The pursuit of beauty borders on obsession for many women. A recent survey of over 3,000 American shoppers by the beauty retailer SkinStore reported that the average woman uses $8 per day of face and skin products – and she applies an average of 16 different products (eye creams, foundation, moisturizers, etc.) before she leaves the house. Still, many don’t seem to believe these products alone achieve their beauty standards. Another survey found that more than 90% of women ages 18-24 are unhappy with at least one body part. The quest for “perfection” helps to explain why Americans spend $16 billion per year on cosmetic plastic surgery. Breast augmentation, liposuction and nose reshaping top the list of the most popular procedures.
The decision by the Miss America Organization to remove the swimsuit and evening gown segments from the show is bound to generate a lot of heated water cooler conversations about this dramatic rebranding from a “pageant” to a “competition.” Of course this (probable) consequence of the #MeToo movement no doubt will please many women (and some men) who have long resented the “cattle call” aspect of this iconic event.
But there is also another narrative at work here: Even if they’re not strutting their stuff in Atlantic City, don’t many women feel like they compete in a beauty contest every single day? Should women be preoccupied with their faces and bodies, and if so should they conform to culturally mandated standards of beauty or “march to their own drummer?” Can or should we judge a book by its cover? And how should retailers think about the way they promote beauty products?
To an outside observer (i.e. a clueless male), there seems to be a huge amount of ambivalence about the importance of appearance. Many women lament the need to live up to societal expectations and condemn the notion that physical features might define their identities — both to others and to themselves. On the other hand, female consumers support a multibillion dollar industry that caters to their desires to (depending upon whom you ask) mutilate or enhance their looks.
This seemingly endless pursuit of beauty is not news, and of course a preoccupation with appearance is hardly confined to women – but that’s a story for another day. We won’t decide today whether beauty is only skin deep — but we can think about just what it means to be (physically) beautiful. This important question relates to the yardsticks that women use to decide how they shape up (literally) to the competition. It is a key aspect of fashion psychology.
We refer to such a yardstick as an ideal of beauty; a particular model, or exemplar, of appearance. This template includes physical features such as bust size, but also clothing styles that accentuate or hide certain body parts as well as skin tone (pale versus tan), and body type (petite, athletic, voluptuous, etc.). Fashion marketers need to understand what these ideals are, and why it’s so vital to identify them. They determine the standards your customers use to decide what is beautiful — and the specific products and services they need as they try to live up to those standards. And as we’ll see, unlike the more humdrum kind of yardstick that stays the same from year to year, this kind is more fluid and it changes (often dramatically) over time. That’s really important because the suite of products you offer today may be totally off the mark tomorrow.
Bear in mind that beauty is graded on a curve: To a large extent, the answer to the question, “How do I look right now?” (that any husband worth his salt learns to avoid answering if possible) is implicitly paired with a qualifier: “Compared to whom?” The response to the “to whom” part is crucial. That’s where marketers play a huge role. They supply the yardstick women use to answer this question, as they bombard us with images of “beautiful” women on the covers of magazines, in movies, and other media.
Unfortunately, these ideals literally do not exist in real life: They have been photoshopped and otherwise manipulated so that even the models who pose for these photos may not recognize themselves as they view the finished product. Unrealistic media standards affect us, and quickly: In one typical illustration of the power of social comparison, female college students who were exposed to beautiful women in advertisements afterward expressed lowered satisfaction with their own appearance, as compared to other participants who did not view ads with attractive models. Another studyreported that young women alter their perceptions of their own body shapes and sizes after they watch as little as 30 minutes of TV programming. And of course constant exposure to happy, shiny people on social media doesn’t help: One-half of a sample of Facebook users reported they felt more self-conscious about their body images after they looked at photos of themselves and others on the site.
Even though these beauty standards are largely unattainable (at least in full), this does not deter many women from striving to get as close as they can. As I discuss at length in my Consumer Behavior textbook, our satisfaction with the physical image we present to others depends upon how closely we think the image corresponds to what our culture values.
It’s vital for marketers to remember that these ideals vary across cultures and also over time. For example, while Americans spend billions of dollars per year to fix less-than-perfect teeth, a recent craze among Japanese women was to pay to have straight teeth made crooked. We refer derisively to this look as “snaggleteeth,” or “fangs,” but many Japanese men find what they call yaeba(double tooth) attractive.
We characterize periods of history by a specific “look,” or ideal of beauty. Our past reveals a succession of dominant ideals. In sharp contrast to today’s emphasis on health and vigor, in the early 1800s it was fashionable to appear delicate to the point of looking ill. The poet John Keats described the ideal woman of that time as “…a milk white lamb that bleats for man’s protection.” Other past looks include the voluptuous, lusty woman that Lillian Russell made popular; the athletic Gibson Girl of the 1890s; and the small, boyish flapper of the 1920s the silent movie actress Clara Bow exemplified. Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, but she embodied a cultural ideal of beauty that persists to this day.
