Free the birds

Beauty, Diversity

Unforbidden Fruit: Taboo-busting in beauty

Sara Jones, partner at Free The Birds, tells Cosmetics Business how brands can avoid tokenising while breaking taboos, and which areas still need to be tackled.

One of the most striking trends to have emerged in 2018 is taboo-busting: brands rejecting narrow beauty standards that are seen by consumers and society as outdated, irrelevant and unrepresentative. “In beauty, the taboos have always meant the body, hair and skin acting or looking in ways perceived as out of the ordinary, or against the norm, which until very recently involved being hairless, pore-less, blemish-free, young, white, taut, thin, smooth and perfectly able-bodied – never mind anything bodily emission-related,” says Sara Jones, partner at brand communication and design agency Free The Birds. “2018 has seen strides made to tackle some of these rigid beauty standards.”

More brands have been focusing on aspects of appearance that have been either forbidden or frowned upon in the public beauty domain – in a very frank and open way.

Billie became the first razor brand to ever show female body hair in an ad; CoverGirl featured model Amy Deanna both concealing and highlighting her vitiligo in a video for TruBlend Liquid Makeup; and Dove focused on women with skin conditions in its DermaSeries campaign. Last year, sanitary towel brand Bodyform rejected period taboos by showing menstrual blood realistically for the first time in a global ad campaign.

Age is probably the single biggest taboo that has yet to be tackled in a meaningful way by the beauty industry. Of course, there are campaigns featuring older models, particularly in skin care, but in colour cosmetics, you virtually never see a brand just straightforwardly feature a make-up product on anything other than a perfectly young, thin, smooth, hairless face.

Another enduring taboo in most markets apart from Asia is men using make-up, even though we know that men regularly steal their partners’ tinted moisturisers and concealers to cover up the signs of fatigue or spots. Chanel’s recent launch of Boy de Chanel, with its foundation, tinted lip balm and eyebrow pencil, is a step forward and Bluemercury is soon launching its own men’s make-up range. But just imagine L’Oréal Men Expert introducing a men’s concealer or CC cream and using it not on a dedicated male beauty influencer, but in a straightforward, mainstream way.

Notably, the brands that are “grasping the nettle and grabbing the growth,” here, as Jones says, are indie and DTC brands. She mentions Curology and MDAcne, that create personalised treatment plans and medication to treat acne and faithfully show the before-and-after pictures of the skin problems it treats. However this is currently not the norm, says Jones. “Most of the remaining taboos – acne, body hair, thinning hair – are all notable by the fact that they are always shown at the ‘after’ stage. Showing the ‘before’, even on YouTube instructional videos appears to be beyond the pale: Neutrogena, the US’ number one selling anti-acne brand, manages to demonstrate all its light therapy products on entirely smooth, blemish-free skin.”


More widely across beauty, mainstream and mass brands remain more resistant to taboo-busting, says Jones. “Dove’s ongoing commitment to Real Beauty aside, when beauty brands do feature people with one aspect of their appearance falling outside the old beauty standards, they very much closely adhere to virtually all of the other ones. So you might see a plus-size model featured, but she will have a perfect hourglass figure, hair and face and all traces of stretch marks and cellulite erased, for example.

“It probably reflects the fear factor for beauty companies that if they show real people in all their real glory, accepting themselves as they are, it might actually drive down sales.”

But this fear factor is misplaced. Research from digital agency Toluna found that more than half of the UK consumers said they connected more with ads featuring real people. “The argument that people only respond to perfect models and celebrities simply doesn’t hold water,” says Jones. “When you add to that the consumer’s growing desire for transparency in beauty products, brands that can really demonstrate efficacy also have a fantastic opportunity to break taboos in the process as well as sell more product.”

The year ahead is likely to see more mainstream brands work to open up beauty standards and reject traditionally taboo subjects – but things that people want to deal with to look and feel better – on a wider scale. “This is something that big beauty brands really need to be braver about if they are to remain relevant,” says Jones. “The future for 2019 involves balancing the twin demands for authentic realness and selling beauty products in the process – no mean feat!”



However, brands need to tread carefully. “For the most part, it’s rare to see anyone or anything falling outside the ‘norm’ used without undue comment or attached to a specific positivity or awareness campaign; it’s always Officially A Big Deal and ends up being oddly tokenising in the process, not normalising,” says Jones.

“Think how revolutionary it would be for Pat McGrath, say, herself 50-something, to just show her latest palette look on a more wrinkled, older eyelid without any fanfare or announcement. Or Nivea’s latest body cream used on a more mature arm. Not dedicated ‘anti-ageing’ products, just products, used naturally for enhancement and enjoyment.

“The same goes for all the other beauty standards that have been or are still not the ‘norm’,” says Jones. “Beauty brands do not need permission to just go ahead and use men, or larger-sized and older people, or people with slight facial hair or kinkier textured hair in their campaigns.”

Sara Jones

Published in Cosmetics Business Trend Report, December 2018