January 2012

Kati Nolfi


Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry by Geoffrey Jones

Upon seeing the cover of Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, my friend groaned. When I asked why, she said, "It's about the global beauty industry? Sounds depressing." It's unlikely that she would say the same thing about a book about art and aesthetics. I think we like to separate the beauty industry from aesthetics, the low from the high, and the natural and creative from the commercial and crass. Aesthetics is something people like to believe is personal, that they make choices about what and whom they think are beautiful, but it has been manipulated in the interest of making money for hundreds of years. Aesthetics, beauty, and health can be difficult to distinguish. Most modern people think they understand marketing and that they are averse to it and unable to be conned. They think they make savvy choices, pure choices. Fans of evolutionary psychology believe that our interest and assessment of the beautiful is biologically determined and gendered. Geoffrey Jones asks, "What are we buying when we buy lipstick?" And how and why do we make the choices we make? Men and women spend $330 billion a year on fragrance, cosmetics, and toiletries. For the most part, these products are ephemeral. They are kissed away, mingled with the fragrance of the street, washed away by rain. They are purchased on trust and dreams.

Geoffrey Jones interviewed many beauty executives for this comprehensive and mostly neutral, though sometimes critical history of the beauty, fragrance, and health industries. Similar accounts of beauty pioneers, profits, and company takeovers get tedious if you're not excited by business, but it all adds up to an interesting story and stimulates the reader's thoughts about the way we look, the way we see, and the way we buy. In some ways, this is a history of marketing and advertising, of getting people to believe, do, and buy things they wouldn't, of changing beliefs like the belief that colored cosmetics were for prostitutes.

The industry's history of racism, classism, colonialism, and sexism are important to know and at odds with the opportunities that women and immigrants have had to build empires in the beauty industry. Europeans were known as the "dirtiest" people because the bubonic plague, or Black Death, had scared people from washing with water. Europeans (and Americans) reinvented themselves as the cleanest people and they conflated whiteness, cleanliness, morality, and social advancement in a racist campaign to oppress and then uplift people of color. Incidentally, Nivea comes from the Latin for "snow white." Companies were very deliberate about soap branding for the masses. African Americans were encouraged to use soap to lighten their skin, and soap companies used racist imagery in advertising. Although Western beauty standards prevailed early on, the supply channels, plantations, and factories were located in countries like China, Madagascar, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Even today, "exotic" beauty ingredients are sourced to capture the attention of the curious Westerner. As Jones writes, "long-lost craft knowledge, almost driven underground by industrialization, was now sought and turned into modern brands."

There are a lot of ambiguities and contradictions in the so-called global beauty industry. For one, the industry is huge, including disparate products like cosmetics, shampoo, razors, and toothpaste. The slippage in the industry means that blue eye shadow is in the same category as dental floss. Most of the companies we know today have been around since the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries and began quite humbly. Procter & Gamble, for instance, had $82.6 billion in sales in 2011, but started out as a candle company by two immigrants, William Procter and James Gamble, in 1837. As Jones says, the beauty industry is about fashion, trends, technological advancements, and change. Revlon was one of the first to capitalize on this by having new lipstick colors every season. But the companies that advocate that you change your look can maintain that their authority rests on their august reputations. The French Eugene Rimmel opened a shop in 1834 in London and was one of first to use mail order catalogs and advertise in theater programs. Rimmel is now owned by Coty (begun by Francois Coty, who was born as Joseph Marie Francois Spoturno in 1874 and was known for introducing accessible luxury to the beauty industry) and is still associated with London, featuring Kate Moss as a model. The makeup appears in drugstores at a price point just above Wet n Wild.

In the 1970s environmentalists, feminists, and people of color took action against the various dangers in the industry. Feminists criticized the industry for "encouraging an obsession with physical perfection that traps woman in an endless spiral of hope, self consciousness and self hatred." Local models of color were used globally, instead of white Western models. A consumer movement in the US and Europe advocated for safety and regulations. P&G and Unilever manufactured harmful detergents, and a talcum powder containing hexachlorophene killed people in France. Hexachlorophene was also an ingredient in Cover Girl cosmetics. Aniline dyes in hair dye were found to be carcinogenic. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was enacted in the US in 1967. Both Germany and France passed cosmetics laws in 1975.

Companies founded in response to these concerns included Anita Roddick's The Body Shop (sold to L'Oreal in 2006), Aveda (sold to Estee Lauder in 1997), and Tom's of Maine (partially acquired by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006). Roddick was concerned with wasteful packaging and natural ingredients. The first franchises of The Body Shop were owned by women. Green companies had a strong evangelizing component and there began a trend toward finding meaning and charity in consumption. Companies purported to make consumers feel good about the way they looked and the products they purchased. The MAC AIDS Fund raised more than $100 million from 1994 to 2009. The Dove (owned by Unilever) Campaign for Real Beauty featured "real models" with "real bodies" and was seen as either a cynical ploy to get women to buy their products or an honest attempt at authenticity. Either way, beauty companies have always been trying out new trends, technologies, and marketing strategies to manipulate our values and our ways of seeing.

Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry by Geoffrey Jones
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199639625
432 pages