Natural is beautiful: natural beauty under artificial lights
Updated: May 6
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but is it only our own perception determining what we find beautiful? Research points that it is not so but rather, that our perception of beauty is the result of outside influence.
In the age of social media, we are constantly bombarded with artificially produced ideals of beauty. Women especially are the primary target of these ideals and feel pressured to keep up with the constant unattainable standards of beauty. In recent times, a new kind of beauty has been advertised to women online: natural beauty. This type of beauty is attained through the use of natural cosmetics, which are derived from organic natural ingredients. Suddenly, everything that is synthetic is being rejected and scrutinized because natural is said to be safer and healthier. The green beauty movement started along with the hippy movement in the 1970s when a direct link was found between the ingredients in hair dye that women used and cancer. Consumers had a shift in perspective and were starting to get concerned for their health but also the environment. "Natural is beautiful" has become the new standard in the cosmetic industry. The question remains, what is natural? How do we define it?
Natural can be defined as something authentic that most closely and accurately resembles real-life (Millard 2009). The green movement is trying to present itself as just that. The essence of nature is extracted and labeled as organic, put into carefully designed packaging which may or may not be recycled, and then shipped to different stores to be sold as ‘natural beauty in a bottle’. When it comes to the physical aspect of natural beauty then we could define it as being the way you are, which is the closest version of your authentic self. In other words, the way you are born. This premise is being heavily advertised to women worldwide and different brands have stepped up in promoting their products accordingly. Probably the most well-known brand to do so is Dove with its "Real Beauty" campaign that was launched in 2004. Dove’s Real Beauty Pledge states that "Dove inspires women to want to look like the best version of themselves – because looking and feeling your best makes you feel happier" (Dove 2021).
The promotional images for the campaign featured ordinary women who weren’t models and were of different ethnic backgrounds. The women in the photos all had different body shapes and Dove claims that the images are the representation of how these women look like in real life. That is to say, Dove claims that no women were distorted with retouching tools and all the images were approved by the women partaking in the campaign. The problem with these claims is that these photos were still taken in a professional studio with artificial lighting and by a professional photographer. So how can we say that they represent real life?
The irony of advertising like Dove’s is the conflict that arises between the message that all women are beautiful the way they are and then trying to sell them products that are used to enhance their appearance. A good example would be the following image from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign which targets women with curves. The subtle message stands in the connection between the words 'firm' and 'curves'.
Dove Firming, 2004. Image by Malcom Poynton
Women are still told that despite being beautiful in their shape and size they need to use the firming range of products to be the best versions of themselves because then they will feel happy. This is supported by the smiling faces of the women in the ad. The experience of happiness is sold through the product itself. The seemingly positive messages in the Dove campaign are trying to play the empathetic advertising card, which in turn represses the feelings of guilt when a consumer decides to purchase the product (Miller 2009).
Dove is not the only brand that is guilty of empathetic advertising. In fact, the majority of cosmetic brands are selling the same idea. That all women are beautiful but with their product, they can enhance that beauty even further because perfection is something to be strived for. Women are told they have to shave, pluck, tweeze, reduce, brighten, color, conceal, plump, increase, lengthen, lose, gain, and many more things to fit the beauty standards. Why is beauty so valued in our society?
Bordo (as cited in Clark 2018) says that beauty is seen as "one of the primary currencies by which women gain and ultimately lose social status" (104). This is supported by research published by Pew Research Center (Parker, Horowitz, Stepler 2017) on top valued traits in men and women in the American society. The top trait valued in women was none other than physical attractiveness, while in men honesty/morality was seen as the most valued one.
Top traits valued most in men and women, 2017. Image by Pew Research Center
Clark (2018) explains how we make quick assessments based on someone’s physical appearance, such as their social positions and personal qualities. Women are judged more based on their appearance because of their position in society through the ages. For example, in the article A Woman’s Place: An Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Ads (1971), in the 729 ads advertised at the time, 90% of women were shown in non working roles (Courtney & Wernick Lockeretz). The prevalent stereotype was that a woman’s place is at home and that women don’t make important decisions. Rather, they are dependent on men who only see them as sexual objects. Women were portrayed as only taking care of their appearance and their homes. Two decades later and a similar study was done on the topic of Beauty Before the Eyes of Beholders: The Cultural Encoding of Beauty Types in Magazine Advertising and Music Television (1994) which found that 1 in 3.8 messages in the media was concerned with attraction (Englis, Solomon & Ashmore). Women more often than men were used to advertise products to both men and women. Despite women nowadays shifting from the private sphere only to the public sphere as well, their physical attractiveness is still a value currency.
