The “clean” beauty brand Kosas recently announced a new product: the “Revealer Foundation.” This foundation comes off the back of the brand’s popular “Revealer Concealer,” so named because Kosas founder Sheena Yaitanes “never liked the word concealer—I don’t want to hide my face,” even though the product was designed to do just that. At this point, such cognitive dissonance is hardly novel. Meaningful social change will never occur at the hands of a profit-driven company with access to empowerment buzzwords, and conflating our sense of self with the makeup or skincare we use at best allows us to be better marketed to. At worst, it deludes us into thinking we have done the work of activism by buying a product. Beauty has never been and will never be an apolitical currency, but we have increasingly been led to believe that if we simply expand its definition, it is an intrinsic good.
There is a stark discrepancy between the strength and pervasiveness of beauty culture’s marketing and our woefully simplistic discourse about it. Over and over again, we are sold the idea that a more diverse array of people can be beautiful—if they just lean in. This was the message of Amy Schumer’s 2018 film I Feel Pretty, in which the comedian realizes that the only thing stopping her from being treated well is her own insecurity, not a value system designed to exclude anyone whose appearance deviates from the white, thin, cisgendered, and able-bodied ideal. Unlike other forms of hierarchy, whether race, gender, sexuality, or disability, beauty, like class, is a type of advantage we are convinced is within our reach. There are kinds of social privilege I will never acquire, but if I buy the right products, eat the right foods, wear the right clothes, and hire the right surgeon, I, too, can tap into the currency of beauty. This veneer of individual agency hides a dark underbelly. Beauty rituals can be joyful, yes; there is great artistry and self-expression involved, as well as a real sense of community. But beauty culture functions to separate the margin from the center, with real material consequences for those who can’t or won’t conform.
To disguise this fact, makeup and skincare companies have realized that they can no longer simply sell products to fix so-called flaws: they must encase them in the language of social justice. In 2021, an Indian advertisement depicted a lesbian couple preparing for the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth—a north Indian Hindu tradition in which women fast for the health of their husbands—by using face bleach. The fiercest backlash came from India’s conservative Hindu right, which objected to the couple’s sexuality. What received far less mainstream pushback was the idea that including lesbians in the medically dangerous ritual of facial bleaching was somehow progressive. The advertisement was, in its own bizarre way, inclusive. But is inclusion in a toxic set of practices and ideologies a good thing?
This question is often hand-waved away with the rhetoric of choice. Instead of sitting with the uncomfortable reality that some things we love may be harmful to the collective, the logic becomes that anything that feels good must be good. Linda Hirshman coined the phrase “choice feminism” to describe the misplaced idea that if a woman makes a choice, then it is inherently empowering because she has chosen out of her own free will. This type of thinking disincentivizes any effort to understand what structural factors make any one choice feel like the best one. As the journalist Jessica DeFino points out, in a world where capital of all kinds is distributed based on physical appearance, there is no doubt that someone would feel better after getting filler injected into their cheeks. But instead of “democratizing” beauty, as many publications would claim, procedures like these further entrench beauty ideals that are materially out of reach for many people. Some arguments in favor of beauty culture also seem to contain a measure of self-deception, like the common refrain, “I put makeup on even when I’m not going to see anyone, so I must be doing this for myself.” It’s possible that wearing a full face of makeup at home indicates a true passion for makeup artistry. But it may mean you’ve been so thoroughly trained that you now discipline yourself.
The zeal with which we consume and share skincare routines, well-documented on cult beauty websites like Into the Gloss, indicates that the process of beauty has become nearly as valuable as the result. The subject of a beauty profile buys luxury products like Biologique Recherche P50 or SkinCeuticals’s CE Ferulic Serum because they take themselves seriously. The actress Millie Bobby Brown’s makeup line even went so far as to sell highlighters in the shades “Self-Love,” “Self-Worth,” and “Self-Respect”—all yours for the price of $16 each. It is in this manner that many women’s media outlets publish articles about the top skincare “investments” everyone should make—by their very definition, assets that have a chance of appreciating or depreciating over time. The authors of such articles are perhaps more correct than they realize. Sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner found in a yearlong study of more than fourteen thousand people that it was not “innate attractiveness” that corresponded with higher salaries for women but rather evidence of having put more effort into their grooming routines.
The fetishization of discipline is baked into such routines and evident in the language used to sell beauty and skincare products, even outside of traditional ads. In April 2021, a heavily affiliate-linked British Vogue article taught us “5 Ways to Whip [Our] Skin Back Into Shape for Spring.” In September of that same year, Elle informed us that “the perfect brow . . . isn’t birthed overnight; it takes a lot of training, threading or waxing, and an arduous search for the perfect brow gel,” as though having eyebrows is a full-time job. If this language sounds curiously close to the coded jargon of diet culture—the management, the surveillance, and the numerous products required to help you achieve your aesthetic goal, none of which work long-term—it’s because they’re both part of the same system.
