Not Just a Pretty Face: A Deep Dive Into the Beauty Industry
The concept of “beauty products” has been around for thousands of years. From castor oil balm by ancient Egyptians to skin creams by the Romans, society has ceaselessly toiled to manufacture tools that will help the average person achieve the period-specific standards of beauty. “Cosmetics” or colloquially “makeup”, encompasses any chemical mixture intended to be applied to external parts of the body with the intent to clean, perfume, or enhance features. Though at first sparse and unexplored, the industry grew over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Prevailing attitudes regarding the safety of products and procedures developed, and cosmetic products were eventually accepted. The beauty market was industrialised around the time of the World War I era, with brands such as Revlon, Estee Lauder, and Elizabeth Arden becoming household names. Cosmetics became a globalised commodity by the mid-20th-century and quickly rose to the top as a multi-billion-dollar profitable enterprise.
Treading on the same path with cosmetic products is cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery is a subsection of plastic surgery, which entails restoration, reconstruction, or alteration of the human body. In medical science, reconstructive surgery is to edit deformities, heal burns, or otherwise repurpose bodies for medical reasons. On the other hand, cosmetic surgery is purely aesthetic – to improve a person’s appearance and, in turn, increase self-esteem. Plastic surgery has affected society since as early as 800 BC, the start being skin grafts in India. However, cosmetics boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the cosmetics industry in general. The 1990s and 21st century bought the advent of silicone implants, fillers, and many more. Like cosmetic products, surgery serves as a pathway for people to integrate into the golden standard of beauty. If products are tools to enhance the face, surgery is metamorphic, permanent perfection.
Nowadays, plastic surgery and beauty products permeate culture. All social media apps, most notably Instagram, greet users with targeted makeup ads, salespeople, and influencers posing as the aspiration for beauty. When people receive a constant influx of images showing the positive effects of adhering to trends and getting plastic surgery, the unassuming will wish to follow the leader in order to be gifted with similar validation. With the intense presence of beauty culture on social media, it is difficult to overlook the colourful and alluring presence of cosmetics in our markets. Nonetheless, behind the images of “flawless” airbrushed skin and glossy hair is a complex system of exploitation, misogyny, and colonialist origins. The cosmetic and plastic surgery industry’s ethical dilemmas are deeply rooted and widely impactful. Criticism is essential when an industry essentially profits off people's insecurities for a corporate cash-grab.
Beauty is in the hands of the coloniser, but the beauty industry has carefully curated an inverted representation of the idea. A global myth of beauty has been invented by the industry where there is a supposed universal beauty everyone should attempt to replicate, without paying any heed to the sheer diversity in facial features among separate races. In reality, racism being the monster it is, the global beauty standard is whiteness. Not everyone can hope to one day have sun-tanned peach skin, a “slim-thick” hourglass-shaped waist, double eyelids, voluminous lips, and a narrow-bridge nose. Despite the truth being apparent, the beauty industry will utilise any tactic to prove that their product is the solution to problems.
Beauty advertising carries with it a burden of subliminal messaging which infects the brains of colonised women. A colonial mindset is subconsciously implanted, persuading everyone to conform, climb the beauty ladder, and reap the benefits of normative whiteness. Anne McClintock in her 1995 book, “Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality”, describes how native subjects were regarded as wild and nasty due to their facial features and skin tone. Such colourist reasoning became the cornerstone for racist ideology to enter common thought. Since humans have attributed beauty being synonymous with purity, and whiteness being purity, transitive property follows – makeup products are used to wash away the dirt of not being the dominant race.
White is appearing on soap ads, body lotion, face cleanser cream, face moisturizer, and body powder. The obsession against white skin and everything that is marked up as white is not just an obsession with beauty, but more than that. The obsession with white can be categorised as colonial nostalgia or even colonial trauma. As Roro Retno Wulan of the Telkom University in Indonesia wrote in 2017, imperialists are carrying the culture of "clean". The Europeans looked at black, red, and brown as a dirty form to be “fixed” and reconstructed to their liking. The bare face of colonised individuals is unacceptable. By coercion and advertising, the beauty industry hopes to shut down any remaining bit of self-confidence a person of colour may have. The customer has no agency in this situation as the relationship is between an imperialist and its subject.
