Media of Physical Appearance: Makeup

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

For this essay, I will be highlighting three of the affects of social pressures linked to consumption regarding feminine beauty standards. To create this call to action, my research will be separated into three distinct sections. First we will explore the idea of gendered pricing, and the increasing social pressure that pushes women to buy and consume in ways that are completely different from that of the opposite sex. Next, I will discuss the subtle differences between hygiene and beauty, and highlight some of the dangers of cosmetics. Finally, I will proceed by assessing the cosmetology market and the waste it produces annually. I will argue that women are disproportionally contributing to consumption due to the acute social pressures that surround feminine beauty ideals. By exploring these veins of thought I hope to create a more wholesome understanding of the layered affects of gender and gendered consumption. Also, this paper attempts to adopt an environmental lens, and through editing, will push our understanding of products as singular material objects by transposing them onto unfamiliar landscapes. The purpose of this essay is not to discredit beauty products and their usage, but to commence the discussion surrounding these three masked elements of the beauty industry.

Feminine tax

            To begin our approach, we will assess the ways in which women are disproportionally targeted by societal standards of beauty. First, we will introduce a brief history of the makeup industry along with an assessment of the market’s unfettered exponential growth. We will assess the concept of feminine opulence and the pressures to purchase more and more products in an attempt to approach the beauty ideal. In the novel ‘Packaging Girlhood’, by authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown, they present some of the specific ways in which womanhood and feminine beauty are commoditized from a young age. They write, “It’s the “total girl” that marketers are after, right? But “total girl” isn’t what teachers mean when they say they’re educating the whole child [….]. “Total” to marketers means finding every inch of the body to adorn. Expanding one’s market means not just reaching down to the lower ages for products introduced to the older ages but finding new parts of their bodies to colonize. […] Unfortunately, there are kits for manicures and pedicures; there are spa-like kits and ones with makeup” (21). It wasn’t always this way though.

            One could argue that makeup has been around in various forms since the dawn of humanity. The large-scale commercial sale of Cosmetic products began in the early twentieth century. Soap and toiletries began to be marketed explicitly as products which ‘facilitated beauty’, and not just hygiene. The spectrum of hygiene to cosmetic was therefore constructed (Jones 80). By 1920, the retail sales of the cosmetic and toiletry industry had reached $130 million. The introduction of printed media marketing expanded the idea of the social importance of looking and smelling ‘clean’ (100).  As women were slowly integrated into the public sphere, their responsibility to manage their appearance became more important. Colour cosmetics started popping up in the early 1900’s. The first nail polish was created in 1916. In 1917, the first eye product designed for everyday use was introduced; mascara (102). The wealth of these products grew exponentially, and “by the end of the 1920’s, three thousand different face powders and several hundred rouges alone were being sold on the American Market”(Jones 102). The polymedia of makeup has increased enormously over the last decades. We can argue that, like communicative technology, the materials of makeup are expanding in “not just a new horizontal distribution of media [but] whereby each particular medium shifts in its meaning and implication relative to the other media.”(Madianou & Miller 183). The sheer selection of products and processes has been experience exponential growth. Expectations surrounding attractiveness have always existed in flux, depending on the trends of the time. The steady trend with cosmetic products however, has been the sheer increase in commodities.

            If we look at more recent statistics, the global beauty industry is now a 328 billion dollar industry (2010 statistic) (Jones 301). Globalization has exponentially affected the profits of the beauty industry, but also, women are just spending more on products. Huff Post reports that American women spend an average of eight dollars per day on their face makeup and “ that 85% of women apply an average of 16 skincare and cosmetic products every day from eye creams to moisturizers, foundations to brow products” (Johnson 2017).

