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Selling Perfection: DVC Business Professor Unmasks Beauty Industry’s Well-Kept Secrets

Jun 2, 2020

How many ads do you think people are exposed to each day? If you believe that number is in the thousands, you’d be right. By one estimate, most Americans are exposed to a daily diet of around 4,000 to 10,000 ads and brands.

Whether we’re streaming movies and television shows, scrolling our social media news feeds, or surfing the internet, we can’t help but get bombarded with advertising messages attempting to sell us things we need, such basic necessities as food and clothing, and also things we don’t need—for example, beauty products.

Sure, looking good makes us feel good. But what happens when the pressure to look a certain way to fit an unrealistic beauty standard promoted in the media and through cosmetics advertising feeds into a dangerous obsession with perfection? This is one of the fundamental questions that Martha Laham, a business professor at Diablo Valley College (DVC), answers in her new book, Made Up: How the Beauty Industry Manipulates Consumers, Preys on Women’s Insecurities, and Promotes Unattainable Beauty Standards. This revealing book takes a hard look at the multibillion-dollar beauty industry that props up unrealistic beauty standards, perpetuates gender stereotyping, and promotes cosmetic enhancements to fulfill a growing cultural obsession with image and appearance.

Lori Golden, web content coordinator in the communications and marketing office at DVC, caught up with Professor Laham to chat with her about the changing and unchanging face of the beauty industry.

Lori Golden (LG): Give us a sense of the scope and power of the beauty industry today. What kind of profits does it take in? Who are its primary consumers?

Martha Laham (ML): The global beauty industry is monolithic. It’s a $532 billion business. By one estimate, big beauty brands enjoy high gross margins anywhere between 60 and 80 percent.

What many of us may not realize is the concentration within the beauty industry. According to a piece in the Economist, a handful of multinational cosmetic companies account for 80 percent of U.S. makeup sales, and only eight brands control 70 percent of the skin care market. Consider Estée Lauder, one of the largest cosmetic companies in the world. The company has grown its portfolio by acquiring established beauty brands, including Bobbi Brown, La Mer, MAC Cosmetics, Aveda, and GlamGlow.

Millennial women are the new marketing darlings of the beauty industry. According to a TABS Group study, millennial women are the heaviest buyers of beauty products. Yet Generation X and baby boomer women are just as important. Together, these women make up the beauty industry’s most valuable consumers.

LG: You also take a deep dive into how the beauty industry constructs standards of attractiveness for women and how these standards are both unrealistic and highly Westernized. First, describe this process a bit for us, and then tell us how you think it impacts young women in particular.

ML: Thin-ideal media—media that incorporate extremely thin female images or characters in their messaging or programming—has promoted the notion that thinness is an advantageous physical trait and equate that trait with beauty, success, and happiness. One study found that brief exposures to thin-ideal images and programming led young females to overstate their body size after watching just 30 minutes’ worth of television and advertising.

On the face of it, the impact of exposure to thin-ideal media images may seem relatively benign. The harm may be inflicted when women and girls start to constantly compare their actual appearance against an unrealistic or manipulated ideal, and the gap between the real and ideal becomes large enough to cause body-image disturbance or an increased risk of eating disorders.

LG: What do you think of the trend in fashion and beauty advertising toward showing more realistic images of women? Do you think it will help to make the influence of this type of advertising less harmful?

ML: Promoting body diversity and inclusiveness in beauty ads can counterbalance messaging that systematically portrays the thin ideal of beauty. There’s unmistakable evidence that the beauty and fashion industries are featuring more realistic and relatable models in their advertising. Still, most marketers probably aren’t inclined to bow to pressure from consumer and advocacy groups that push for a more realistic presentation of the female form unless it makes good business sense.

LG: Like many other critics, you point out that the images in beauty industry advertising are deeply unrealistic and promote a picture of the “perfect” woman that is unattainable. You also take a close look at the digital manipulation of those images and the technology behind creating them. If you could give us a few facts about these enhanced or altered images, what would they be?

ML: The use of digital image manipulation in fashion magazines has bent our perception of beauty. The American Medical Association has come out against photo retouching of images, claiming that such alterations can fuel unrealistic expectations of people’s body images and beauty aspirations, especially among suggestible children and young adolescents.

Photo editing has taken idealized images to a frightening new level. Advertisers and magazine editors have come under fire for heavily retouching images of models and celebrities in ads and magazine covers. In an ABC News story, an expert in computer science and digital forensics is quoted as saying, “We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery. It’s moving towards the Barbie doll model of what a woman should look like—big breasts, tiny waist, ridiculously long legs, elongated neck.”

The good news is that several fashion and beauty brands have pledged to do away with using airbrushed or Photoshopped images in their ad campaigns, including Target, CVS, and Dove.

LG: In Made Up you link the increased interest among consumers in cosmetic enhancement to the selfie craze. How are they related?

ML: The selfie trend is stoking demand for facial plastic surgery. A study found that the surge in selfies has increased demand for cosmetic procedures, especially among the under-30 crowd. In fact, one in three facial plastic surgeons reported an increase in the number of requests for procedures resulting from patients’ self-awareness of how they look on social media.

Image-based social media can lead people to over-scrutinize their appearance as never before. A HuffPost article reported that a troubling offshoot of the selfie trend is a phenomenon dubbed by one cosmetic doctor as “Snapchat dysmorphia,” in which people pursue facial surgery to look like heavily edited or filtered photos of themselves.

Professor Laham believes the beauty industry is long overdue for a makeover, but this will probably only happen if beauty consumers advocate for it. “For real change to occur it is up to each one of us to reject those beauty brands that use advertising that devalues who we are, as we are, while at the same time promoting unhealthy beauty standards. Beauty brands should celebrate our individuality, embrace the beauty in diversity, and speak to us honestly and authentically.”

Martha Laham was interviewed recently by Roberta Romero, guest host of New Day Northwest, a morning talk show in the Pacific Northwest, to talk about her new book, Made Up. Watch the full interview.

Martha Laham is a professor at Diablo Valley College, where she has taught business, marketing, and advertising for almost 30 years. She has authored general interest books and college textbooks in marketing and selling, developed instructional materials for educational publishers, and contributed to HuffPost.