More female entrepreneurs are challenging standards set by the fashion and beauty industries. Lev Radin/Shutterstock.com
In 1968, nearly 400 feminist protesters targeted the Miss America pageant contesting that women had become enslaved by conventional beauty standards. The demonstrators threw their bras into the “Freedom Trash Can” and waved signs emblazoned with slogans like “No More Beauty Standards” and “Welcome to the Cattle Auction.”
Although this protest took place more than 45 years ago, women are still subjected to often oppressive standards of beauty by the fashion and beauty industries, driven by corporations and the marketers they employ. Men overwhelmingly control the multi-billion dollar beauty industry, holding key leadership positions at cosmetics and skincare companies. There remains an absence of women at the top of these firms, especially at those which perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards through their marketing campaigns.
According to Catalyst, an organization that aims to increase the number of women in business, women currently hold 4.6 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, amounting to just 23 women in the top job at these influential firms. The Huffington Post recently partnered with Catalyst for a survey of 19 of the biggest companies catering mostly to women and found that of these firms, only on Avon’s board of directors did women outnumber men.
Women entrepreneurs are also faced with similar challenges. As the In Her Company series on TakePart shows, there are 9.1 million women-owned enterprises in the U.S. creating more than $1.4 billion in revenue, yet women own 30 percent of businesses and only 19 percent of angel investment funds are given to women. But despite the less-than-promising numbers, women entrepreneurs are redefining beauty standards by creating initiatives that give consumers more control over the chemicals in the products they use and the images of beauty they observe.
Entrepreneur and Harvard Business School student Jessica Assaf was surprised to discover that most of her classmates were unaware that a majority of beauty products nestled on drugstore shelves are subject to little regulation. Women are encouraged to use anti-wrinkle creams to reduce signs of aging in accordance with youth and beauty standards, but these products contain harsh chemicals and little is known about their effects.
According to Statista Portal, skincare is the largest driver of the global cosmetics market, accounting for 35.3 percent of beauty products sold worldwide. And the National Toxicology program says there are more than 80,000 chemicals out there in the market, most of which aren’t tested for safety.
Environmental Working Group created the Skin Deep database in 2004 featuring information on 69,854 products and 2,344 brands to help consumers protect themselves as many of these chemicals are deemed to be carcinogens or endocrine disruptors and have been linked to conditions such as autism and ADHD in children.
Assaf joined a team of four women from Harvard Business School to launch Raw is Everything, a line of raw, USDA-certified organic oils.
“Most of the companies women are buying skincare products from are run by businessmen who don’t know what ingredients are in their products,” says Assaf. “The companies rely on fear-based marketing techniques—we’re supposed to be scared of acne, of wrinkles, of oily skin, dry skin and frizzy hair. It encourages us to buy products to fix ‘problems’ that make us less beautiful, yet we aren’t aware of their harmful ingredients.”
Assaf hopes she and her colleagues can teach consumers to be choosy about what products they use by reading the ingredients carefully and that basic ingredients may be all that are needed to solve a variety of skin conditions, not the chemical-laden ones marketers want women to believe they need.
“Even marketing campaigns like the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty are a cover up for the harsh chemicals contained in products. Maybe they are marketing a standard of beauty that is more accepted for women but their products contain preservatives. Consumers don’t know how badly these chemicals are affecting their wellbeing and are often unaware of alternative options.”
Women entrepreneurs are also trying to fight back against a lack of diversity on fashion runways and in advertising. In 2013, former model and fashion activist Bethann Hardison sent letters to the governing bodies of Fashion Weeks in New York (Council of Fashion Designers of America), Paris (Fédération Française de la Couture), London (British Fashion Council) and Milan (Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana) calling out designers who had featured few or no women of color in their shows.
“Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism,” she wrote.
While her actions led to an increase in the number of models of color in New York Fashion Week showcases, Hardison believes there is a still “a long way to go.”
Last year, the popular women’s website Jezebel reported on racial representation at New York Fashion Week. After reviewing 148 shows, Jezebel found that of 4,621 looks, only 985 were worn by models of color. Of all the models chosen to walk that week, 78.69 percent of them were white, 9.75 percent were black, 7.67 percent were Asian and 2.12 percent were Latino.
The report’s authors noted that this “promotes the idea that beauty means having white skin.”
San Francisco Chronicle style writer and New York Fashion Week correspondent Tony Bravo says he has encountered these issues in the fashion industry while reporting.
“I have interviewed models and stylists who have explained internal quota systems in regard to the race of models to me and it disappoints me because fashion publications influence the beauty standards and as a writer working for a progressive publication, I believe the industry can do better than that,” he says.