            Gendered marketing goes even further than this. Gendered pricing also seeks not just to dominate the women’s available body, but also to dominates a woman’s wallet. Even with personal care items “that are staple hygiene products used by both genders: body wash, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner (summarized as “hair care”), lotion, razors, razor cartridges, and shaving cream”(Bessendorf 18), are priced much higher when sold specifically for ‘women’. A study conducted in New York by the DNC, suggests, “on average, personal care products cost women 13 percent more than men” (33). Also, women will pay more for ‘feminine’ personal care products over 56% of the time (34). This gendered marketing is simply unjust and is a topic that should be discussed more frequently. Gendered marketing affects woman and her capital.

Hygiene vs. Beauty “Skin Deep”

“Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. The idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity.”

– Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 44

One of the biggest arguments surrounding the beauty industry is the repeated social norm concerning the proliferation of cosmetic products as if they are a necessity for health and hygiene. Unfortunately, this understanding masks the reality of certain beauty products and practices. Not only are certain practices extremely dangerous and unhygienic, but also the products deemed ‘essential’ usually contain certain harmful chemicals. Taking a page from anthropologist Tim Ingold’s ideas surrounding material objects, we will purposefully engage with the tactical elements of makeup (Ingold 51-52). If we remove the idea of a makeup product as an object, and focus solely on the material, what do we sense? In an industry focused on appearance and marketing, what lays beneath the fancy packaging?

If we evoke first the early history of makeup, protocol concerning cosmetic safety wasn’t introduced for nearly 20 years after products began being sold. “Aside from a few items of local legislation, principally against selected dangerous products, there were no restraints, federal, state or local, against the manufacture, sale or use of any cosmetic preparation until passage of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.” (Wolcott 75). Through time there have been changes made, but not nearly enough research has been conducted on the actual harmful affects of the makeup of makeup. According to the Skin Deep analysis conducted in 2005 by Jane Houlihan, she found that just 11% of the ingredients in modern cosmetics have been assessed for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel (“which is the only publicly accountable institution that screens cosmetics ingredients for safety in the U.S.”) (61).

The burgeoning use of nanoparticles is also an interesting element of the modern beauty industry. “As if there weren’t enough concerns about the toxicity of cosmetic chemicals, manufactures are rushing to incorporate nanotechnology that uses particles 80,000 times smaller than the width of the human hair.” (Malkan 62). These particles are harmful not only because they have the capacity to penetrate unusually deep into the body, but also they can potentially cause biochemical damage to the skin and organs. Predominantly, these new Nano-ingredients go undisclosed on packaging. However, as with many of the other chemicals in cosmetic ingredients, there is just limited research conducted on the consequences of their use (Raj 1).

With little fear we proliferate the use of chemicals, even in products that are particularly non-necessary. When participating in the social norm of wearing makeup, we do not consider the potentially harmful chemicals we are putting on ourselves day in and day out. Moreover, because the tradition of makeup is traditionally attached to femininity, women are disproportionally affected. “In 2000, the US Center for Disease control reported American women had a higher “body burden” of phthalates, a set of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects and infertility.” (Malkan Backcover). This portion of my analysis only focuses on the chemical aspect of the product, and not the harmful affects of disposal that is paired with the use of the product.

This photo series transposes common cosmetic products onto backgrounds that lead us to question the lived experience of the item itself, prior and posterior to their ‘use’.

Environmental Impact

Capitalism, Consumerism and marketing have altered our understanding of the product, an etherealization of the object. We don’t often stop to consider the contents of products, or the products lived experience beyond its function. “In the trash heap things secrete a kind of abject value, central to but invisible within the social and financial calculus of market societies. Waste of all sorts, in this way, haunts our cultural economy.” (Boarder Giles 94). Cosmetic products are no different.  

The cosmetic industry is unique because of the products limited shelf life and their extensive packaging. Gels, creams, mascara are usually purchased and discarded within a year. Single-use products also abound, such as cotton swabs, makeup wipes and razors. In the Unites States, “containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), amounting to 77.9 million tons of generation in 2015 (29.7 percent of total generation).” (Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data).  

