Geoffrey Jones

 

On his book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry

Cover Interview of January 03, 2011

Lastly

This book can, at one level, be taken as a case study in the triumph of capitalism.  I explore how entrepreneurs and firms made mostly safer products than their pre-industrial forbears, produced them in large numbers, and invented ways to market and distribute them.  Beauty had once been the preserve of the aristocrats.  The story of the industry over the past centuries has been one of democratization—beauty products for all.

However I also discuss the legitimacy of the beauty industry.  I think the legitimacy of global capitalism in general is a major issue going forward.  And those of us who regard ourselves as advocates of capitalism’s many virtues, need to pay attention.  Ten years ago college professors, and radicals of various kinds, worried about this.  In a storied decade of corporate scandals, terrorism, financial meltdowns, and worries about global warming, I think every industry has to reassess its moral foundations.

In the case of beauty, the historical evidence is decidedly mixed.  As the industry grew in stature and respectability, the question of legitimacy centered on the choices it offered to consumers.  Insofar as the industry reflected societies’ contemporary assumptions, it reflected all the imperfections of those societies as well, including sexism, racism and ageism.  Occasionally, and motivated usually by the perennial need to find new customers, strategies were ahead of such norms.  During the 1960s Avon’s marketing towards black consumers and involvement with inner city communities were probably ahead of most American consumer goods firms.  However the industry was rarely on the avant-garde of social change.

The choices offered to women have been especially contentious.  Reduced to its basics, the industry’s marketing seemed pre-occupied with, in the words of Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, manipulating the emotions of “women desperate to cling to their fading youth.”  Beauty used extensive market research and made claims which can be described as hyperbole at best; heavy advertising and expensive packaging helped sell products at prices far above the cost of the ingredients.

In the book, I argue that the beauty industry assumed a paradoxical position as both enslaving and modernizing women.

It was enslaving because it celebrated norms of femininity that were difficult for most women to achieve, and restrictive by privileging Western and age-bound constructions of female beauty.  Yet it is unlikely that generations of female consumers bought brands which gave them zero benefits, or that they believed in some simplistic way assertions that they would become Hollywood film stars overnight by using such brands.

Contrary to certain variety of feminist critiques, the industry was also modernizing: women gained agency and autonomy as consumers, were transformed from dependents on men to independent persons who made their own choices on what to buy and how to appear.  Arguably, as women entered the workforce, they did better in the job markets by using beauty products—such was the apparent strength of the “beauty premium.”  At the same time, female entrepreneurs were able to build businesses, including some of the largest in the industry, and tens of thousands of women became quasi-entrepreneurs as direct sellers.

Legitimacy is a complex subject, which merits multi-layered explanations.


© 2010 Geoffrey Jones