Makeup can amplify appearance to a certain degree. After a certain threshold, people cannot alter their faces naturally anymore. In such a case, plastic surgery intervenes as a social ladder that might afford a racialised person a path to perceived power. A study conducted in 2013 by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons indicated a growing trend in cosmetic surgery among Asian-Americans in the US, fuelling a market reaching up to $17.5 billion. Outside of the US, the South Korean cosmetics industry thrives, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reporting 15 million in the last year alone. Surgery clinics for the aforementioned operations are so common in Korea that an entire region in Korea, Apgujeong-Gangnam, is referred to as the Korean “Beauty Belt”.
The growing proliferation of cosmetic surgery has led to a phenomenon termed “ethno-altering”, where primarily East Asian women try to rid themselves of their ethnic features. By looking more Anglo, they denounce their cultural identities. Such feature erasure includes blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) and rhinoplasty (nose surgery) as the most popular, according to a 2015 University of Delaware report. Double eyelid surgery gives Asian monolids a “Hollywood look”, and a slender cheekbone with a raised nose bridge is considered an elegant Western trait. Evident in the global mass media is the disgust towards monolids, associating them with dull, emotionless personality types and small nasal projections with weak character. Data collected by the Journal of Gynecology and Women’s Health in March 2021 found 44% of Korean beauty ads used Western models as references. Surgeries are specifically designed to make participants appear Caucasian, without passing as white. Women want to achieve the appearance of a mixed person, where the most prominent parts of their ethnicity are hidden, but they are still able to uphold cultural honour by representing their race.
"Women need to be beautiful. If their noses are flat and eyes are small, they should get it fixed. Women should be beautiful, and everyone wants beautiful things.” Minh, a Vietnamese woman who had eye and nose surgery done as a US immigrant
A high concentration of plastic surgery in East and Southeast Asian countries can be connected to a plethora of triggers, aside from Western influence. Since the Korean War in the 1950s, South Korea has succeeded in becoming the quickest nation to urbanise and industrialise its post-war economy, aided by Western powers as a puppet government. The Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s brought fierce competition among job-seekers. Scarcity in job opportunities and increased layoff led to companies employing appearance as a factor for selection. Candidates post a picture of their headshot on the corner of job application forms and those who are considered intelligent, respectable, attractive individuals are most likely to get hired.
In many Asian cultures, beauty is revered as a trait that makes women useful for society, just as how scoring a job is considered as the emblem of productivity. A prominent belief in the cultures of Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia etc. is physiognomy, proclaiming appearance determines fate. Physiognomists in Asia read facial characteristics as a form of superstition – cosmetic enhancement is viewed as a link to prosperity. The cosmetics industry understands the gruelling demands of modern-day living and sees a crack in the system. Corporations take advantage of a persons’ yearning for a better life, for validation, for success, and present cosmetic products as a cure-all for their problems. The cosmetics industry sells products and surgeries as an antidote, and the customers – usually women – are then able to sell their bodies in the job market.
Women are at the crux of the beauty industry. Two decades of radical activism following the rebirth of feminism in the 1970s led women around the world to start understanding that the personal is political. Women began discussing previously trivial matters such as appearance, bodies, faces, and clothes. Despite the embarrassment, women realised they were not delusional in seeing the stakes held in the relationship between beauty vs. gender liberation. At the time, the market for cosmetic surgery and makeup was soaring like never before. While women were gaining social recognition and being released from ancient notions of domesticity, acceptance of one’s natural body went down significantly. Consumer spending doubled and women begged to lose fifteen pounds rather than finish any other goal. Under the flowery atmosphere of women starting to work, was the monster of the beauty industry clawing away, scrutinising appearance. As women gained more legal, institutional rights over the course of decades, the chokehold of beauty remained stagnant, pulling at their throats. In the modern-day, media consumption has taken a hold of women.
