By Bella Ruskin
Photo by Canva
Clinique has a new ad currently doing the rounds on Instagram. ‘This isn’t just foundation’, promises Emilia Clarke, holding a bottle of Clinique’s new Clinical Foundation. ‘This is skincare.’ There is clearly a hierarchy being promoted among these product types — the use of ‘just’ suggests that foundation is lesser, whereas the ad’s proclamation that the foundation is skincare places greater weight on this element of the product. In another ad for the same product, the tagline ‘[d]on’t call it makeup’, paired with the statistic that the foundation is ‘86% skincare formula’, makes clear that being considered skincare is the preferable marketing outcome.
Emilia Clarke is not the first person to proclaim this hierarchy. It exists in the way that makeup is (rightly) treated as optional and skippable. In contrast, announcing that you have stopped moisturising is likely to be perceived as a cry for help. In fact, this Clinique ad is merely an exemplification of a fairly insidious trend that has snuck into the beauty industry: packaging beauty in the bandages of health.
While it is undeniable that cosmetic and health concerns can overlap (such as antibiotics required to combat serious acne), too much of the beauty industry is hiding under the language of health to sell their products. This is most evident in products that straddle the line between both purposes. I refer to this process of coating the beauty industry in health marketing as healthification. By overemphasising the health elements in beauty products, healthification is used by marketers to panic and pressure consumers into purchasing expensive and unnecessary products in order to achieve cosmetic perfection guised as ‘perfect health’.
Skincare is a prime example because, while it is true that skin is an organ and these products will protect and replenish that organ, the products are sold to resolve the most cosmetic of skin issues — redness, dryness and flakiness. All the same issues may exist on the skin between toes, but no one is trying to buy or sell products in cosmetics stores that will help resolve this. Therefore, while skin may be an organ, so long as the skincare industry focuses on the most visible issues and parts of the body, the industry is cosmetic.
While skincare is more obvious and marketable, the exercise industry also hides beauty standards in the language of health. Exercise is obviously vital for general health, but many people seek out fitness in ‘[t]he pursuit of body transformation’, aiming for the bodies idealised by current beauty standards. It’s easy to find exercises online that remove fat from undesirable parts of the body, tone muscles so the body is fit but lean and ‘sculpt’ body parts — and there is money to be made in pressuring people to aim for these bodies. In fitness, healthification obscures the beauty pressure to look a particular way behind the general label of exercise and health. It’s much easier to sell a ‘blast fat in eight weeks’ book under the guise of generic fitness, which applies to everyone, than by openly admitting that it’s merely a beauty pressure that is being achieved through exercise. If fitness were only about health, weight and body shape would not enter the discussion.
To further demonstrate this healthification, I have analysed the marketing language of skincare products, to observe the health language used to promote their sales. For example, I randomly selected an item that Mecca sells under ‘Skin Care’: a Hydration Serum produced by Verso, which retails at $135. The product description makes no mention of beauty. Instead, the product is an ‘answer to dryness and dehydration’, ‘bolster[s] the skin’s barrier to help cells repair and renew’ and ‘ward[s] off the development of skin problems and irritation caused by dryness’. This description sounds very medicinal, particularly as it centres around solutions to symptoms of poor health (dryness and dehydration) and relies on science, through the mention of cells.
In fact, the advertising for this product is so medicinal, it employs similar language to the product description of another hydrating product, Poly Tears, which are eye drops that are described as ‘soothing relief for dry, irritated eyes’. Although both of these products are marketed as having a health benefit, only one is sold at a chemist and would be used to relieve a health problem. The motivation behind purchasing Poly Tears would be to stop dry eyes from being irritating, while the motivation behind purchasing the Hydration Serum would be to enhance physical attractiveness. The Hydration Serum’s key ingredients are used to reduce ‘fine lines’ and ‘enlarged pores’ and create a ‘plump and healthy glow’; essentially, to look attractive.
It is also worth noting that the trends sold as health are really beauty requirements subsumed into the body itself. Rather than wearing foundation, a cosmetic product, to appear as though one has a clear and glowing complexion, people are now expected to use skincare products and actually have that perfect skin, although still for the cosmetic purpose. Likewise, while once spanx and other shapewear temporarily created the idealised body, now exercises can form that body without clothed assistance. The one time purchase of shapewear and foundation has been replaced with pouring endless money into the impossible goal of perfecting, shaping and smoothing the body itself. Is cosmetics external and that described as health internal? Now the external has seeped into the skin and belongs inside too. Individuals must constantly and perpetually pay attention to the alterations they are chemically and physically making to their bodies. The healthification of the beauty industry means that beauty cannot be done — one is expected to be perfect, even when naked and makeup free. The standards of beauty have never been so mandatory nor so unattainable.
None of this is to suggest that people should not pursue healthy complexions or fit bodies; they are free to make decisions about how they look and the products they wish to consume in actioning that design. In fact, the problem with the healthification of the beauty industry is not individual at all; the issue’s roots are found in the marketing departments of major beauty brands. Individuals, and their ability to freely make decisions, are pressured by the mandatory health language that marketers employ. The concern about healthification is that framing cosmetic products as health pressures people into buying them. Which is more persuasive: your skin will feel and look nice if you purchase this product? Or your skin will be damaged if you don’t look after it properly by using this product? While it appears that individuals have free choice over their consumption patterns, the persuasive messaging frightens people and erodes this autonomy. Caring about beauty is optional; caring about health is mandatory. It is hard to say no to what the doctor ordered — but this time, the doctor is diagnosing you as a money-making opportunity.