(un)Ethical Marketing: Why “Body Positivity” is Not Always as Feminist as You Think

As an entrepreneur, I am facing a dilemma. I place a high value on ethics and social responsibility and I want my business to operate in alignment with my values. This is especially tricky for me because my business will be within the realm of the cosmetics/beauty industry.

Running an online business, or any business, is virtually impossible to do without some type of marketing. I think the only company in the history of forever that hasn’t done any “real” marketing is Spanx. And these days, marketing is nearly synonymous with social media ads and influencers. But the problem I have with marketing, especially social media marketing is twofold.

First, companies capitalize on the insecurities of people who feel they don’t live up to society’s standards and marketing generally use sex, beauty, and love to sell their products. Advertisements heavily imply that their product will make you sexier, more desirable, and will get you that perfect loving relationship you always wanted. The second component of this is that for fashion cosmetic products, the main message is that everyone is beautiful. At first, this seems very inclusive and it appears that marketing has taken steps in the right direction.

Image result for dove vs victoria's secret ad

But there is still a problem with ad campaigns like Dove’s. The main focus is still beauty. The message is still “beauty above all.” The only thing that has changed is that it is now socially acceptable for us as women to see ourselves as beautiful.

Remember these two scenes from mean girls?

The scenes, I think, are examples of how before the body positivity movement, women were expected to dislike themselves. Notice how when Cady simply says “Thank you,” Regina’s voice lowers and takes on a tone which implies that the correct response from Cady would have been to protest, call herself ugly, and then suck up to Regina and insist that she is prettier. In the second scene, all the Plastics turn to Cady, expecting her to hate parts of herself too.

What’s changed since the early 2000s is that it’s now expected for every woman to believe she is beautiful instead of scrutinizing her flaws. While this is not an entirely bad thing, in the words of Kristen Leo,

“… this just perpetuates the idea that the most important thing a woman should be is beautiful. And that’s what really is my problem with that because it’s not about embracing our intelligence or our talents or our physical abilities, it’s just, again, about perpetuating the idea that beauty is the most important thing and we all need to beautiful… you must consider yourself beautiful. And I don’t think that’s fair.”

Furthermore, the beauty industry, in particular, capitalizes on this need to be and feel beautiful. Women spend on average $313 a month on their appearance. That’s over $3,000 a year. Of course, everyone wants to look their best but I wonder how much would we spend if ads weren’t telling us to be beautiful and instead told us to be smart, brave, and kind?

But of course, those things are free (lol except education). There is no “kindness industry” (but again, there is an education industry).

And the truth is, we do have a lot of control over how we look. Even though our genetics determine how attractive we can be, there are many steps we can take to “max out” our genetic potential. This means diet & fitness, the right haircut, color & style, clothes that fit well and look nice, teeth whitening, hair removal, dermal fillers, nose jobs, boob jobs, other plastic surgeries, hairline lowering, mani/pedis, makeup, perfume, tanning, skin care, lash extensions, etc. But all of these things cost money. So marketing insists that we be beautiful so that we will spend money in the pursuit of looking the best we can.

I am “guilty” of this. And I put guilty in quotes because I really do want to fully max out my attractiveness. I do want my hairline lowered. I do want a nose job, dermal fillers, and laser hair removal. I do want high-quality skincare and makeup. I want to style my hair nicely. But despite being aware of the message ads are sending to us, I don’t consciously feel manipulated. Even though it may be shallow of me, it’s still something I want and I don’t feel guilty about that at all. However, I still wonder, how much of this is authentic?

Still, beauty isn’t always about approval or attention or love from another person. I had very, very bad acne so I know first hand how debilitating it can be to your self-confidence. Whether or not you agree that we should get our confidence from how we look on the outside, it’s kind of impossible not to do that, at least for myself. I know how acne affected my life and my confidence. It prevented me from wanting to be in pictures with my friends and family and the acne on my back kept me from wearing tank tops in the summer. I did not (and in my opinion, could not) develop self-confidence until I cut out dairy, took Accutane and my skin got clear. But on the flipside, now when I get an occasional breakout from my menstrual cycle or too much sugar in my diet, the acne doesn’t trigger depression like it used to. Of course, I’d rather have clear skin but the breakouts are nowhere near as bad as it was before so that probably accounts for part of the reason why I don’t mind as much.

I wonder if by simply selling a product that falls under the umbrella of the beauty industry, am I perpetuating the problem? After all, all such products are designed to “improve” us in some way. We would not spend money on these things if they only made us stay exactly the same or if they somehow made us “worse.” Does this subtly tell us that we must fix ourselves? And for what purpose? Sex, love, acceptance, and most recently, confidence are the usual answers conveyed in marketing.

But what if my marketing implied nothing of beauty? What if I was sure to include diverse ethnicities and body shapes and the photographs were not so much sexual, but artistic, the same way ancient statues are now considered artistic? What if it even went so far as to not use people whatsoever in the ads? Would that then be ethical? How do you create an ad for a beauty product without showing how it affects a person? Would my product still sell and sell enough?

Yet, I don’t think that the desire to improve our appearance is only pure and authentic and right if we only do it for ourselves. For example, you may not care about your body odor but the people around you will if it’s an offensive odor, though this example is more hygienic than cosmetic. Perhaps a better example would be wanting to look nice for a partner. Not because they demanded it or told you that you’re ugly and you need to change but because you want them to be ever more thrilled that they get to be with you. You want them to not be able to take their eyes (and hands) off you. You want them to brag to their friends about you. You want their ex to be jealous when they see your pictures online.