Beauty companies now market their products through influencers online, who vulnerable audiences are desperate to replicate. Trend cycles are moving faster than ever before, and now even bodies and facial features have transformed into commodities. Take the stereotype of current Instagram influencers; the image is of the hourglass body type with plump lips and a racially ambiguous appearance created through lip fillers, surgery, makeup, and spray tans. Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, a supermodel shape was preferred, with white skin, height, and a skinny waist. Decades before that, when women were expected to be housewives, a feminine, plump aesthetic was the norm. Plastic surgery has made twisting and turning bodies as if they were moulding clay into a reality. Just like fashion trends, bodies have become a trend. Beauty standards are not consistent, they align themselves with whatever is expected out of women of the time. Now that mainstream, corporate feminism has declared businesswomen as the model woman, today’s Instagram model body is ideal – but that is subject to change.
Models and influencers online are simultaneously portrayed as being “their own bosses”: they are all part of a multi-level marketing scheme, advertising products and living a fantasy filled with vacations. Naomi Wolf discusses in her book “The Beauty Myth”, released in 1990, how beauty has become a currency. Commercial success is associated with fitting into the beauty standard. She explains the premises of the idea – “‘Beauty’ is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West, it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.”
If beauty is the currency then media-advertised cosmetic products and surgery encapsulate the money bartered. Skinstore, a beauty e-tailer, estimated in a 2016 financial survey that women spend approximately $300,000 on makeup products combined. A single day has a 55-minute, 16-step, 8-dollar, beauty and skincare routine. Maintaining beauty costs money, and money is power. Plastic surgery and beauty are most often talked about when discussing the upper strata of society – celebrities who can afford to dispense their income into improving their appearances. By gambling with cosmetics, women reach the top of the pyramid scheme, where they have won the game of patriarchy invented by men. They’re approved by men, hence they are bosses.
Escaping patriarchy is not a choice for women. The life-threatening game of misogyny is created by men. If someone chooses to not partake in the game, there are consequences. A study by the Journal of Vocational Behaviour discovered in October 2007 that women were 16 times more likely to be discriminated against because of their weight. Moreover, only in 2019 did airlines like Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic announce that female flight attendants would no longer be required to wear makeup. Still, they are expected to appear polished, beautiful, and effervescent. Middle Eastern airlines still mandate women to wear makeup.
Research in social stratification and mobility conducted by sociologists in June 2016 came to the conclusion that individuals who are attractive earn 20% more while in the workplace, and said attractiveness can be cultivated through makeup. The gender-based wage gap is a well-known truth in society. Even though women have gotten a chance to take part in the labour force, their work is riddled with contradictions. Capitalism forces them into participating in cosmetic procedures in order to make a living. Women wake up in the morning and put hours into a routine, not for fun, but because do any less and they will be degraded unhygienic beasts.
Mainstream, neoliberal feminism emphasises time and time again that makeup is a choice. An entire generation of young women have been taught about the virtues of choice feminism – they do not wear makeup for men, they do so for themselves. They do not get plastic surgery and improve their bodies for men, they do so for themselves. Mere criticism of the beauty industry is no longer tolerated, as doing so is seen as shaming femininity. However, systemic patriarchy cannot disappear by a simple choice that is not analysed further. Humans do not make choices randomly, there are reasons behind choices. In a world run by men, plenty of women around the world do not get the privilege of making their own choices. Their place of employment, the governing forces in their life, and people in positions of power may be making the decisions for them.
“The woman in a way is compelled at an already early age to learn that she has to spend a considerable amount of time, energy and above all money – allowing cosmetics companies to largely benefit from this - striving to achieve this epitome of a perfect woman.” Federica Ferradino
Women’s liberation is not about individual choices, it is about abolishing systemic oppression which coerces women into making decisions every day. Critics of the beauty industry are not looking down upon the actions of individual women but a predatory, capitalist system that hunts down people based on the insecurities in their lives. Through countless studies, scholarly research, and novels filled with anecdotes, the public is able to examine the toxicity of beauty culture. Ad campaigns feature joyful, playful, women living their life to the fullest – all to persuade a depressed, normal person what they could be experiencing if they invested their money into a product. Thus, the beauty industry is just like any other. Behind romanticism is a complex system of manipulation, packaged by corporate entities as new-age feminist empowerment. The sole way to end beauty from dominating lives is critical thinking, discernment, and media literacy.
Edited by Adi Roy and Veda Rodewald
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