The flip side of this phenomenon is an advertising approach that insists you are already beautiful—and therefore should buy a particular product. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years is the well-intentioned Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which launched in 2004. One viral advertisement from 2013 featured a forensic artist drawing women based on how they describe themselves, and then based on how strangers describe them. When comparing the two sketches, the women observe that when they describe themselves, they look “closed off and fatter. Sadder too.” The video ends with the banal and infantilizing slogan, “you are more beautiful than you think.” Rather than questioning how fundamental beauty seems to be in the lives of these “real women,” the advertisement doubles down on beauty’s importance. Beauty is a deeply valuable and highly unequal commodity, but don’t worry, because you’re more beautiful than you think! The “Real Beauty” campaign was so successful—sales at Dove rose from $2.5 to $4 billion in its first ten years—that it has shaped much of the modern landscape of advertising to women.
American women’s media came perhaps the closest it ever has to a real referendum on beauty culture when Emily Ratajkowski published her essay collection, My Body, in November 2021. Like a modern-day Helen of Troy, Ratajkowski’s consideration of her own beauty launched a thousand think pieces. In essays about her lived experience as a famous model whose looks have amassed her both popularity and wealth, Ratajkowski showed how her success came with steep costs, including the dismissal of her intellect, rampant insecurity, and even sexual assault. In many ways, it is useful to hear from a woman who sits at the very top of the beauty pyramid: if this system is failing even her, then it must be rigged. But it also invites the question: What does Ratajkowski really know of the sharp end of beauty politics, as someone who has always been its beneficiary?
Like all collections of personal essays, Ratajkowski’s focuses on her own life—as it should. But it opened a broader conversation about the various kinds of mistreatment she experienced. Are these insults, as she alludes, only the purview of the exceptionally beautiful? Condescension, sexual violence, financial precariousness, and physical self-consciousness are not just drawbacks of being a professional model; they are often the consequences of living as a woman, period. Ratajkowski’s essays attempt to puzzle out whether commodification of your appearance can ever be truly empowering, without stopping to ask how many of us possess beauty that others are willing to buy in the first place. We are all perpetrators and victims of the system she describes so well. Few of us, however, will ever explicitly profit from it.
Indeed, many more of us will pay the price. The burdens of beauty culture are not evenly distributed. The need for people of color, trans people, non-binary people, and people with disabilities to be perceived favorably physically is far from an issue of vanity—it can often be a question of survival. This is where we start to see the distinction between engaging in self-decoration out of a sense of joy and self-expression and beauty culture as a tax. Practices like hair removal, initially framed as elective procedures, have become so commonplace as to now be considered basic forms of hygiene—a word intimately connected to morality.
The most dangerous iteration of beauty culture is when attractiveness serves as a metric for humanity—which, of course, is not new. This sentiment was explicitly put into writing in the form of America’s so-called “Ugly Laws,” which existed from 1867 up until 1974 in some states. One such law, passed in Chicago in 1881, prohibited people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” from appearing in public spaces. Similarly, women of color have long been used as a foil to white women’s “innate beauty and purity”—their difference from the white norm used as rationalization for everything from sexual violence to enslavement.
More recently, the iconic Afghan Girl portrait by Steve McCurry of the Pashtun girl Sharbat Gula demonstrated how beauty can shape conceptions of who is worthy of humanitarian aid. Originally taken in 1984, it was recirculated in the early 2000s during a push by the Bush administration allegedly for women’s rights during the American occupation of Afghanistan. The discourse around this photograph, imbued with what scholars like Inderpal Grewal would call the colonial desire to reveal what lay beyond the veil, was focused on Sharbat Gula’s beauty—in the words of Suvendrini Perera, her “captivating green eyes.” Such was the frenzy around this photograph that National Geographic readers donated $22 million to use biometric technology to hunt down Gula’s whereabouts seventeen years later. Among others, the reaction to McCurry’s photograph raises the question: If a refugee is not beautiful, do they not matter? Would a child without “piercing green eyes”—eyes that are legible as beautiful to a Western gaze—prompt a similar response?
Perhaps one day we will be able to conceive of the absence of socially determined physical beauty as the presence of something else. “Inner beauty” is a patronizing way to make kindness, creativity, humor, and intelligence runners-up to the real prize. However far the beauty industry thinks it has come, the fact remains that year by year, the percentage of people who feel bad about their physical appearance grows. Beauty culture, as it currently stands, isn’t serving us.