I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I mean, that’s what I want for myself and my (currently hypothetical) partner. And wanting to be better for other people in other areas of life is not as heavily scrutinized like it is when it comes to beauty. When people say things like “I want to be strong(er) for you,” or, “I want to quit [drugs/alcohol/illegal activities] for you,” or, “I want to be able to buy you anything you like and give you the world,” no one is quick to jump in and insist that you should only want to do all that for yourself. And when men say they want to “give a woman the world,” or to be strong for her, it’s considered romantic. Is wanting to do or be something for yourself nobler than wanting to do the same thing for someone you love? In every other situation, it’s the opposite because when a person does something for another person, it’s out of empathy and consideration for how their actions and behaviors are affecting the other person.

The underlying message for doing all of those other things besides being beautiful is that whatever they’re doing, who they are doing it for is worth it and what they are doing is valuable. This is so ironic to me because as much as our society seems to value beauty, when it comes to wanting to look nice for someone else and yet we are told that we should only try to be beautiful for ourselves, we are in a way saying that whoever we may be trying to look good for is not worth it. Similarly, it is disrespectful to show up to a job interview or to go to court without the proper clothes, regardless of whether or not a suit is what’s most comfortable for you. Of course, we would all rather be in our comfy pants and an old t-shirt but proper clothing for the occasion demonstrates respect. There’s a reason why Zuckerberg showed up to Sequoia Capital in his pajamas and not in a suit; the whole event was designed to be one massive middle finger to the VC’s, pajamas included.

So if I were to design a marketing campaign, what would it even look like? Could there be a balance between capitalizing on insecurities and the perhaps equal but opposite extreme of not having any humans at all?

There are no easy answers. I find this is such a delicate balancing act because beauty and appearances are so often overemphasized in our society except when its value as a sign of consideration, respect, and perhaps even its use as a sort of hug, rather than a middle finger to someone else, is censured.

Don’t you like hugs? Of course, no one should ever be obligated to give anyone a hug (and this especially goes for children) but under most circumstances, when you like someone, hugs are awesome! And I don’t think it makes sense to refuse to hug someone you care for simply out of stubbornness and indignation over the fact that your parents forced you to hug or accept hugs from people you didn’t want to hug as a child. Although, you have every right to be stubborn or to refuse any and all hugs if they make you uncomfortable.

I think the same thing goes for beauty. Don’t you want to look nice for your partner? Don’t you want you and your whole squad to be slaying when you go out and flexing with those pictures on the ‘Gram? You don’t have to get dressed up and put on makeup for anyone or anything, be it for a partner or friends or legal proceedings if that’s not an authentic desire of yours. Ok, so that last one may or may not be optional. Still, I think doing someone thing for someone (even if that something is your makeup or hair or wearing a certain outfit) because you want to do something nice for them is, at the very least, a kind gesture.

What makes this even more complicated is that not everyone appreciates these gestures. Sometimes our new makeup look is met with, “Why do you have so much stuff on your face?” and our new outfit is side-eyed with, “Why are you going out looking like a ho?” Then there are those entitled, creepy people who think that your appearance is specifically for them when you barely know them or aren’t in a relationship with them or even friends. It’s very disheartening when you try to do something nice for someone and they essentially spit on your efforts and there’s nothing more awkward and uncomfortable than when someone assumes that a gift is for them. And to that I say, find someone who is worth the effort. As for the entitled people, run. Run far away, pepper spray in hand.

I think that beauty should hold value in our society but not because it makes anyone superior or more worthy of love. To me, beauty is valuable because of the time, money, and energy that goes into cultivating it, which is pretty much why anything that is valuable is valuable. That is not to say that we should glorify more expensive beauty implements like cosmetic procedures. What I mean is, beauty is meant to be created and enjoyed. There is beauty in people and beauty in nature. And like nature, sometimes that beauty simply exists. Other times, as with a garden, beauty must be cultivated through hard work. You can plant a garden because you love flowers. You can plant a garden because you like gardening. You can put on makeup because the experience of putting it on is soothing on or simply because you like makeup. Or you can plant a garden because you want others to enjoy it. You can wear that outfit because you want your partner to be extra horny on your date. A garden planted for the enjoyment of others does not mean the gardener has internalized misogyny.

Back to the question at hand that I never answered: what does truly ethical marketing in the beauty industry look like?

Beauty products don’t enhance our intelligence, talents or physical abilities. Perhaps for some, myself included, they enhance self-esteem or confidence and yet I don’t think it’s entirely healthy to build our confidence on a foundation of beauty. Cosmetics can also be used to cultivate ourselves and our beauty as a sort of “gift” to our partner if that is something we want to give, but it still sounds very objectifying to say that our appearance is a gift nonetheless.

Aside from that, the only thing beauty products really have left to give us is an experience. They give us rituals, sometimes with therapeutic effects. Having my makeup applied or hair styled by someone gives me ASMR. The feeling of a certain fabric or the way a certain garment sits just right on your body can be very comforting like a security blanket. Perfumes can have a similar effect and can evoke strong memories and feelings and remind us of loved ones. Painting your nails can be soothing. Beauty products aren’t just “stuff” like other products. Other products usually just take up space and don’t really do much for you once the sugar high of spending the money wears off.

Minimalists advocate spending money on experiences, not things. I think beauty products are an experience. Or at least they can be. We can put part of the blame on advertisements for making us feel like we need a product to make us happier and more confident. However, at some point, we must also share in the blame for believing the hype. The problem is not so much the products themselves as are the expectations we have been sold (and gladly bought) of them.

So be wary of ads that are trying to sell you love, sex, acceptance, or even self-confidence via their product, instead of simply offering an experience with the product that makes you smile.


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