When Does Problem-Solving Beauty Become Problematic?

Beauty products that claim to ‘solve a problem’ are often accused of peddling a negative body image. So how much leeway should we give to this type of language?

By Viola Levy

17 April 2021

he beauty industry has often come under fire – most famously in the early ‘90s with Naomi Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth – for perpetuating toxic beauty norms and a negative body image. Since then, the world of beauty and our attitudes towards it have evolved, and in the age of body positivity, many have come to its defence as a way of caring for and celebrating all kinds of bodies.

Yet if we were to roughly carve the beauty world up, along with the fun, ‘self-care’ element (for example, bold lipsticks, vibrant nail art, rich, rose-scented perfumes), we also have the problem-solving angle; from anti-wrinkle and skin-lightening creams to hair serums that ‘tame’ curls, and concealers to cover ‘imperfections’. This latter sector of the industry arguably still causes the most controversy and for good reason.

For Millie Kendall MBE and CEO of the British Beauty Council, it’s about time the whole industry did away with this kind of approach.

“The beauty industry is the purveyor of marketing terminology and buzzwords which over time have caused reputational damage to the sector and our brands,” she argues. “The challenge is that brands may remove one word, or change the wording; they’ll just very cannily alter it but it will still have the same meaning. They don’t use anti-ageing but they might use ‘wrinkle-free’ or ‘pro-ageing’. What difference does it make? It still makes me think, ‘oh my god, I’m getting older!’"

But what about those of us who don’t take the whole beauty world seriously and just see it as a ‘bit of fun’?

“Avid beauty lovers have a different relationship to products – we smell it, we touch it, the colour appeals to us,” she agrees. “But people that don’t experience beauty products that way, then need to be sold to. They are sold to in a way they have gotten used to, with language burdened down with negative, problematic terminology.”

Of course, results-driven beauty products have their place, particularly if you’re suffering from a serious skin condition such as acne, which can affect mental health and cause physical discomfort. But arguably, there is a crucial difference between solving a problem the customer has already identified and convincing them that something is ‘problematic’ that they might not have even considered.

“My daughter is 14 years old and thinks she’s got the worst skin in the world,” Kendall explains. “It’s actually not that bad, but she’s buying into these negative marketing buzzwords while browsing the beauty shelves.”

“The beauty industry is the purveyor of marketing terminology and buzzwords which over time have caused reputational damage to the sector and our brands”

The industry’s problem-solving language is particularly dangerous and toxic when it comes to hair, says Michelle Sultan, textured hair specialist and ambassador for curly hair brand Imbue.

“The language used by brands in the past has been similar to that of cohesive abuse, by gaslighting women into believing that what they are born with isn’t good enough,” she explains. “For example, if you’re born with naturally curly hair and every brand tells you that curly hair is a battle or struggle you would immediately want to change it. Brands like Imbue have worked tirelessly to make sure that the language used is always positive and encouraging a celebration of curls, coils and kinks.”

Lizzie Burns, founder of Only Curls agrees. “For years we have been encouraged by the beauty industry to turn our ‘unruly and frizzy' locks into lovely silky, smooth, glossy hair. Curls should not be seen or marketed as a problem,” she adds. “We are encouraging our customers to take their curls back to the office this year and we’d really like to see the ‘unkempt and unprofessional’ view on curly hair diminished."

Nicole Petty, hair care expert at Milk + Blush, which offers clip-in hair extensions, definitely sees their products as being at the ‘fun’ end of the beauty spectrum, without making customers feel the need to ‘solve the problem’ of their natural hair.

“Within the hair extension industry, we should seek to empower our customers to enhance their look and feel confident with the added enjoyment of easily switching up their hairstyle,” she explains. “We want our products to be seen as an added bonus, something that ‘could’ add value to the customer’s hair if they so desire, without a negative connotation that their own hair is problematic and/or undesirable.”

This approach can be seen in the world of skincare too – something that Jenni Retourné, founder of Willowberry Skincare is very vocal about. Her products emphasise healthy, moisturised, ‘real’ skin as opposed to skin that’s ‘youthful’ and ‘wrinkle-free’.

