According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cosmetics are ‘a preparation applied to the body, especially the face, to improve its appearance.’ By that definition, we’ve been using cosmetics since the Ice Age, where red pigment used to adorn the body was found in South African caves. Even Ancient Egyptians lived and died surrounded by kohl jars, make up boxes and perfume vials.
So how is it that many of the grooming practices established on the Nile some 4,000 years ago remain the same to this day? I would argue that humans have an innate need to look attractive. It’s entrenched in our psyche, and we’ve always enhanced our beauty with cosmetics. But I’ve often wondered about the role cosmetics plays in my own life…..
What is the beauty myth?
At a fundamental level my obsession with beauty and makeup is driven by insecurity.
From a young age, I’ve been in a constant state of becoming. Always wanting to look better. Never feeling good enough. These days I ask myself – do I want this mascara because it makes me happy, or because I don’t feel good enough without it?
This feeling is perfectly summarised in The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, which introduced the idea of beauty images as a new kind of social control. The truth is, we’ve been flogged the idea that to look beautiful we need to look a certain way: thin, youthful, smooth-skinned, small-nosed, silky-haired, etc.
Instagram and Tinder have only enhanced this, creating a false beauty reality, thanks to the popularity of filters and retouching apps. Looking good is a new form of social currency. The better you look, and the more you conform to the beauty myth, the more Insta likes and social kudos you get.
Worryingly, anxiety and insecurity are spreading to younger and younger girls. Just over half of 13-year olds in the States dislike their body, rising to just shy of 70% when girls reach 17.
Our beauty-obsessed culture is damaging young women and eroding their self-worth. But technology has the power to shatter the beauty myth.
#1 Technology is allowing more diverse expressions of beauty
Until the last decade, beauty editors and advertisers created a homogenised image of unattainable beauty in mainstream media. However, technology has helped broaden the mainstream media space empowering women.
Blogging has enabled those who break the beauty mould to have an influential voice. For the first time, we’re seeing girls of all shapes and sizes, who have a variety of different skin tones, who have extreme acne, being given face time. It isn’t an obscure corner of the internet: Just one of Cassandra Bankson’s acne videos has 27 million views – higher than the readership of Vogue!
Technology is allowing a more diverse expression of beauty. Women (and men) are being encouraged to reject the traditional view of beauty, embrace individual beauty and find their own ‘beauty tribe’ online.
#2 Technology is empowering women to see through the bullshit
“In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope”
Beauty brands like Revlon create this unattainable image of beauty, and sell hope to women that they may achieve it. Often we’re doomed to fail, despite the glossy ad campaigns, thanks to copious retouching and misleading messaging. But technology is democratising this information.
One of the most obvious ways this has manifested itself is through the review culture, empowering women to challenge what they read in media and advertising. Misinformation from brands is no longer an option. We can now juxtapose ad claims with what real women have to say.
We’re also helping women understand what products will actually work for them using data on an individual’s light sensitivity or collagen production.
Tech is creating a more open and accessible beauty culture.
#3 Technology is making beauty more personal
Beauty brands have always catered for the masses, rather than the individual, often women with very fair skin or darker skin tones miss out. A recent example is Maybelline’s new foundation to the UK market. 12 shades – that just go from light to lighter.
Technology is helping to disintermediate brands in this process, and make beauty more personal.
3D printing is enabling women to bypass premium brands in the hunt for premium results. Just the idea of being able to print makeup from a bedroom is eroding the role of beauty brands.
Synthetic biology is turning beauty into a truly one-on-one experience. There hasn’t been much so far in the way of synthetic biology and beauty start ups, but we’re starting to be able to create bespoke fragrances using pheromones and DNA. And this is the tip of the iceberg. Playing with DNA could be the future of cosmetics, paving the way for truly personalised products.
With the democratisation of information and media, as well as the disintermediation of brands, we can take back control of our own faces.