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There’s nothing new in the idea that your choice of beauty product speaks volumes about you. But while your go-to brand might once have revealed something about your love of luxury/willingness to experiment/level of anti-ageing anxiety, these days, that pot of face cream – or tube of lipstick, or bottle of perfume – could be signifying something else: how fired up you are politically?
Because right now, campaigning for positive change – political, social, environmental – is the driving force behind new beauty brands. And, as a result, the beauty world is having a long, hard look in the mirror.
“I call it positive beauty activism,” says Vasiliki Petrou, group CEO at Unilever Prestige, who has made it her mission to build a modern portfolio of high-end brands, buying up socially responsible names such as Ren (bottles made from recycled ocean plastic), Hourglass (part vegan) and Living Proof (cruelty-free). “Unless brands have an authentic purpose, we can’t work with them,” she says.
Small, socially conscious brands have come thick and fast. Fine fragrance isn’t an area well known for political campaigning, but Sana Jardin, founded by Amy Christiansen Si-Ahmed, empowers women’s collectives to create their own perfume products for sale. And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s Lipslut, which recently followed its 2017 F*ck Trump lipgloss with a F*ck Kavanaugh one, and gives 50 per cent of its profits to charities voted for by customers.
But while we all now expect the small renegade start-ups to be big on activism, mass brands are stepping it up, too. Lush is one of the UK’s most vocal beauty campaigners, opening Lush Naked stores that are completely packaging-free. Meanwhile, in collaboration with picture agency Getty Images and female photographic collective Girlgaze, Dove has commissioned 5,000 images of women by female-identifying photographers to dramatically increase the number of images of “real women” available to advertisers.
So where has this political awakening come from? Millie Kendall, co-founder of BeautyMart and the British Beauty Council, believes there is activism inherent in the fact that beauty can bring out positive change in people. “The effect a beauty product or service can have on someone is remarkable. It can alter the way you look, and help to express how you feel,” she says. Terry Barber, Mac’s director of make-up artistry, agrees that it’s all about the individual. “For years we’ve been force-fed idealised images on social media, and so-called trends that lazily reference celebrity,” he says. “There seems to be a shift in people’s acceptance of being a duplicate with generic features.”
As our leaders set about building walls we don’t want and breaking down relationships we’d rather keep, it gets harder to see the positives in world politics today, but maybe that’s why beauty is now so politically active? Because for those of us who believe in the power of beauty, having faith in a brighter future is in our DNA – and what is a beauty product doing if not bringing a positive change, one person at a time?
“Beauty products symbolise optimism,” considers Marcia Kilgore, founder of Beauty Pie, which brings “factory direct” make-up to consumers. “Dressing up is an occasion. It’s a celebration. It’s hope. And so every day, putting on your sunscreen, your eyeliner, is an act of faith that life is more than just survival, feeding, eating, reproducing… it’s preparation for an elevated existence.”
Beauty commentator Beth Fuller agrees, but believes it’s important that beauty activism doesn’t descend into negativity. “Part of 2018 was just a big angry rant online,” she muses. Fuller, at just 22, is the founder of Noa Vee, a beauty website that curates thoughtful articles, as well as selling socially conscious products. “I think for the majority of women, at some point in their lives, the feeling of optimism that surrounds beauty translates into a feeling of hope,” she says. “Whether it’s during a bout of acne or noticing wrinkles, our connection with skincare can present a dual feeling: belief in a better future while highlighting our unhappiness in the present. Beauty is powerful and complex like that.”
Powerful and complex. And even empowering and transformative. If only we could use those words about our politicians as well as our products. Ultimately, the hope in a jar still remains. But maybe what we’re wishing for has changed. Because all the signs say that the brands we want now aren’t the ones that promise to eradicate wrinkles, but the ones that promise not to judge us, however we look. They’re the ones getting my vote.