Christina Brown launched the Lovebrownsugar.com fashion blog and online community in 2009 not only as a way to jumpstart her career, but also to empower women of all color, shapes and sizes to wear the latest trends. Brown purposely focuses on trends that would normally make “women like her” feel intimidated at the prospect of wearing the garments because they don’t have what is considered the mainstream body type or skin tone.
“I didn’t feel women in the media or in fashion and beauty looked like me, so I featured myself wearing current trends because I wanted to show women that they could have curves and natural hair and still rock them,” she says. In many ways, I represent women left out of the beauty conversation.”
Brown’s goal is to continue to grow the community aspect of the site while introducing new faces and new voices in effort to evolve beauty standards.
“Beauty standards are still very one dimensional in terms of who is beautiful and what qualities a person has that deem them beautiful,” she says. “I want to see women of color and of different body types, sizes and qualities be embraced in beauty and fashion standards regularly.”
While fashion designers have come under fire for a lack of diversity, cosmetics and beauty companies are no exception.
Asmau Ahmed first had the idea for her color matching mobile application, Plum Perfect, while working as a chemical engineer. Plum Perfect is, in large part, inspired by her own struggles to find fashion and cosmetic colors that matched her skin tone.
“Though there are an abundance of products out there that are well marketed and come backed by reviews, many of them do not match my skin tone, so I struggled to find ones that did,” she says.
Her mobile app utilizes patented technology to analyze a photograph of a user’s face and to read visual cues from her hair, lips, eyes, skin, and even clothes. The information is used to search databases to find look matches. The technology is designed to provide exact matches based on science rather than advertising, brands, products or prices.
There is also a service that shares reviews of products among women with similar skin tones since, according to Ahmed, major cosmetics reviews don’t necessarily apply to all women.
“These reviews don’t focus on what celebrities in Los Angeles are doing but what other consumers around us are doing and what products are working for them. We built this for the consumer, not for the brands and retailers or advertisers.”
More than 70 percent of Plum Perfect’s 300,000 active users are located in the U.S. and the remaining, global. Apps in Spanish and French are also now available, while there are pending partnerships in Asia and plans to expand to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Ahmed says the fact that hundreds of thousands of women flocked to the site without any marketing campaign to entice them shows how badly it is needed.
“I want the best foundation for my skin tone. I don’t care if it’s made by MAC or the mom-and-pop store around the corner. This levels the playing field for everyone, small brands, big brands and cuts through the marketing noise by putting the power of choice in the hands of the consumer based on what works for her, not what an advertiser tells her is beautiful.”
While Ahmed employs science to challenge standards, serial inventor and founder of Mink, Grace Choi, created a printer that can produce wearable cosmetics. Growing up, she never saw Asian, Indian or mixed-race women gracing the covers of major magazines and often struggled to find products that suited her complexion.
“Companies select colors that will sell out in mass volumes, causing them to ignore minority demographics,” she says. “They survive by catering to the masses and their tool for doing that is using mind control such as advertising and marketing to tell the demographics what they want and what is beautiful. They end up controlling people’s self-esteem.”
Choi started her career in medical devices, then made a foray into jewelry until realizing there was a niche to fill in the beauty industry. Mink is built on inkjet printer technology and can take the color from any image and instantly transform it into lipstick, eye shadow, powder or nail polishes.
She believes Mink gives consumers the ability to create their own standards by creating their own products—making the consumer not only the artist but also a manufacturer and distributor. Currently available for pre-order, the printers will be shipped in September 2015 on a 250 unit production run mostly for creative professionals and makeup artists.
“I want women and girls to understand that the definition of beauty should be in their control and not the corporations. Giving them the power to create their own colors gives them the ability to create their own standards.”
According to Bravo, the explosion in popularity of social media has given consumers far more control over fashion and beauty trends.
“Social media has really democratized and demystified the consumer’s view into the fashion and beauty industry. Now consumers set trends and standards of beauty, especially the millennial audience and current teen audiences as they are the most engaged. They get to decide in the moment whether or not they embrace the latest trend.”
And from Brown’s perspective, the growth of the digital space is allowing designers and brands a window into the mindset of their target audiences, allowing them to create products driven by consumer wants.
“Online communities are giving feedback on trends and there are companies who are creating entire product lines based on feedback that they have received from consumers.”
But while Choi regularly lauds the internet as a powerful consumer resource, she challenges whether or not the rise in social media platforms has truly given women more control over the fashion and beauty options available to them.
“Social media has given consumers more control, however advertising is creeping into the system. Things that appear organic on social media may not be as there are highly paid marketers behind these companies. Genuine pages you could once trust are now becoming sponsored, and companies are becoming influencers as they become more savvy. The corporate tentacles are still always going to be there in some capacity.”