In the age of globalisation and social media, Stylist explores how the concept of identity is changing what it means to be beautiful.
“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured. ‘Here,’ they said, ‘this is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy’, you may have it.’”
Pecola Breedlove, the heroine of Toni Morrison’s searing, Nobel-winning 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, knows what is beautiful – and it is not her, being resolutely dark rather than alluringly white, and thus condemned as “ugly”. Set in 1941, the book charts Pecola’s descent from inferiority complex to insanity, damaged child to devastated adult; society excluding her from what it deems attractive, spelling the ruination of her life.
Once upon a time, society considered that it knew what was beautiful: young, white, straight, cis, thin, symmetrical, Eurocentric and stereotypically feminine – plus long, golden hair, if at all possible, although exceptions might be made for the occasional raven-haired temptress.
The bearers of this look evolved over time and with fashion: medieval enchantresses appearing bald, emaciated and tiny-eyed compared with voluptuous 17th-century stunners; bound-breasted Twenties flappers looking boyish next to voluptuous Fifties sirens.
However, the principal elements were fairly constant and all of us got the message, measuring ourselves as lucky or lacking according to society’s stringent conditions. Blonde hair and blue eyes – tick; fat, frizzy-haired and freckled – could try harder. Beauty was expensive, exacting and exclusive, leaving a select few basking in the sun, the rest of us out in the cold.
Well, at long last, times appear to be changing. Ask the question, “What is beautiful now?” and you’ll receive a fabulous multiplicity of answers, embracing men, women and those who refuse to identify as either. There are grey-haired beauties, big-nosed beauties, beauties with birthmarks, big-bellied beauties and beautiful amputees. Everywhere we look, we are presented with idols who subvert the formerly entrenched stereotypes in favour of dazzling individuality.
British-Ghanaian activist Adwoa Aboah is the model of the moment, Chinese supermodel Fei Fei Sun the hot new Estée Lauder signing. 72-year-old Helen Mirren is the face of L’Oréal Paris, with fellow septuagenarian Lauren Hutton the body behind Calvin Klein’s underwear campaign. Our new poster people come in myriad guises: black, white, young, old, fat, thin, gay, straight, able- and non-able bodied, born into their gender, transitioning, transitioned or evading such binary distinctions altogether.
Cases of racism, sexism, indeed, anything-at-all-ism are rightly considered unacceptable, and ‘challenging accepted beauty standards’ is the phrase du jour. One is no longer allowed to discriminate over age, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, education or national origin – anything, in fact, that might inspire prejudice in the tunnel-visioned – meaning our definitions of loveliness are suddenly a lot more woke.
A diverse market
So why the change? Greed, obviously, plays its part. The creation of new markets is never far from corporate minds, not least as black women invest more than £4.8billion worldwide on beauty products and services each year, spending twice as much as other consumers on skincare. Basic demographics also have a role. According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, by 2051, the whole of England and Wales will be as ethnically diverse as London is now. While, as one executive confides, “Why would we exclude gay men or older women from the party, when they’re the ones with all the cash?”
However, there are aspects that do suggest a greater acceptance of individuality. The so-called “millennial values” of idealism, compassion and striving for uniqueness and authenticity are making themselves felt. This, in turn, has led to a flourishing of ‘niche’ independent companies. Most obviously, there is Glossier, the blog that became the minimalist millennial make-up range. We also have LA’s fuss-free Milk Makeup; Melbourne’s cool, coffee-derived Frank Body; “does what it says on the tin” skincare label The Ordinary; and tattoo artist Kat Von D’s eponymous cosmetics brand, taking inspiration from the creativity of its fans.
Compare cult Brit brand Illamasqua (a named derived from the words ‘illusion’ and ‘masquerade’), launched in 2011 as a tribute to subcultural beauty. As its Wiki manifesto states: “Illamasqua’s mission is to provide […] make-up to anyone who wants to self-express and accentuate their look beyond the norm.” Accordingly, it offers ‘consultations’ rather than ‘makeovers’, its artists aiming to understand customers as individuals, helping them “explore their alter ego and […] dare to be different.”
Meanwhile, the principal weapon in the fight against beauty’s former orthodoxy has been the digital revolution: a street-up – or rather palm-up – democratisation available to us via our mobile phones. Instagram alone boasts 800 million users. This generates a demand not merely for more make-up for those all-important selfies, but products to suit different aesthetic types. At the same time, it has created a more actively engaged consumer ready to hold beauty brands to account. Witness the moment when the supposedly social media-savvy Kim Kardashian West’s KKW Beauty concealer range was rubbished on Twitter for only featuring lighter shades.
Beauty journalist Ateh Jewel, 40, describes herself as “British but also Trinidadian and Nigerian”. She tells me: “We are definitely moving away from a homogenised ideal of beauty. Growing up, I didn’t feel beautiful. Everything around me told me I wasn’t the ideal. Black beauty was portrayed as forbidden fruit, animalistic and fetishised. Social media has been a huge mechanism for change in perception. Huge groups of unheard consumers have had the chance to voice their aspirations, reflect positive beauty images of themselves and inspire others.”
She continues: “When I first started in this industry 17 years ago, at an interview at a large publishing house, I was asked whether I felt more ‘white’ because I was so well-educated. These were the gatekeepers who shaped what was beautiful. The voices and stories are now much more democratic, and I have created my own space on social media to talk about the issues I really care about.”
