Today’s beauty scene is all about inclusivity and diversity. Any brand who releases limited shade ranges for complexion products or produces overly photoshopped ads are bound to be called out. It’s worth noting, however, that not too long ago, the beauty industry favoured a certain look which we refer to as “unrealistic beauty standards”.
Clear and fair skin, an aspirational body type, Western features — this profile was featured in ads by renowned beauty brands for more than a century. But what if beauty ads have been inclusive and diverse since the beginning?
Vintage beauty ads revamped
New York photographer Julia Comita and makeup artist Brena Drury’s photo series Prim ‘n Poppin’ gives us the answer. The project serves as “an ode to the slow evolving of the beauty industry,” giving a nod to the gloss and glamour of beauty adverts while highlighting “underlying messages of marginalisation and exclusion” the industry has sustained until recently.
“We are asking big brands to step up and take responsibility for their casting choices, advertising, and marketing, and encourage our fellow creatives to generate conscious content,” said the artists in Prim ‘n Poppin’s About page.
The project has five advert samples as of writing (all featuring fictional brands but with very obvious references), each includes a narrative from the models who are featured in the photographs. Most of them cited that they grew up without seeing themselves in beauty advertisements and it took a great deal of self-acceptance to feel a sense of belonging and, most importantly, beauty, despite not fitting into the standard. Participating in this project definitely served both as a ‘what if’ for our past and a ‘we wish’ for our future.
With these, we can’t help but think of how colourful and innovative the industry could’ve been if beauty campaigns have been diverse and inclusive since the beginning. If we think about it, hiring models who fit the profile of everyday people — people who are the consumers these ads are directed to — should have been common sense. So why did it take so long? I remember taking a brand advertisement class in university and our professor had the perfect answer: aspiration.
Abolishing the idea of a beauty standard
Ads, especially in the previous decades when beauty was treated more as a luxury and a means to show off social status, were meant to illustrate aspirations that feed off people’s insecurities and tapping into people’s desires to achieve something they can't have (at least as they believe so). It’s an unending process of pushing the agenda that in order to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘likeable’ you have to try whatever this ‘perfect model’ is wearing. It’s a sad reality that filled not just the beauty industry but also individual lives.
Thankfully, despite some cons brought about by the digital age, it also revolutionised the way we see and connect with other people and discover that beauty is far beyond what we see on magazines or billboards. Content creators and personalities who champion diversity and inclusivity started gaining popularity, brands started to shift their direction according to consumers’ demands, and conversation-drivers — such as the Prim ‘n Poppin’ campaign — used the internet as a platform to spread their message beyond geographical boundaries.
Turning scepticism into positive change
It’s only fitting to say that there’s still some work to be done. There’s quite a lot left, for sure. But here’s some food for thought: instead of dwelling on the negative and picturing our future generation creating their own fictitious adverts about how our 2021’s beauty scene should’ve been, let’s make sure we prevent ‘what ifs’.
Let’s start now. Let’s open more doors for people of colour by supporting their brands and their causes. Let’s demand more opportunities for both the front and back end of the industry, be it a model appearing in ads or a staff member in our favourite beauty brand. Let’s fight for diversity and inclusivity within and beyond the beauty industry and make sure we hold brands accountable.
It’s idealistic to think that we’ll see a significant change right away. After all, we have so much history to overturn. But if we can have people look back at today’s beauty campaigns fondly and have them proudly say “I grew up seeing that” rather than “I wish I grew up seeing that”, wouldn’t that be a lovely start?