Should We Reward Companies for Acknowledging There's More to Beauty Than a Pretty Face?

It’s been a guest post bonanza for me lately, and with two of my favorite blogs at that! On Friday I wrote about beauty and visibility at Already Pretty, and Saturday saw me at Sociological Images, sharing my thoughts about the Bare Escentuals ad campaign and its exploitation of models’ inner lives.

My thoughts on that aspect of the campaign are laid out over there, but the campaign intrigues me on other levels as well. For those who haven’t seen the ads: Bare Escentuals claims to have found “the world’s most beautiful women...without ever seeing their faces.” At the model casting call, applicants filled out questionnaires about themselves, and Bare Escentuals chose its models based on their answers and ensuing interviews. The company executives never saw the models until after they’d been selected.

Now, on its face it seems like a pretty great idea—even a feminist one, the idea being that it’s inner beauty that counts, or something. Jezebel did a nice job of looking at how the campaign appears to give Bare Escentuals some cred for being daring—but since the questionnaires were distributed at a casting call consisting of models and actresses (i.e. professional beauties), not, say, the DMV, the risk was minimal. (The legitimate risk that was identified by one of the executives—"What if all five of them were blonde, blue-eyed, and 30?"—turns out to be a boon for the campaign, and indeed my favorite aspect of the ads is that it shows that blind casting will naturally result in a more diverse pool.)

The campaign’s taglines intrigue me as well. They sound really nice, especially when accompanied by the smiling faces of the models in their (supposedly) everyday lives:
  • “Pretty attracts us. Beauty changes us.”
  • “Pretty can turn heads. Beauty can change the whole world.”
  • “Pretty is what you are. Beauty is what you do with it.”
  • “Pretty is an act. Beauty is a force.”
Now, we all know I’m a sucker for examining the words we use to describe women’s appearances. But on top of being semantically questionable (pretty is what you are, but beauty is what you do with it? whaaa?), the delineation seems odd when it’s being used to sell things we put on our face to make us look prettier. Bare Escentuals doesn’t sell slots in the Peace Corps, so what exactly is creating “change” here? By connecting itself with progressive dialogue on beauty, the company assures us that it understands our concern about wanting our rich inner lives to be seen as beautiful, and gets us to connect their products with our noble ideas on “change” and “force.”

Does it seem like I’m being uncharacteristically nitpicky? There’s a reason: Women have long been raising legitimate questions about the beauty industry, and while it’s nice to see a cosmetics company attempt to answer those questions, I also know that’s exactly what they’re banking on. Whenever a company identifies concerns of their target audience and attempts to ameliorate them through advertising, not through product change, we need to look even more critically at the message and its package. (And for the record, I don’t think Bare Escentuals should change its products—it’s a cosmetics company and it needn't be anything other than that.) By co-opting the messages many women have been saying—beauty comes from within, beauty is more than a pretty face—the company gets to look like it’s really listening, but it’s merely a variation on the same old theme. All advertising is. Advertising is never subversive.

I don’t think that the Bare Escentuals campaign is, like, offensive; I think it’s advertising. But in comparison to another recent campaign, its patronizing tactics come into sharp relief. MAC Cosmetics in the UK reached out to its avid fan base with its “online casting call for six models with style, heart, and soul to be the faces of MAC’s fall colour collection.” The six chosen models are diverse in age, race, and sex—and they look utterly fantastic. The end result showcases the products beautifully—they’re glamorous, transporting, and made all the more so by the audience knowing the makeover backstory.

Now, MAC’s whole thing is over-the-top transformation, as opposed to Bare Escentuals, a natural mineral makeup company specializing in, well, bare essentials (that smell good? I dunno, the name’s a mystery). MAC is able to highlight the actual products in ways that Bare Escentuals can’t, but to me that makes it all the more appealing. Ironically, through the glammed-up makeovers, we get to see more of the products and more of the people wearing them, allowing the campaign to succeed on two separate levels. I feel like “buying into” the MAC campaign is buying into the products. With Bare Escentuals, we’re asked to buy into abstract concepts of beauty that, if you’re concerned with such things, you’ve probably already confirmed on your own.