Though the beauty industry is largely a product of the 20th century, since its advent, it has become a major point of contention and debate among feminists. Interestingly, the key to the growth of the American beauty industry has been the involvement of women as consumers, creators, and icons. As Naomi Wolf demonstrated in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth, however, the influence of the beauty industry on its consumers has been directly connected to the social construction of ideal beauty as the purpose of womanhood. Following the influence of American theater makeup, as well as the rise of photography, American women increasingly sought an ideal appearance through cosmetics. Female leadership in the cosmetics industry was central to the success of the business, because women centered consumerism on other women in a search for ideal beauty. As historian Kathy Peiss explained, women in the early beauty industry reacted to the lack of access to retail markets for women by turning to home-based methods such as demonstrations and door-to-door sales in order to cater to female customers. This method of direct marketing gave women such as Madam C. J. Walker and Helena Rubinstein access to wealth and market power traditionally denied to women. The beauty industry quickly transformed from a face paint mixed by a druggist to a cultural rite of passage for American girls. Through the 1940s and 1950s, the rise of advertising and mass media meant uncontrolled growth in the beauty industry. What started as a cottage industry became a symbol of cultural and national identity, attached frequently to notions of success, freedom, acceptability, and modernity.
That the beauty industry was created and maintained by women is clear. For feminists, however, the question is whether the beauty industry is a harmful, objectifying creation or a source of strength and independence for women. This beauty dilemma is one of the most contentious debates in American feminisms. Feminist opinions about the beauty industry, however, are as varied as feminism itself. Feminisms prevalent in the 1960s, such as radical feminism and liberal feminism, were critical of the beauty industry and its reliance on patriarchal definitions of beauty. In the 1980s, the key debate among feminists was about the history and rationale of the beauty industry as a path to independence for women, while the
1990s beauty dilemma was marked by a debate among feminists about the cultural role that beauty media played in America. Twenty-first-century feminisms— including third-wave, postmodern feminisms, and the debates about body led by transgender and fat activists—continue to bring up a myriad of issues related to the beauty industry. In each of these phases, there was also concentration on the collusion of the beauty industry and racism. Authors including bell hooks, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison have written on the interlocking aspects of race, beauty, and the middle-class white paradigm of the beauty industry. Throughout these growing debates about the power of the beauty industry, the industry itself has grown to include over one billion dollars in profits annually in the United States alone.
Often termed second wave, the feminists in the 1960s and 1970s saw the beauty industry as a challenge to sex equality. Of particular interest to second-wave feminists was the power of the beauty industry to hold women to patriarchal standards of sexuality and acceptability. Betty Friedan, founding president of the National Organization for Women, wrote in her groundbreaking 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, that the beauty industry used advertisements to oppress women by perpetuating stereotypical myths about appearance and sex appeal. Feminist leaders increasingly called on American women to refuse to wear makeup, perfume, or brassieres in an attempt to highlight the ways in which the beauty industry was holding women hostage to beauty, and to an untenable patriarchal system that demanded women be attractive before they could be successful. At the same time, the black is beautiful movement developed as part of civil rights activism in the United States, encouraging black American women to stop straightening their hair, wearing makeup, and lightening their skin. The result was a schism in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While radical feminists protested beauty pageants, liberal feminists increasingly saw cosmetics and fashion as essential to women’s success in the workplace. Black American feminists embracing the black is beautiful movement were increasingly stereotyped as radicals of the civil rights movement, and in many ways excluded from feminist movements. It has been noted that radical feminists were portrayed as an unfeminine fringe that marginalized activists and reinforced beauty industry standards. Liberal feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, for example, sought advertising investments from cosmetics companies for the magazine Ms. (founded in 1972) under the argument that that tactful advertisements from companies founded and owned by women were inherently feminist. The marginalization of radical feminists led to the creation of a modern lesbian rights movement in the United States, but the stereotype of radical feminists as unattractive and unfeminine (and possibly lesbian) became part of the American social system.
