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How the beauty industry furthers desirability politics

Last week, Document Women covered “The Politics of Desirability”, examining how preferences do not exist in a void and are often influenced by society.

This week, we will be discussing the impact the gargantuan beauty industry has on desirability politics. 

It should come as no surprise that the players in the beauty industry have a long, unwavering history of discriminatory behaviour. The entire industry was, and is still, buried in anti-black, fatphobic and features ideals. Until recently, thin white women with eurocentric features were the de facto face of the beauty industry; splattered across billboards, advertisements, runways, magazine covers. 

Institutional racism and white supremacy have been well exemplified by the fact that until 2015, no black woman had been a Dior spokesperson. The giant fashion house had gone 69 years before selecting an individual with a similar skin tone to a substantial portion of its target market. Global superstar Rihanna was the first black woman to be the face of the luxury brand, and as such her likeness and fanbase could be exploited to increase their bottom line. 

White supremacist foundations have propped up the big-time players in the beauty industry even as they try to reposition themselves as progressive, inclusive brands. We are barely removed from an era of brazen advertisements for skin ‘brightening’ products in African countries starring white models. These companies have become more progressive [as progressive as neoliberal capitalism gets]— moving from exclusively white models to including biracial, racially ambiguous models, and now, some have dark-skinned models as the faces of their flagship products. 

However, this evolution still lags in crucial aspects. Though minority groups are getting much-needed representation, it still falls on the spectrum of white supremacist ideals. This is especially true with the overwhelmingly fatphobic creative choices of many industry leaders. 

Fat bodies, especially those belonging to black women, are treated like an afterthought or worse— nonexistent.  An entire demographic told in no uncertain terms they were not considered chic enough to wear certain dresses, sexy enough to wear certain lingerie or the right look for top-end designer brands. 

In 2020, the fashion world saw the likes of  Dutch model Jill Kortleve and Paloma Elsesser become the first plus-size models to walk for the Chanel and Fendi show. Versace also had three curve models down its runways.  

That sounds great, right? But luxury brands have been slow to accept size inclusivity. The Fashion Spot reported that only 46 out of 6,879 models cast were plus-size for Fall 2020 and 34 (out of 2,293) for Spring 2021 during last year’s season.

A lot of brave black voices have called out the industry’s fatphobia and colourism, and, as a result, more big-name brands have added bigger sizes to their catalogues. This newfound inclusivity tends to be shallow and tokenistic as it’s driven by economic desires. So the campaign comes out and we see it half done at best and outrightly botched at worst.

The recent surge in inclusive policies and marketing in the beauty industry, while admirable, still leaves a lot to be desired. The fundamental issues at the root (read: racism) have still not been addressed. Minority representation in the rooms where decisions are made will ultimately make their inclusivity drive a lot more organic and genuine rather than the desperate cash-grab sprinkled with pleasantries it currently resembles. 

Brands looking to leverage social media to expand their reach promote unrealistic body expectations and standards by hiring models in the same body type, which does not cater to a range of natural body types. Aptly named “BBL fashion”,  clothes these days are made to cater to a certain (curvaceous but only in places deemed desirable) body type. Influencers also push dangerous supplements to desperate followers looking to look just like them. 

This pushes the demand for cosmetic surgery, weight loss pills and waist trainers,  so followers strive to fit the heavily marketed “ideal”body type. 

It is important to note that the beauty industry extends past what one might consider traditional. Obvious cases like the unrealistic body expectations fashion runways propagate might dominate the discourse, but the proliferation of supposedly benign consumer products like Snapchat/Instagram filters that alter your features flies under the radar. These filters, silly and just fun, may lead to a loathing of the imperfections they seem to correct. Acne smoothening, nose-contouring, eye-colour swapping, and effects akin to getting plastic surgery are bandied around by social media platforms already wreaking havoc on the psyche of their users.

A report from Wall Street Journal notes the impact of filters on the way women see their bodies. It stated that Facebook was aware of the harmful effects these apps have on women, and supporting studies show that social media significantly influences plastic surgery trends.

The beauty industry in its portrayal of an ideal body and face furthers desirability politics by exclusively representing people who look a certain way while pointedly excluding those who don’t. 

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