“The notion of ‘anti-ageing’ literally tells people to be against getting old, which is ludicrous,” she remarks. “Women then spend a lifetime searching for an anti-ageing solution, purchasing pot after pot of ‘age reversal’ hope in a jar. I refuse to damage a woman’s self-esteem in a quest to sell products and I refuse to get a customer to spend their money on a pot of disappointment.”

Susie Ma, founder and CEO of Tropic Skincare, agrees: “Individual brands have a responsibility to their customers to avoid this kind of wording and marketing. That’s why, as a brand, we’ll actually be changing a number of our product names this year to remove problem-solving language.”

Elsewhere, Jasmine Wicks-Stephens has tried to avoid traditional beauty marketing altogether with her skincare brand faace – which is geared around women’s lifestyles, moods and hormones, as opposed to ‘skin types’ or winding back the clock.

“Our products are problem-solving in the sense that if you have a tired, sweaty or ‘period’ face, we’ve got something that works for that,” she explains. “But the language we use is designed to be relatable, not judgemental, and not to make anyone feel like having a ‘period face’ is something to be concerned about.”

However, there is a valid argument that problem-solving is sometimes necessary when it comes to selling certain beauty products.

Hafsa Issa-Salwe, who works in beauty marketing, elaborates. “I think positioning products as problem-solving has its place, mainly because it helps the customer better navigate such a heavily saturated market,” she says. “With that said, some brands can absolutely be problematic when they offer solutions for things that are normal, such as wrinkles.

“In my opinion, anti-wrinkle products are OK, providing the customer wants to address them; when they’re presented with pushy marketing language, it goes beyond problem-solving and branches into a territory where we’re creating insecurities that shouldn’t exist, simply to benefit a brand’s bottom line.”

“The language used by brands has been similar to that of cohesive abuse, by gaslighting women into believing that what they are born with isn’t good enough”

One solution some brands have come up with is talking about personal choice when erasing or camouflaging aspects of your body that are deemed problematic. In 2018, Clairol launched its #faceyourfirst campaign, encouraging women to embrace their grey hairs, whether they chose to cover them or not. Similarly, Billie Razors made waves with its campaign, Project Body Hair, with the slogan: “What you do with yours is up to you – grow it, get rid of it, or comb it. It's your hair, after all.”

But is this ‘fine if you do, fine if you don’t’ approach more acceptable, or just perpetuating the same beauty standards repackaged as pseudo-empowerment? Professor Jennifer Saul, who specialises in the philosophy of language at the University of Sheffield, doesn’t view language about ‘choices’ as being any different to its ‘problem-solving’ counterparts.

“To be honest, I'm not sure how much the language matters,” she says. “What seems to matter most is the narrow range of beauty norms promoted. So, for example, it's obviously bad to tell people that their dark skin is a problem, which needs solving by skin-lightening creams. But it's not clear that it's much better to give them the exciting choice of lightening their skin so that they can look like the narrow range of beauty ideals that they have been given.”

She argues how framing it as a choice brings with it its own issues “It obscures the way that our choices are shaped by those who claim to be merely helping us to solve our problems or offering us interesting choices. Instead, these forces are often promoting their own agendas, which generally revolve around money-making rather than our well-being.”

Issa-Salwe has a similar opinion. “There was a hair removal product ad that talked about personal choice, whether it was removing all of your hair, some of it or none at all. But if we strip hair removal products down to their core function, they remove hair, which to many people is still addressing a problem.”

However, she concedes that “it’s a less aggressive way to market products as opposed to the traditional methods, and I much prefer it”.

It’s clear we have a long way to go before the world of beauty’s problem-solving arena catches up with the rest of the industry. But, hopefully, with the rise of body positivity – and female-founded beauty brands that don’t patronise us for profit – the idea of beauty products that ‘solve a problem’ will be scrapped altogether.

For Millie Kendall, this can’t come quickly enough.

“Beauty brands need to be more responsible – I love the industry and my goal is to ensure we have a future-proof reputation. Yes, looking good and feeling good are intrinsically linked, but I don’t want to look good just to feel good. I shouldn’t have to.”

The Short Stack

‘Problem-solving’ buzzwords hold sway in the beauty industry but, as language starts to shift to be more body positive, toxic beauty standards will hopefully start to fade.

By Viola Levy

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