As women we learn at an early age that looks are very important. Not many decades ago, having an appearance that was appealing to men was not just favorable – it was a survival strategy as women were not allowed to work or own property and were economically fully dependent on their husbands or fathers. In many parts of the world the situation has changed and women can lead independent and self-determined lives. But the urge to modify our appearance in a way that is considered beautiful is still overtly present.
The cosmetics industry has played a major role in the establishment and maintenance of narrow beauty standards over the last century. While believing that by displaying slim, hairless bodies, European face structures and light, even skin, consumers would buy their products to achieve this ‘flawless’ look, marketers missed or simply ignored the fact that these beauty standards are actually harmful to their customers and their industry.
On the one hand, narrow unrealistic beauty standards can impair our mental health. Normal biological features such as freckles, natural hair, wrinkles, small lips, wide noses or hooded eyes were considered “imperfections” and the more our own appearance deviates from the unreachable images we see every day, the more unattractive we might feel. The beauty, fashion, entertainment and fitness industry make us believe, if we only purchase the right products and work harder on ourselves we can come closer to being beautiful and hence, be more successful in life. For many people, especially women, this causes a feeling of being undesirable the way they naturally are but also like they failed as humans. This can affect our feeling of self-worth, our relationships with others and lead to conditions like depression and anxiety.
We can choose to spend our income and time on pursuing these unrealistic concepts of beauty but we can also decide to invest in our mental growth, define beauty on our own terms and develop our awareness of our self-worth. Both options demand a lot of strength and dedication.
Constricted beauty standards can also cause social discrimination, as we unconsciously relate attractiveness to other positive characteristics such as intelligence, health or likeability. This well-researched cognitive bias, commonly known as the Halo-effect, provenly makes it harder for people who are not conventionally attractive to achieve their goals.
Especially Eurocentric beauty standards can also be harmful in a physical way. Even though we know that certain features of the skin vary among different ethnicities and skin types, in-vivo testing of cosmetic products is still performed mainly on European skin types. How can we expect people of darker skin types to trust in the benefits of our products if we cannot prove them for their skin?
Additionally, skin conditions and diseases are often exclusively researched on light skin tones too, which leads to the problem that some conditions, e.g. melasma, are still underdiagnosed in people with darker skin.
However, harmful biases are created and reinforced unconsciously, so how can we overcome them? As individuals we can sensitize ourselves to recognize the biases we have and ask where they originate from. We can educate ourselves and others on cultural, ethnic, social and gender biases. We can listen to others to understand their feelings, opinions and beliefs.
As an industry we have the power and the responsibility to rewrite the narrative of beauty by creating ingredients and cosmetic products that benefit everybody, by marketing beauty as a result of physical and mental health and by showing how diverse beauty really is.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias which stresses the fact that existing biases cannot simply be ignored, forgot or undone. We have to actively and consciously reflect on our cognitive patterns and behaviors to create a society that is inclusive, safe and truly beautiful.