Saying the right thing has become way more important than doing the right thing. Nowhere is that more obvious and prevalent than the cosmetics racket. Selling makeup to women has always seemed like extortion to me (and for good reason). The anti-aging cream, setting spray, and toner is an endless barrage of self-hate marketing couched on feel good inclusion speak with a 10,000 percent markup. As if the machine wasn’t already systemically toxic, the way we feel about ourselves has become so convoluted and politically charged it’s hard to point to one specific thing that’s screwing us up.
I’ve always wanted folks to feel good about themselves, understanding of course there are many things in life that cannot be changed or controlled. In other words, life’s gonna kick your ass whether you like it or not and it would be nice if we could change how we approach responsibility. Just like everything else in our world, “feel good” is now politically polarizing.
When people get hopped up on politics or rhetorically defending everyone’s civil rights on social media, only one thing happens. We absorb things that make us feel good, and approximately 100% of us will “stand with” anything that makes us feel good. We have now entered the Stockholm Syndrome phase of our relationship with technological dopamine traps.
If the world as we know it isn’t giving you enough recoil in horror type moments, take 15 minutes and watch this Vice News report on fair skin culture in India from January of 2020. I assure you, seeing a product called “white perfect” being marketed to hundreds of millions of women of color will provide you with your daily WTF fix. I’m currently part of an indefinite immersion program on all things Desi, but that journey is quite another story. Suffice it to say, I have a personal interest in dismantling a culture that equates value to fairer skin.
Vice News called out the culture perfectly, but L’Oreal didn’t do much until they got hammered on social media following the murder of George Floyd. And L’Oreal wasn’t the only company selling “melanin vanishing” cream. Black Lives Matter combined with “Dark and Lovely” branding sounded the hypocrite alarm at Estee Lauder. Isn’t it odd that in 2020, nothing seemed out of place with exploiting “white perfect” culture?
I suppose we shouldn’t just pick on facial cosmetics alone, because there are myriad ways to mess with the way we see ourselves. Ten years ago I made the very difficult decision to have my body permanently altered in an effort to disintermediate some small but developing health issues, and one very big one. The lesser issues stemmed from a lifetime of morbid obesity and the very big one is between me, my doctor, and the almighty.
Anyway, I’m 100 or so pounds less than I once was, and it’s been over a decade of coping with fundamental changes in how my body consumes and processes my caloric intake. Despite looking and feeling better, I still can’t take my shirt off at the beach. Nobody has ever described the feeling better than Jonah Hill. I’d like to be where he is someday.
And if my pediatrician’s coldly delivered diagnosis at a tender young age wasn’t traumatizing enough for me, spending puberty (as a classmate once put it) as a pizza-faced chubbo had its additional challenges. Like Jonah said, this isn’t a “poor me” thing, I’m just telling you that shopping for pants that were literally branded “husky” definitely scrambled my eggs.
Were it not for my narcissism and wicked sense of humor, I may not have survived. The world is a different place today, because brands are now political activists and social justice advocates. As long as it’s trending of course.
If you want a lesson in posturing and brand recovery, have a look at the Abercrombie and Fitch wokeumentry about how to sell people more stuff. If you’re not offended by the title, pay attention to how they managed to wholesale admonish the first generation of people appointed to diversity positions. I spit out my coffee when they tried to take the mick out of A&F’s pioneer Diversity Equity, and Inclusion consultant by telling him he didn’t do enough. I’m serious, watch it. If you’re looking for a cleanse after seeing this nonsense, take 14 minutes and watch Elaine Brown admonish Hollywood’s race marketing machine. It’s good stuff.
The A&F inclusion story isn’t totally lost on me, but it mostly rings disingenuous. The brand already had a foundation of cool that was unflappable, despite numerous challenges. I always wished I could fit in with the whole A&F dream, fuhgeddabout the clothes that could never fit me. A real motivation for A&F’s new direction is the shifting societal narrative, increased competition, and a market that is ever increasing; fat people of all colors.
Non-Hispanic Black adults and Hispanic adults have the highest obesity rates of any ethnic group. Their economic situation is improving, so it only makes sense from a sales perspective to sell them fat pants. Feeling good about it is a bonus. Speaking of inclusive fat pants strategy, from 1999 to 2018 people suffering from obesity went from 30% of the US population to 42%. Severely obese people nearly doubled to almost 10% of America. That’s big money.
Is it working? Well, the famed Short Hills mall here in New Jersey still has an A&F store, and its net sales went from $3.6 billion in 2019 to $3.7 billion in 2021. Not a staggering increase mind you, but the number didn’t go down, so the brand shift is being credited as a “successful growth driver.” And If you account for inflation (Putin’s fault) sales are actually down around $400 million.
I’m not sure we can draw a straight line from fat pants to shareholder equity, but it sure makes for a good story. Hindustan Unilever Limited reported double digit growth in its personal care business from 2020 to 2021 while L’Oreal is down in India. Go figure.
Enough about me, let’s get back to a brand telling half a billion women that their skin is too dark. While L’Oreal changed its tune, many of their ad campaigns and online “How To’s” still focus on making skin lighter. Sure, it doesn’t say white perfect anymore (bless their hearts) but the culture lives on and the messaging doesn’t jive with the stated intention. The creative language and product now focuses on “even tone.”
Hindustan Unilever Limited went from “Fair and Lovely” to “Glow and Lovely” and changed the name of its youth development foundation from “fair” to “glow” as well. L’Oreal did exactly the same thing. To be clear, it’s the same crap product with the same crap underlying message. You know it, I know it, and the whole world knows it. Just look at Unilever India’s home page featuring a fair skinned woman. My God, do you people even hear yourselves?
It’s very common for Indian women to have dark circles under their eyes. In my opinion, the rich melanin adds a layer of natural beauty, but this isn’t about me. Vogue doesn’t agree, they use words like “correct” and “conceal” when referring to “evening out” skin tone. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) labels the condition “skin hyperpigmentation disorder.” Cosmetics companies cash in on the designation and NIH cited academic literature points to psychological distress as a primary deleterious effect. If you have an extra 5 to 10 hours to spare, you should read the papers.
We know dark skin and dark circles are mainly causing psychological harm. It would seem that an industry responsible for creating the problem can fix it with some of their billions. As Ray Zalinski famously told Little Tommy Callahan in the movie Tommy Boy, “Great, you’ve pinpointed it. Step two is washing it off.”
If cosmetic companies really gave a hoot, they’d allocate funds to remove the product, go after 3rd party sellers and slow the madness, first and foremost. I bought some “White Perfect” a month ago on Amazon and the pages still exist on retail sites like Walmart. Changing the names of cosmetics isn’t going to do it.
Ironically, if A&F really wanted to shed the bad juju, the least they could do is change the name. Pretending exclusionary cool kid branding isn’t the foundation that benefits sales is either delusional or really cunning. When marketing gets political and social, all manner of deceptive manipulation gets a turbo boost.
Saying the right thing still beats doing the right thing because accountability is a thing of the past. We should be smart enough to see the lack of substance and authenticity. Our satisfaction with all things superficial needs to end, otherwise it will continue to erode the fabric of an “inclusive society.” When beauty is only skin deep, it’s never a pretty picture for social justice. Without tangible outcomes, all the political and social justice efforts are just bullshit and posturing.