Thursday, 4 August 2011

144 The BANNED and the BEAUTIFUL

As a beauty director in the full-time employ of a woman's magazine that relies upon its advertisers, hmmm, this is tricky. Last week two adverts were banned by the advertising standards authority – following Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson’s campaign against ‘overly perfected and unrealistic images of women’ in adverts.

The adverts featured the actress Julia Roberts and the model Christy Turlington promoting LancĂ´me's Teint Miracle foundation and Maybelline's the Eraser foundation.

You’ve probably seen them? Both women look preternaturally perfect – pore/line/hairless. But they also look like ‘themselves’ – and having seen both women in real life, I can say that sincerely, and attest to the fact that, yes, their facial configuration is maintained. We’re not slimming noses, trimming eyelids, changing lips. Light and shade is what’s being played with here… to an extreme, yes, absolutely.

But beauty imagery has rarely lived within the realms of reality. As Lucy Beresford said when I interviewed her for a feature in PSYCHOLOGIES magazine, ‘I just don’t think it is damaging to see beautiful women advertising beauty products. Psychologically beauty has always been linked to fantasy, and is therefore often about archetypes or ideals.’ As such, an airbrushed version of Julia Roberts – already a phenomenally beautiful woman – becomes almost mythically ‘ideal’ – a modern-day Helen of Troy: flawless. This is familiar territory. This does not shock or disappoint me. I am used to it. I do not think it harms me in any way.

This is, after all, an advert. Does it make some women feel bad? Do people look at the image and think, ‘I hate my lines, I hate my wrinkles, I hate my spots, I hate my freckles’ – I want to have a CGI-complexion just like Julia’s – or do they look at it and think, ‘I know that’s not reality, because it’s selling me something.’

Perhaps because I fall into bracket B, I found Jo Swinson’s campaign intriguing. Had it been me, I would’ve picked on the over-sexualised, derogatory, degrading stances taken by so many beauty brands in a bid to sell ‘sexy’ to little girls. Now, that’s something I’d really like to shout about.

But in terms of bare-faced fact, of course Swinson is absolutely right. This is false advertising. Using a celebrity head, or eye-lid, chock-a-block with extensions to sell a volumising shampoo or mascara is mendacious. The product is making a visual promise it cannot deliver in reality. It does so brazenly – ‘no, our mascara is not good enough to give you the look of actual false lashes, so we will stick false lashes on and admit it, but hope you’ll still buy it and hope to look as though you’re wearing actual false lashes.’ With the pulled ads, the ruling is that the images are misleading. That the ban was upheld surprised me greatly.  After all, what beauty advert is not misleading? From the supremely slim and lithe limbs showcased in shaving ads (utterly hairless yet being shorn nonetheless), to the invisible ‘pure’ pores of those deep-cleansing foams… the exaggerated before and afters as ubiquitous as those blindingly bright smiles.


But, back to that fantasy thing… in my mind, I know that I will never, ever wake up looking like Julia Roberts. Or Eva Mendes. Or Cheryl Cole. But getting ‘airbrushed’ skin? I know this is possible. Cosmetic airbrushes do exist. SK-II Air Touch Foundation, for example – wowee. That stuff took years off and added hours of sleep on. And I could show you the before and after pictures to prove it.

Many believe that this ban is a sign of things to come… that consumers are growing increasingly tired (and cynical) of over-inflated claims. But that there are many beauty products out there which employ sound science and ground-breaking technology – in those foundations designed for use in an HD-TV generation for example – seems beside the point here. If the world’s most beautiful women are not deemed beautiful enough to sell a face cream without getting a bit of ‘help’, what does that say about the rest of us? Lost causes?

I think the ban will serve simply as a warning. Brands will become a bit more cautious… and then it will be business as usual.

That these idealised images can prove harmful to a woman’s sense of self-esteem is inarguable (swot up on the PSYCHOLOGIES Beauty Manifesto, for a deeper read)… but I believe such things are far less harmful to women than so many other insidious, institutional and oft-ignored and damaging issues. That’s my sticking point. Airbrushing is as old as the Hollywood hills. And ‘retouching’? Well, what about those portraits of Anne of Cleves that coaxed Henry into a blind marriage?


People like to hark on about the good old days when movie stars were allowed to break the mould… when people looked unusual and idiosyncratic beauty was celebrated. I am not convinced by this line of thought. Those old gals succumbed to more than their fair share of jiggery-pokery too – eyebrows shaved, realigned, re-drawn, hairlines moved back or up at the sides, noses shaved and slimmed (permanently and painfully), hair colour altered at a director’s whim, and slimming pills dolled out like popping candy, in a bid to shrink starlets down to size.

Swinson’s conclusion:

"Pictures of flawless skin and super-slim bodies are all around, but they don't reflect reality," said Swinson. "Excessive airbrushing and digital manipulation techniques have become the norm, but both Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts are naturally beautiful women who don't need retouching to look great. This ban sends a powerful message to advertisers – let's get back to reality.

My conclusion:

Let’s focus on positive imagery and confidence-boosting messages. Do away with the beauty ‘rules’. Break all moulds. Stop selling sex in lieu of scent. Fantasy has its place, and that does not bother me. But when fantasy masquerades as empowerment… that really, really does.