empower-washing: when a beauty product wants to fill a void that might not even exist
will this lipstick finally make me the person i've been destined to become?
Empowerment-jargon has long been a marketing method in the beauty industry. I even find myself getting caught up in it in my own sponsored posts with brands, realizing later that I’ve dipped my toes into the toxic positivity of it all. Carefully worded assurances of finally ‘applying yourself’ or ‘getting yourself together’ if you just wear this blush have been woven into the way we perceive our individual beauty identities, whether we like it or not.
With the boom of the beauty industry on social media in the last decade, the messaging of some sort of imminent personal transformation via beauty purchase has taken on a much more palatable, much more absorbable tone than in advertisements and campaigns of the past. It’s woven into product descriptions, worded like the affirmations we might say in our heads when staring at ourselves in the mirror. The running undertone of empower-washing is that we should always be improving, looking for our best self, or going through some sort of personal evolution—and that we can partake in all of it with this product.
“…it cascades, until the fix seems just out of reach, until we’re constantly buying in hopes of bettering.”
For me, the notion of empowerment through buying a certain beauty product has become slotted into a bit of a dubious category of it’s own right next to green beauty. Every time I browse the Sephora website, I feel like I’m stuck in a never ending HSN marketing meeting for really great knives that will revolutionize your cooking experience, except it’s about a lipstick who’s campaign undertone is that it’ll be able to help us become the person we’ve been destined to become.
Some brands forego painting the entire room in empowerment jargon, simply dubbing the products themselves with appealing, affirming, self-revolutionizing, sometimes gender role-y names like ‘super mom’ and ‘caregiver.’ While others, like L’Oreal, do more. The brand currently offers a lipstick collection called ‘Reds of Worth,’ comprised of 6-red shades that they say “reveal the unspoken power of all women,” with names like ‘Successful Red’ and ‘Respected Red.’ I can’t help but feel as though campaigns like these, meant to empower us, risk insulting our intelligence on some level. They can feel as though they’re seeking to fill a void, preying on the things we may think we lack—success, respect, being super mothers or caregivers. Has our power in those areas ever really been unspoken?
I often find myself thinking, ‘Is it even this deep?’ Sometimes, I do think it is. I think the mark is missed pretty frequently. At times, it reads very ‘at least they mean well’ for me.
There’s nothing wrong with finding empowerment through or by something. It’s nice to feel good about ourselves and want to be our best self. I think it’s not unhealthy to sit with ourselves and acknowledge where we feel we can better our lives. When the idea comes from us, it can be transformative. However, the manufactured push of necessity to seek out constant betterment—and when it’s presented from a thing stands to profit from the people they’re pushing it on—feels less than nourishing.
The empowerment jargon that accompanies many beauty products always runs the risk of leaving the page and manifesting in what I call a ‘lacking-loop,’ where we begin to feel never ending doubt about different facets of ourselves. It can make us feel as though if we could just present or think of ourselves a little differently, we would feel, and become, better. And it cascades until the fix always seems just out of reach. Until we’re constantly buying in hopes of bettering, until we’re spreading ourselves out into different directions of self-doubt and denial of the power we’ve had all along. And that is not empowerment.
Conversely, I saw something pretty empowering going around Twitter the other day—‘de-influencing.’ To me, it was the concept of rejecting the strong outside influence and dictation, essentially, of our personal beauty identities. Rejecting the pressure to always feel like we have to ‘need’ a certain product. And I think, moving forward, a lot of what I allow to influence me to buy a beauty product will be things like the color or texture or wear time, and less so the bid a product makes to relate to me in order to convince me that I need it.
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As someone who also works in the beauty industry, I fully agree! Messages of empowerment aren’t necessary with makeup because we are great without it too. I find makeup to be a ‘just for fun’ type of thing. My face becomes a canvas and I create the looks I want. Quality is probably the most important factor for me. The rest is excess.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read and my thoughts on this ring so true to how I perceive the beauty industry from way ago now. Sometimes I want to just buy into the magic of the promise it says it will deliver and that's the power of marketing and advertising. Heck I am easily influenced but I know that I am and am ok with that. Beauty is magic to me. I also am grateful that I can step back and think once or twice or three times before I make a purchase I may regret. Its days and time in the mind.