When Did Beauty Become Political?

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At some point in the last two years,  As social media made information—a mix of curated, careless and calculated—more accessible, we first learnt how to read ingredients, and then the dangers of doing that. We learnt that skin types were invented as a marketing gimmick sometime in the last century. Clubhouse conversations, Instagram reels, and an intensely focussed call-out-and-cancel culture have turned the consumer into someone with a little knowledge and a fair bit of power.

By the end of it all, the simple activity of smearing a cream over your face or swiping a broad stroke with your kajal pencil became weighed down with concern—how exploitative is this company, what are the ingredients and have they been sourced fairly and tested responsibly? Is the brand doing enough to save the planet, empower women, be inclusive of the queer community and skin colour? How do they treat their employees, customers, pets and neighbours? Are their campaigns regressive or intuitive of the times? By the time 2021 rolled out, weary and more challenging than we could ever have imagined, we realised that the simple act of using a beauty product has become political.

Marketing Inclusivity

The exaggerated colours and contours of drag queen make-up was always about liberation—of presenting a fierce avatar of the person who had used make-up as war paint. After all, it was drag make-up that gifted the world contouring and baking. Thanks to a handful of queer beauty bloggers, gender-free makeup has emerged into the mainstream from the underground. However, its influence is still limited and well within the beauty industry. We are yet to get fully comfortable with the idea of make-up for all genders. K-pop has gone a long way in legitimising it, but there are still a couple of major hurdles to cross. Firstly, K-pop beauty standards are incredibly unrealistic. Secondly, it’s yet to go beyond ‘performance’ and trickle into every day acceptance. Self-expression through cosmetics has been a liberating experience for many. And yet, for many, it is still a distant future.

Wellness Appropriation 

The USD 3.31 billion wellness industry has profited immensely from turmeric shots and gua shas. The latter, a Chinese tool to massage facial muscles to aid lymphatic drainage, has become a symbol of gross cultural appropriation in the western beauty industry. At a time when anti-Asian sentiments have led to numerous senseless deaths, the sale of gua shas by cosmetic companies owned by white people, without the acknowledgement of the origins and heritage of the product is particularly deserving of being called out.

Back home, are you even human if you haven’t taken a yoga class or consumed turmeric in any way other than your sabzi? The millennia-old principles of Ayurveda are now accessible to everyone via an online quiz. The number of yoga studios and teachers across the world, and in your own city, don’t have to answer to a standardised regulatory body, making it easy for anyone who can touch their toes, to lead a class. And yet, most have no idea about the philosophy, the science, or even its origins.

Our Good Friend Patriarchy 

The way we ‘must’ look is so ingrained in us, that it’s difficult to shake off patriarchy’s yoke, no matter how woke you consider yourself. In the last few years, most of the beauty industry has preached messages of empowerment—you wear make-up to express yourself, to feel confident, to conquer the world. The trick to understanding patriarchy’s role (even for the most politically correct person) is to accept that contrary opinions and views can co-exist, until we discover what it truly means to be empowered. The issues are complex and cannot be reduced to Insta-feminism. However, it’s time we question why we do our beauty routines, and why they relax us or make us ‘feel beautiful’.

The Dirt Behind Clean Beauty

The umbrella term ‘clean beauty’ has become a marketing mainstay. There is no standard definition of clean beauty, mainly because there is no such thing! Chemicals are not unclean. The ones that go into your beauty product are safe and tested. Regulatory bodies, especially those in America, Europe and South Korea have stringent standards, so rest assured what you’re using is safe. The clean beauty wave that demonises certain ingredients, does so at the risk of the consumer. Parabens (the preservative used in deodorants, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and make-up to prevent fungus growth), for example, are perfectly safe.

Beauty has always been a fractured mirror, both toxic and comforting. Today, the more noticeable cracks are widening, and we are questioning the grip of skincare and cosmetics on us. At the same time, we are clinging on to the very culprits for confidence, to feel better, to treat ourselves in the name of self care. And that’s okay for the most part. As with most of life’s major influences, a happy acceptance exists somewhere in the middle

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