Also taking flight in this virtual zone has been the so-called ‘Fenty effect’ – Rihanna’s one-woman campaign to change the face of beauty. Pre-RiRi, while PC pioneers Mac, Make Up For Ever and Bobbi Brown talked a good game about embracing racial difference, the reality could be lacking. Fenty Beauty feels like the real deal. Owned by Kendo, which is part of LVMH, the brand launched 40 foundation shades in 1,600 stores across 17 countries in September 2017. The company made $100million during its first month, with one Pro Filt’r Foundation sold every minute. Social media went wild for it, with the range’s darker shades selling out.
Every utterance the pop star made about her brand was a manifesto for change. “Fenty Beauty was created for everyone,” she declared. “For women of all shades, personalities, attitudes, cultures and races. I wanted everyone to feel included. Beauty allows us to celebrate and highlight all of our different features […] women of all ages, all sizes, all skintones, all religions, all cultures. I wanted women to feel included.”
“One of the things that I felt was really important to start with was foundation,” she continued. “Foundation is one of those areas that has a big void for women at extreme ends of the shade spectrum. If you’re very pale, or very dark, there aren’t a lot of options. So I wanted to make sure that women of all skintones were included.”
Speaking as someone also classed as being at an ‘extreme end’ – in my case, bright white – I too can attest to her base’s brilliance. Fenty Beauty’s lip shades are no less incredible – a rainbow of hues to enhance the full range of skintones. Here is a woman who genuinely gets and relishes colour, whatever that colour happens to be.
In the wake of this revolution, other brands have scrambled to be more inclusive – whether haute or high street – including L’Oréal Paris, CoverGirl, Marc Jacobs and Estée Lauder. Where once brands dictated aesthetic ideals to us, so suddenly it feels as if we are decreeing these standards to them, making it considerably more difficult to ascertain what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’. And – while it’s never going to be a disadvantage to be conventionally attractive – it may no longer feel especially interesting.
Ageing – once seen as beauty’s sworn enemy – is now regarded as a fact of life. In 2017, Allure announced that it was dropping the term ‘anti-ageing’, Vichy boasts a range entitled ‘Slow Âge’, while Dove continues its celebration of women of all generations. With this has come an appreciation for the beauty of the mature face, with a new generation of poster pensioners including Jessica Lange for Marc Jacobs and Charlotte Rampling for Nars.
Men are no longer being ignored by the beauty giants, either. The male grooming industry – featuring moisturisers, pomades, hair-removal products and concealers – was worth almost $50billion (£37billion) in 2016 and is predicted to expand. Compare CoverGirl embracing a CoverBoy, 17-year-old beauty blogger James Charles, with the release of its So Lashy! mascara. Meanwhile, Maybelline boasts self-proclaimed ‘boy beauty vlogger’ Manny MUA as its first male ambassador.
We have transgender beauties such as Andreja Pejic for Make Up For Ever and America’s Next Top Model’s Isis King; Muslim models such as beauty blogger Nura Afia and Halima Aden, the first hijab-wearing woman to get a Vogue cover; and models with disabilities such as IMG’s Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, and Aaron Philip, who is both a wheelchair user and gender-fluid.
Plus-size men and women are not only modelling, but becoming the industry’s new power players. Jamie Kern Lima, the CEO of IT Cosmetics, which was sold to L’Oréal in 2016, was initially informed by an early potential investor that she was too fat to sell make-up. One $1.2billion (£906million) deal later, she has proven her detractors wrong, using a 73-year-old woman and a model with acne for her sell-out 2010 launch.
The reason why all this is important takes us back to The Bluest Eye: namely that beauty goes beyond skin deep, with profound consequences for how we negotiate the world around us. Some scientists have even argued that this relationship was born of homosapiens’ original penchant for selfadornment as a bonding ritual, and was part of what made ours the dominant species in the early days of human evolution. Either way, the drive to decorate ourselves is a fundamental human impulse, sitting at the core of our creation of self-identity.
Lorraine Sherr, professor of clinical and health psychology at University College London, explains: “Adornment plays a key role in the evolution of self, as well as a very important vehicle in the process of socialisation, group adherence, belonging and in-group expressions. We see this with hairstyles, colours, tattoos and different looks.” As she shared these observations, Sherr was on a field visit to Mtubatuba in eastern South Africa, where locals queued in a street market of iron shacks offering beauty treatments such as hair plaiting, brushing and beading. The urge to primp and preen is universal.
The new normal
No one could pretend that our culture’s perception of beauty is in the utopian state many of us crave. Watch your average make-up tutorial and the Kardash-obot uniformity remains depressing: all Bambi lashes, crazed brows and face-morphing contouring. One has only to watch Love Island to observe a certain ‘tan racism’ in evidence with black Samira and pale Alex being ignored over their Tango’d rivals. The industry’s preconceptions are written into its very names: the word ‘nivea’ is taken from the Latin for ‘snow-white’. However, change finally feels very much afoot.
Ironically, the poster woman for progress that many commentators point to is that most privileged of fairytale phenomena: a princess. British Indian Sonia Haria, 31, beauty director of The Telegraph, remarks: “The Duchess of Sussex may not be hugely relatable as a former-actress-now-princess, but when it comes to beauty, she is a shining example of how far we’ve come. Her low-key wedding look – freckles, lip balm and a few individual lashes – was so refreshing. More than ever, there’s an emphasis on looking like the real you.”
Jewel agrees: “I cried watching the wedding, seeing Meghan’s mother wearing locs in the middle of all that pomp. My seven-year-old daughters weren’t that bothered. For them, it’s not a big deal. This is the new normal – and that’s exactly how it should be.”
This article originally appeared in Stylist’s 2018 Beauty Issue, out 26 June. To see more from the issue, click here.
Images: Instagram / Getty