Whatever the dominant standards, our culture communicates them virtually everywhere we turn. And these messages start early: Feminists for example argue that fashion dolls, such as the ubiquitous Barbie, reinforce an unnatural ideal of thinness that communicates harmful expectations to young girls. If the traditional Barbie doll (the one that was around for decades before Mattel replaced her with more realistic and diverse versions) was a real woman, she would stand six feet tall with a 39” bust, 18” waist, and 33” hips.
Remember that the ideal body type of Western women changes over time—check out portraits of models from several hundred years ago by Botticelli to appreciate by just how much. These changes periodically cause us to redefine sexual dimorphic markers; those aspects of the body that distinguish between the sexes. The first part of the 1990s saw the emergence of the controversial “waif” look in which successful models (most notably Kate Moss) had bodies that resembled those of young boys. A study of almost 50 years of Playboy centerfolds (historically a powerful cultural yardstick, at least for men) shows that the women steadily became less shapely since Marilyn Monroe graced the first edition with a voluptuous hourglass figure of 37–23–36. However, the trend toward increasing thinness seems to have stabilized and may actually have begun to reverse. As we’ll see, we can attribute at least part of that turnaround to newer cultural icons such as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Biel, Nicole Austin and the ubiquitous Kim Kardashian.
We can be sure that these ideals will continue to evolve. Already, a significantly lower proportion of girls aged 16 to 24 shave their armpits and legs compared to just five years ago. Sales of shaving and hair removal products are down as well. The desire for a “natural” look no doubt is inspired by celebrities including Paris Jackson, Mo’nique, Madonna, and Mary J. Blige who proudly display body hair, scars, tattoos and birthmarks.
Of course the pendulum is always moving, because cultural changes modify the ideals of beauty that dominate at any point in time. A focus on wellness today results in a beauty ideal that emphasizes a moderately muscular physique and clingy fabrics with revealed bellies that show it off. But this ideal is not for everyone: Perhaps we can credit Kim Kardashian’s infamous Paper magazine cover featuring her large (and apparently digitally enhanced) derrière that “broke the internet” for launching a new trajectory for ideals of female beauty. An extra push was provided courtesy of Nicki Minaj, who later appeared in similar form on the cover of the same magazine.
It’s not surprising that standards are moving away from a skinny look. The typical woman’s body is no longer as “petite” as it used to be. The most commonly purchased dress today is a size 16; it was a size 8 in 1985. The size and shape of the “average” American female is dramatically different from what it was 60 years ago; essentially the fashion industry is selling clothing to super thin women who don’t exist (at least not many of them do). Nevertheless, many apparel companies still develop clothing lines with data from a 1941 military study that set sizing standards based on a small sample of mostly white, young (and presumably physically fit) female soldiers.
Indeed, even the sizes we wear send messages about body ideals. Clothing manufacturers often offer vanity sizing, where they deliberately assign smaller sizes to garments. Women prefer to buy the smaller size, even if the label is inaccurate. Those who have low self-esteem related to appearance think of themselves more positively and believe they are thinner when they wear vanity sizes.
And perhaps most importantly, standards based on this outdated snapshot of U.S. women need to recognize the diversity of today’s ethnic population: According to current criteria, African American and Hispanic American women tend to be more likely to be obese than white women. Non-Caucasian body shapes differ as well; for example, Hispanic Americans women on average are two inches shorter than their Caucasian counterparts.
Ideals of beauty continue to evolve to reflect this variety. Slowly but surely we are moving away from the monolithic “Marilyn Monroe” exemplar (or her modern counterparts such as Reese Witherspoon) that was our culture’s yardstick for many decades. The Nordic, blonde hair and blue eyed standard still is desirable for many (“is it still true blondes have more fun?”), but no longer for all.
It’s hugely important for the multibillion dollar beauty industry to track these changes. Indeed, non-Caucasian women represent a real sweet spot in today’s market. Ad campaigns like those for Glossier and Cover Girl include models of different ages, ethnicities, and body types . Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line took in $72 million in one month. Mintel reports that Hispanic and African American women are driving big gains in beauty products sales.
For perhaps the first time in history, our increasingly fragmented culture offers multiple versions of beauty rather than just one dominant ideal that created a lot of disenfranchised consumers — and disappointed Miss America contestants. Petite or voluptuous, pale or tan, big lips or small, it’s vital for fashion marketers to stay on top of beauty ideals. You can be sure your customers are.
Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.
Forbes June 7, 2018
Are we what we buy?