By the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, feminism began to shift considerably. Powerful women in the United States and abroad emerged on the international stage, and these women were powerful with cosmetics and while attractive. Feminist women of color, however, argued that attractiveness was still being measured in white, middle-class terms. In particular, the acceptability of black women with braids, Afros, or other nonwhite hairstyles led to a renewed culture war over beauty and hair. It has been noted that this debate was so rancorous that schools across the country banned inappropriate hairstyles such as cornrows and dreadlocks. Oprah Winfrey, who made her network television debut in 1986, devoted an entire program to the debate about hair and discussed her own decisions to straighten her hair—it would become a recurring theme on the program. Meanwhile, as radical white feminists continued to argue that the beauty industry was inherently oppressive, other white feminists rationalized the beauty industry as a form of women’s empowerment. Feminists, wrote Rita Freedman in her 1985 book Beauty Bound, should “regard looking pretty as part of the feminist mandate to project confidence, to utilize assets, and to feel good about oneself ” (231). These feminists argued that the tools offered by the beauty industry were to be used as a path to power, not seen as a tool of oppression to be refused. Despite these many debates about the beauty industry in feminist circles, the industry grew exponentially in the 1980s.
The 1990s saw a major revival of interest in the beauty industry among white American feminists. This revival was caused by the publication of two books: Naomi Wolf ’s The Beauty Myth (1991) and Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1991). Wolf and Paglia, both feminists who attended Yale University, presented two completely different views of the power of the beauty industry. In The Beauty Myth, Wolf argued that the entire notion that beauty equaled liberation was false and constructed by the industry itself as a marketing tool. According to Wolf, the beauty industry co-opted second-wave feminism by convincing women that attractiveness and stereotypical beauty were the path to liberation. Paglia, however, presented an entirely different view of the beauty industry. In Sexual Personae, she argued that human history was the story of men’s drive to control nature—which Paglia stated was inherently feminine. According to Paglia, the result was that the whole of Western civilization was the result of men’s control of women’s nature. Wolf and Paglia were almost immediately juxtaposed in the American press, and their inflammatory debate splashed across the American media. Paglia stated that Wolf “owed everything to the hair,” while Wolf referred to Paglia as “the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters.”
Though the debate between Wolf and Paglia caught the attention of the media, and of many white feminists, for feminist women of color the debates about the beauty industry continued to expand. Black American writers and activists such as Angela Davis and bell hooks increasingly sought to critique the role of the beauty industry in reifying racism and the fetishism of women of color. Hooks, in her essay “Selling Hot Pussy” (1992) criticized the beauty industry for its reliance on women of color that conformed to white beauty standards in features such as straight hair and lighter skin. At the same time, women of color attacked the continued distortion of Asian, indigenous, and biracial women in the beauty industry. Feminist scholars Elaine Kim and Yen Le Espiritu wrote strident critiques of Asian women as exotic others in beauty media, and specifically on the portrayal of Asian women in beauty media as either promiscuous “dragon ladies” or chaste and diminutive “china dolls.” Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop (1992) explored the history of colonization among indigenous women and positioned the beauty industry as a part of the continued oppression of native women by the myths of colonialism.
The debates about beauty, sexuality, and feminism that ignited in the 1990s led to new forms of feminism in the 21st century. Led by the zine revolution and popular press magazines such as Bust and Bitch, third-wave feminists believe strongly that the use of cosmetics, fragrances, or fashion can be separated from individual identity. Third-wave feminism is especially influenced by transgender activism and activists who trouble the very notion of the beauty industry as a feminine industry. Multicultural feminism, which continues to develop as a critique of white feminism, relies on the work of hooks, Allen, and others to build an inclusive critique of racism in beauty media. Another growing field of feminism in the 21st century is fat-positive feminism. Fat-positive feminists focus on the beauty industry as a system that portrays fatness as inherently ugly and unattractive, therefore creating an unrealistic and oppressive stereotype for women. Between and among these feminisms are women and girls themselves, who have highly individual opinions about the body, attractiveness, and the beauty industry.
The beauty industry is more prevalent in the lives of 21st century Americans than ever before. From advertising, to television series such as Extreme Makeover and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, to the rise of celebrity in American culture, Americans are more aware of beauty standards, products, and stereotypes than ever before. That feminists will have something to say about beauty in the 21st century is certain. What those feminists will say, however, is as varied as the people who shop in the beauty aisle.