In many ways, our waste here in North America is incorporeal, insubstantial and disembodied. By design, it is completely separated from our ways of living. As aforementioned, women unequally participate in the purchase and use of these products; therefore we unequally contribute to this specific type of waste production.

Reflection & Conclusion

When studying advertisements through the decades of the cosmetic industry, I personally noticed a shift towards a more liberal and dynamic portrayal of women. More women in movement, or participating in hobbies. We even see a more inclusive trend in marketing in regards to gender. Men are somewhat included in the makeup sphere; examples include makeup ‘Gurus’, such as James Charles and Jeffree Star. Nonetheless, we need to question these changes, which are usually seen as positive and dynamic. I argue that this visual diversity is a step in the right direction but does not tackle any of the deep-seated problems surrounding the beauty industry. I would rather see more subversive tactics that question the very nature of cosmetic consumption. “Beauty marketers have created a culture of self-discipline by setting unrealistic standards of beauty that compel women to constantly “police” their bodies in an effort to meet ideals of whiteness, wealth, and sexual propriety” (Kreydatus, 2). Introduction of men into the beauty industry is a start, but unfortunately it just perpetuates the social norm of grooming consumption. It just opens the market to entice more consumers.

The refusal of beauty standards has been the plight of feminist theorists for decades. “Along with several prominent women’s rights advocates, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, Bloomer rejected fashionable corsets and heavy, trailing skirts in favor of loose pants worn under a mid-calf length skirt. The “dress reformers” sought to change fashions that were uncomfortable, unhealthy, and—especially—part of a cultural system that measured a woman’s worth based on her appearance.” (Kreydatus  2). In the 1960’s and 70’s women also rebelled hard against the culturally imposed beauty standards. 

This essay thrives in the face of the knowledge that we consume much more than our global counterparts and that this overconsumption is defining the beauty ideal. This essay is a modern reflection on our cosmetic addiction and it’s affects on our environments.  I would like to see a shift in the demands placed upon the modifications of the female body and the trope of the indulgent female shopper. These patterns have very real and long-term consequences in regards to our wallets, our health and our planet. This is a call for the overbearing social pressure of cosmetic consumption to be re-assessed.


Bessendorf, Anna. “From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer: A Study of Gender Pricing in New York City.” New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, Edited by Shira Gans , Dec. 2015,

Boarder Giles, David. “The Anatomy of a Dumpster: Abject Capital and the Looking Glass of Value.” Social Text, vol. 32, no. 1 118, 2014, pp. 93–113.

“Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 20 Feb. 2019,

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger : An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Ingold, Tim. “Les Matériaux De La Vie.” Socio-Anthropologie, 2017, pp. 23–43.

Kreydatus, Elizabeth, et al. Marketing to the ‘Liberated’ Woman: Feminism, Social Change, and Beauty Culture, 1960–2000, 2005, pp. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Lamb, Sharon and Brown, Lyn Mikel. Packaging Girlhood : Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes. 2006. 1st ed., St. Martin’s Press.

Madianou Mirca, and Miller,Daniel. “Polymedia: Towards a New Theory of Digital Media in Interpersonal Communication.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 2013, pp. 169–187.

Malkan, Stacy and Canadian Electronic Library. Not Just a Pretty Face the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. 2007. New Society Publishers.

Johnson, Sissi. “How Much Is Your Face Worth? American Women Average at $8 per Day.” Huff Post, 7 Mar. 2017,

Jones, Geoffrey. Beauty Imagined: a History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Wolcott, George L. “DANGERS IN THE USE OF COSMETICS.” Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology, vol. 41, no. 1, 1940, pp. 64–77.

Raj, Silpa et al. “Nanotechnology in cosmetics: Opportunities and challenges.” Journal of pharmacy & bioallied sciences vol. 4,3 (2012): 186-93. doi:10.4103/0975-7406.99016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *