On the role of beauty in our lives

Selfridges have been hosting a series of thought-provoking talks as part of The Beauty Project, and last week I decided to attend The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful – a discussion on the Beauty Industry and the role of beauty in women’s’ lives.

The inspirational panel consisted of writer Emma Jane Unsworth (right), fashion historian Amber Butchart (left) and the (quite understandably) popular Sali Hughes (centre) – beauty expert, columnist and founder of salihughesbeauty.com.

beauty project panel

These three eloquent women discussed issues around the beauty industry and the relationship between feminism and beauty, and it was so interesting to hear their thoughts on whether beauty can be empowering for women. Some of the points had crossed my mind before but mostly this talk was a bit of an eye-opener, so I thought I’d share some of the points that were discussed. As a blogger who writes about beauty quite a bit I think it’s a really important thing to be more aware of.

selfridges beauty project

On what we consider beautiful:

  • Quite early on in life we get a sense of how important beauty is. For example, in fairytales the looks of beautiful princesses and ugly witches reflect what they are like as people and also what they can hope to get out of life.
  • There doesn’t seem to have been any noticeable changing facial beauty trends over time in the same way as changing body shape trends.
  • What is considered beautiful can be quite significantly different in the fashion industry (where striking, unusual and angular features are often preferred) to the real world where often a softer look is preferred.
  • Unlike fashion, the beauty industry is not particularly trend lead – most women just want to look like themselves on their best day.

On beauty and feminism:

  • The industry is often criticised as anti-feminist for convincing women that they need to look good and that to do this they need to buy beauty products.
  • Sali shared her early experiences with beauty though, which were not like this at all. Growing up in an all male household she started using makeup purely for fun and at quite a young age. It wasn’t about making herself look better – she just craved something fun and feminine and wanted to be creative.
  • Beauty products can be seen as empowering – for example in 1912 Elizabeth Arden supplied suffragettes with red lipstick as it was considered liberating.
  • In response to criticism from men saying they think their girlfriend looks better without makeup the panel demanded that beauty regimes are not about looking nice for men anyway, it’s about ourselves.
  • Nigella Lawson has been quoted as saying that anything that was historically the realm of women (like cooking or the beauty industry) is always looked down upon. But in no way is the beauty industry any more frivolous or less significant in people’s lives than something like football or wine tasting.
  • Whether to wear makeup is a personal choice. Women have fought long and hard to have ownership of their appearance so no-one should dictate how we use that right.

The good:

  • Beauty products are not an obligation but makeup can be used to enhance who you are that day, a bit like getting into character. In that way it can be very empowering.
  • Sali remembers her gran saying she wore makeup “because then I’m always ready to go on an adventure”.
  • It is also an enjoyable pursuit, and often putting on makeup can be some women’s only “me time”.
  • Women who enjoy beauty products aren’t shallow – it’s not all they enjoy and it doesn’t reflect their level of intelligence or who they are as a person. An interest in beauty doesn’t define us but just adds something to our lives.

The bad:

  • There are so many issues within the beauty industry.
  • For example, mainstream beauty is still seen as being for white women under 35. Brands still use the term “nude” to refer to an American tan shade.
  • Things are slowly changing, for example Estee Lauder now only only brings out new skincare products that have been tested on equal proportions of women of different ethnicities.
  • But if we want to see things to change further and more quickly we should remember that there is power in money – the economics of an industry is the only way to affect it.
  • We can use our share of wallet to show what we like and what we disapprove of, such as by buying a magazine that has someone who looks different on the cover (even if we don’t want to read the magazine).
  • However – the problems within the industry shouldn’t take away from a person’s love of grooming, which is actually a natural instinct found in animals.

The relationship between beauty and class:

  • Being seen to make an obvious effort is looked down on and seen as cheap – e.g. TOWIE.
  • Outside London and in more rural areas people really live for the weekends. It’s less feasible for people to go for quick drinks after work in the week, so it’s more about one big night out and the “getting ready” routine that comes before it.
  • We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that celebrities like Amy Childs are wearing significantly more makeup than those with a more natural look – it’s just a different style of makeup.
  • It’s also worth pointing out that for men, working class boys spend more on grooming than the middle class, and amongst them it’s a real bonding experience.

It was such a thought-provoking discussion, and the point I really took away is that it’s really important to question and challenge this industry, and to use our share of wallet to show companies what we agree with and disagree with.

san carlos taster plate

san carlos selfridges taster plate

3 thoughts on “On the role of beauty in our lives

  1. So interesting! I went to the talk on the role of gender and beauty last month. Love the beauty project campaign, it really is putting a positive to beauty, no matter who you are or how old you are 🙂 x

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