The problem with the beauty industry—not to mention, in fact it should be emphasized, the fashion industry—is not that these products exist, but that they sell a false narrative. Yes, the glowy, smooth airbrushing of models in makeup and skincare ads projects an “after” image that is only attainable on a computer screen, but the fiction spun by the beauty industry isn’t contained to just photographs. In revamping its advertising images, CVS is defining “materially altered” as “changing or enhancing a person’s shape, size, proportion, skin or eye color, wrinkles or any other individual characteristics.” But this change does nothing to address the language used in product packaging, or the context of advertisements, which likely have more to do with the well-documented psychological effects beauty messages have on women—from depression to eating disorders—than a fresh-faced picture of Kristen Bell shilling Neutrogena ever will. Take away the pretty face, and self-doubt is still built right into the slogans we’ve grown up with:

Maybelline’s, “Maybe she’s born with it…” Of course you’re not just born with it.

L’Oréal’s “Because you’re worth it.” Worth, what, altering?

Revlon’s, “Feel like a woman.” Because without makeup, you’re what exactly?

No language has been as damaging to women, or as profitable for the beauty industry, as “anti-aging,” which despite recent backlash for its false bill of sale, is printed on the packaging of nearly every product on beauty shelves today, from eye cream to nail polish, a product that is applied to dead cells. Anti-aging is a term that promises the impossible: to stop time itself. Beginning with a pioneering Avon campaign that then seeped into drugstore and department store beauty brands alike, anti-aging products exploded in the 20th century, luring women with what author Susan Faludi pointed out were scare tactics that simultaneously projected a false feminism of self-control.

“The beauty companies fared better hawking anti-wrinkle potions than traditional scents and cosmetics because backlash appeals in this venue were able to couple female awareness of ancient cultural fears of the older woman with modern realities of the baby-boom woman’s aging demographic,” Faludi writes in 2006’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. She notes that in 1986 a cosmetics industry trade group surveyed its members and found that 97 percent had noticed that their clients (beauty consumers) were “markedly more worried and upset about the threat of wrinkles than just a few years earlier.”

That “worry” turned to a fear that propelled the anti-aging segment of the beauty industry to reach peak revenue of $150 billion—a third of the entire industry’s net worth. Thanks to the symbiotic (or is it parasitic?) relationship between the beauty industry and mainstream women’s media, magazines such as Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue helped normalize anti-aging products—and in turn, the eternal quest for youth—as the status quo. The question was never, “Should you try this new anti-wrinkle cream?” but, “Here are our top 10 favorite anti-wrinkle creams (choose at least one, you shriveled up hag!)”

To its credit, the industry’s leading beauty magazine, Allure, decided to call bullshit on the illusion of “anti-aging,” when in April 2017 it vowed to eliminate the term from its pages. In a refreshingly honest statement, editor-in-chief Michelle Lee said, “I’m not going to lie and say that everything about aging is great. We’re not the same at 18 as we are at 80. But we need to stop looking at our life as a hill that we start rolling uncontrollably down past 35. (And if it were, who determines the pinnacle? Is it our sexual prime? Is it the point at which most other people would consider us hot? Or is it utterly in our own heads?)”

Props, Michelle. But if our twisted ideas of what beauty means, and what parts of aging are acceptable are somehow just fabrications of our minds, how did they get there? We certainly weren’t born thinking, Shit, I might feel pretty if only I had eyebrows like Brooke Shields, wait, no, like Kate Moss, no, like Brooke Shields! Media’s role in “trending” body types and even simple facial features such as eyebrows contributes to the already deafening sociocultural noise that tells women they’re never good enough.

There is emotional manipulation in ads as well that have nothing to do with how the model looks, but everything to do with what story she’s selling. Is she a girl at work who needs that perfect product to keep her (usually male) boss impressed? Is she a frustrated mom who’s barely managing to “have it all,” but dayum her lipstick is on point? As the old expression goes, marketing is manipulation, and there’s nothing more effective in triggering a woman’s emotional impulses than showing her a version of herself she can relate to—tired, frustrated, eager, heartsick—then offering up a quick fix.

CVS is attempting to take on a beast that has been eating women’s self-esteem and spitting it back out at us for as long as we can remember. And it would be wonderful, of course, if we somehow evolved to a place where Photoshop is used only to superimpose Donald Trump’s head onto the bodies of fantastic beasts such as plucked-naked turkey vultures. But getting to that place is only one of the many steps we must take as a culture to reverse the damage already done by the false, idealized imagery the industry has been shoving down our throats all this time. Girls and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this hoax because despite the fact that they were born into a world run by social media, they are still relatively novice consumers. How would a 12-year-old girl know the difference between an unaltered image of Selena Gomez in a Pantene ad and a “I woke up like this” selfie (filtered, of course) that the star posts on Instagram?

The endgame shouldn’t be to derail the beauty industry—for God’s sake, women of every color only just—Just! In 2017!—were given a chance to fully indulge in makeup play that has been afforded white women since lead-based powder became a Victorian-era beauty secret (and death sentence). We’ve only just begun to celebrate models in hijabs and wheelchairs, offering a more inclusive vision of what the beauty ideal really is: all of us. Instead of dismantling the beauty industry we must disrupt it, not only with independent lines like Fenty Beauty that addressed long-ignored communities, but by insisting on product labeling, advertising narratives, and magazine copy that focus on who women are rather than what we look like.

If there is any connection between the beauty industry and the #MeToo movement it’s this: Women are realizing that we must be the ones in charge of our own stories, and how we are represented and misrepresented by the rest of the world. If something’s wrong, it’s up to us to fix it, from Hollywood to the makeup counter.

In 1990, feminist author Naomi Wolf brought the beauty industrial complex into clear focus in her groundbreaking exposé, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Nearly 20 years later, it’s still sadly, poignantly relevant, most notably the notion that what we—from individual women to magazine editors, to marketing executives at CVS—consider beautiful is built on a myth wrapped up in the ways in which society pigeonholes female sexuality, love, communication, attraction, motherhood, career ambition, style, etc.

“For about 160 years [going on 180], middle-class, educated Western women have been controlled by various ideals about female perfection; this old and successful tactic has worked by taking the best of female culture and attaching to it the most repressive demands of male-dominated societies,” Wolf writes. “With this tactic, we waste time in every generation debating the symptoms more passionately than the disease.”

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