Beauty has, in some sense, always been about pleasure. Whether that pleasure is simply visual, or if there’s a more intimately sensory dimension – textural, or olfactory – depends. While beauty marketing is not so old as the use of cosmetic aids itself, it has been around long enough to go through a few transformations. From the 19th century emphasis on freshness, hygiene, femininity and affluence, we’ve seen beauty marketed as sexually liberating in the 1920s, a method for control in the 1980s, and currently, as a tool for pseudofeminist liberation and personal, sensual pleasure. Think piece after think piece on beauty as “self care“, as something nurturing and pleasurable by way of sweet scents, sumptuous textures, and an emphasis on oxytocin-releasing touch.
It is true, there is some pleasure to be found in a beauty routine – it’s often described as “me time”, a time to be alone and give yourself full attention, perhaps with Sade playing in the background and a $60 scented candle burning. But let me tell you this: If I’m honest with myself, I can and will admit that my bathroom cabinet isn’t overflowing with product because they just feel so good to use. They’re there to make me look fabulous.
You wouldn’t know from the ad copy – with word choices like sumptuous, indulgent, luscious and so on, it’s in the interest of these corporations to convince us that their products are indeed pleasurable. Women in these ads are always parting their lips, touching their bodies with half-lidded gazes. Remember those notorious Herbal Essences ads? Or how body wash commercials show women caressing their naked bodies, smiling? Or L’Oreal’s incessant attempts to convince women that they’re “worth it” (worth what? hair dye?)
I wonder if it is the case that things that should be about pleasure aren’t (sex, eating, leisure) and things that patently aren’t about pleasure are perceived as such (beauty, exercise). Sure, it feels good to put a cooling, luxury gel-cream on a tired face, but is the motivation here really pleasure? The hint is in the name: Beauty. In this self-care induced trance state in front of the mirror, perhaps we’ve been so overwhelmed by this illusion of pleasure that we’ve forgotten all about capitalism and the patriarchy.
I’m sure rubbing mayonnaise all over my face would feel exactly like your average face cream (and at a fraction of the cost!) but we’re not doing that, because that wouldn’t be conducive to improving our appearance. And shouldn’t we admit that part of the pleasure of a beauty routine is the privileges afforded those who are deemed beautiful? The rewards for conforming to femininity?