“Pretty is not enough,” explains this new Bare Escentuals ad campaign. “Pretty is nice. It’s fine. […] But beauty? Beauty can change the whole world.”
That’s because pretty — as in just a pretty face — “is what you are,” but beauty is “what you do with it.” Bare Escentuals wants us all to “be a force for beauty” because “when you put pretty into action, there’s NO LIMIT TO WHAT YOU CAN DO.”
Confused? But sorta inspired? Maybe suddenly thinking about buying a new eye shadow?
Then this ad campaign hit its mark. And I am thoroughly annoyed.
This isn’t the first time a cosmetics company has borrowed positive body image rhetoric to sell lip gloss and foundation. Last year, COVERGIRL’s “Stand Up For Beauty!” campaign featured Drew Barrymore, Ellen Degeneres and other celebrities defending beauty as some kind of inalienable right of women, then gave away $50,000 to the winner of their YouTube video contest who talked about how she was beautiful even though she had to wax her mustache.
These ad campaigns sound brave and empowering. They include all the right words and phrases. (Bare Escentuals: “Be bold! Show your beauty!” COVERGIRL: “Stand up for beauty that makes you LAUGH. That makes you THINK.”) But they aren’t actually saying anything — it’s as if the brands’ ad writers Googled “inspiring phrases that women like” or maybe, “words Oprah uses a lot,” and slapped them down on paper.
And these ad campaigns are doing even less. On both company’s websites, the commercial pages, filled with moving stories from “real women” examples of beauty, are swiftly followed by links to find your perfect foundation. There’s no call to action to get you to actually change your personal definition of beauty. Nobody is going into schools to help young girls understand that their self-esteem stems from more than just their appearance. They aren’t pushing for more diverse representations of women in media. They aren’t doing anything — except selling you makeup. To make you more beautiful according to our culture’s relatively narrow definition of that idea.
Even more troubling: If “inner beauty” is now the province of cosmetic companies, it means we can commodify that just like we’ve put a price on physical beauty, says my girl Autumn Whitefield-Madrano over on Sociological Images. She writes: “The customer takeaway is supposed to be that Bare Escentuals, more than other companies, recognizes that beauty comes from within. But the net effect is that we are shown how ‘being oneself’ is now subject to standards of beauty.” Instead of broadening our definition of beauty, we might be narrowing our definition of individuality — by saying that everybody has to be pretty all the time, inside and out.
When the COVERGIRL campaign launched, plenty of you guys told me I was overthinking it, and we should just be happy that a major cosmetics brand was taking messages of body positivity and inner beauty to heart. It’s better than the alternative, right? But now that Bare Escentuals is pulling the same party trick, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s not. Ad campaigns like these want you to believe we’re making real progress — but most of all, they want you to buy more makeup, and the same old restrictive beauty standards to go with it.