It seems that now more than ever thanks to the rise of social media women feel the pressure of being deemed beautiful. The pressure is not only to look beautiful but to look forever young. Women lose their beauty currency with age because society "Rather than viewing wrinkles and other signs of aging as the epitome of loveliness or lauded accomplishments…. frame[s] such physical changes in women as unfortunate blemishes" (Clark 2018). Aging entails a myriad of other physical consequences such as loss of health, vitality, and sexual appeal. Research (Bowman et al. 2017, Jyrkinen & McKie 2012, as cited in Clark 2018) even points that older women feel the consequences in their ability to gain and retain employment. Being attractive and youthful means being competent, credible, competitive, professional, and healthy in the workplace (Dellinger & Williams 1997). Women condone the beauty standards imposed on them to negotiate their roles in the public space. For women, being beautiful is taking care of oneself, because more often than not they will be met with comments of looking unhealthy, sick, or old if they don’t pay much attention to their physical appearance. Engaging in popular beauty practices gives them the ability to avoid that (Clark 2018).
The beauty standards which women try to achieve can be described as a "… 'beauty script', in which audiences expect actors to wear masks (makeup) and costumes (fashion) that fit the characters they are portraying; to be (act) beautiful is to play one’s role in line with expectations" (Millard 2009). In the case of using natural skincare, I suggest that these metaphorical masks come in the shape of creams, serums, exfoliators, toners, and literal skincare masks. All these products serve to negotiate cultural expectations and perform beauty as actors. In this way, women take back control over their beauty currency through traditional ideas of femininity (White 2018). Therefore, just like culture, beauty is an active process that is always changing. So now we have to ask who is in charge of enforcing and reinforcing these processes?
Well, mass media in general dictates what is beautiful and what is not, but as previously mentioned, social media is today’s biggest stage where all of these beauty scripts are acted out. The participants of that stage have important roles in encoding certain beauty standards. They have the ability to influence the types of beauty that would be seen as appealing. Englis et al. (1994) call them media 'gatekeepers', but in modern terminology, they would be called influencers. The pristine and idealized attractiveness of the images presented by influencers serves as a prototype by which the audience evaluates their own beauty (ibid.). Platforms such as Instagram are notorious for photo and video manipulation. Influencers use filters and apps such as FaceTune to alter their appearance and then sell the idea of natural beauty to the audience. More often than not, behind these false images is a brand deal for a product that sells the narrative that women can look like supermodels if they use that specific product. But generally, the gatekeepers abstain from admitting that their appearance is anything else but natural. Plastic surgery while being practiced is still hidden from their audience because 'natural is beautiful'. The images used by influencers are not only tools for promotion but also self-verification from others (Khanna & Sharma 2017). This gives rise to many body image issues such as body dysmorphia, and also mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Another type of dysmorphia has been identified by Dr. Tijion Esho who is a cosmetic surgeon. He coined a term called Snapchat dysmorphia. This type of dysmorphia is a result of heavy filter usage while taking selfies, and people seek out plastic surgeons who can make them look like the filtered versions of themselves (Global News, 2019). The pursuit of being beautiful leads to compulsive behaviors all while trying to achieve what is portrayed as ‘natural beauty’ by the mass media.
Going back to the beginning of our discussion on natural beauty, beauty standards, and social media, I think that we as a society must redefine what natural beauty is. The authenticity of natural beauty cannot be obtained from products, plastic surgery, or filtered images. Nature in itself is not perfect, and imperfections are what gives nature its authenticity. Trying to fit one mold when there are millions of unique ones is just counterproductive. Beauty shouldn’t be forced and chased after. Beauty just is.
What is your definition of natural beauty? Leave us a comment down below.
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