Among the many moments of reckoning for the beauty industry in the past few years, Fenty Beauty’s 40-shade foundation launch set a new standard for diversity within color cosmetics — a true watershed moment that completely changed our expectations and standards for beauty brands. Similarly, the industry is now facing the truth about passé gender norms. A more inclusive perspective amongst younger consumers on gender and sexuality is calling the industry’s misogynistic history into question and potentially putting gendered beauty on the chopping block for good.
For centuries, makeup and skin care have been viewed as an integral part of femininity, but it’s likely not too surprising that this wasn’t always the case. All genders in ancient Egypt were well-known to have practiced various beautifying rituals as they had medical benefits and were closely linked with religious ideology. During certain regimes of ancient China, it was customary for male aristocrats to wear white face makeup to conceal imperfections and portray class status. And you only need to watch a Victorian-era period piece to be reminded of the powdered wigs and face paint favored by British men of the bourgeoisie.
It wasn’t until science and philosophy swept through Europe that beauty became not only seen as inferior but also associated with womanhood. “Westernization and colonization created our sense of what femininity and masculinity is,” explains David Yi, founder of skin care brand Good Light and author of Pretty Boys which shines a light on how beauty has transcended gender throughout history. “At the end of the 1700s, there was the scientific revolution. This is when men decided they wanted to separate from women. How they separated was to make a very explicit club where they only talked about science.” During what is now called the Great Male Renunciation, men rejected extravagant clothing and beauty practices in favor of more conservative dress. “Anything that had to do with makeup and beauty, or did not enhance science, reason, and politics, was considered feminine and less than.”
This phenomenon drew hard lines about gender norms that became influential across the West. When European powers began searching for new land to claim amongst cultures where conceptions of gender and sexuality were often more fluid, these ideals came with them. “With the 1800s came colonization and all these people rushing to plant flags on foreign soil,” says Yi. “They colonized the folks who were indigenous. Non-binary folks were killed or forced to conform to the binary [gender] system.”
Gender Norms & Modern Beauty
This history still reverberates throughout the beauty industry today. Product names, packaging, and marketing strategies emphasize rigid gender expectations by leaning into tropes like extended youth for women and strength and virility for men. “When we create a gendered beauty world there becomes an idea of right and wrong and a notion of how you should look,” says Dev Doee, Chief Creative Officer at Fluide Cosmetics. “Growing up I just thought that beauty and makeup wasn’t for me. Before I came into my queerness, I thought [that I couldn’t use makeup] because there wasn’t anyone [showing makeup on other gender identities]. It was something I needed at the time.”
The beauty binary ignores the nuance of gender and subsequently fails to meet many consumers’ true needs.
“Marketing teams have led primarily female audiences to believe they need more products than they actually do,” says Alexandra Keating, founder of body care brand UNI. “Regardless of gender, people want to feel good in their skin and feel that brands are creating great products that fit their needs. I’ve heard many stories of women whose husbands have stolen their products because they haven’t been able to find a ‘men’s’ product that works as well.”
In addition to wielding dangerous influence over our sense of self, gendered beauty products have monetary implications that support inequities. Price hikes on personal care products marketed to women — known as the Pink Tax — double down on the gender pay gap and further disenfranchise already vulnerable groups. In light of these realizations, seemingly innocuous pink packaging suddenly transforms into a symbol of larger societal issues.
Changing Attitudes Around Gender
Thankfully, recent consumer data demonstrates a shifting tide that may pave the way forward. Engagement with beauty content that mentions non-binary, transgender, and gender-fluidity increased by 50% according to 2021 Traackr data, but responding to these insights is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
UNI takes gender out of the equation completely. “By eliminating gender categories from your products, you are redirecting the focus away from how you may identify and toward the performance of the product,” says Keating. “With UNI products, quality ingredients and efficacy are at the forefront of every formulation.” The brand website features very few models, opting instead to highlight the minimalist packaging that comes in orange, blue, and gray tones — all colors less associated with a specific gender. Product scent profiles avoid traditionally masculine or feminine notes for a universal experience with no subtext.
Some beauty products, however, can’t do away with gender altogether. “Beauty is so political and everyone has such a different view,” says Doee. “For a lot of cisgender women, their purpose for makeup and society’s role for makeup may be different than for myself who looks at makeup as fun and as play.” The viewpoint of gender expansiveness allows both Fluide and Good Light to acknowledge the full breadth of gender and individual reasons to approach beauty. “At Good Light we say we aren’t a genderless brand — we are gender-inclusive,” says Yi. “We don't want to hide away. We’re talking about women who are still fighting for equal rights and non-binary folks who are [erased]. For us, gender inclusion means we want to promote this understanding that beauty has no gender, but folks who use beauty do.”
What Does The Future Of Gendered Beauty Products Look Like?
The ideal future of beauty is not preoccupied with gender roles, but the reality is most consumers still operate through a lens of traditional identity. Brands taking the strongest stance on gender, sexuality, and racial diversity are overwhelmingly smaller and founded by people in these communities, putting the ball in the court of larger brands and majority founders.
Pretty Boy, a clinical men’s skin care line launched this year, takes a unique approach to this problem. Founders Ben Feys and Kevin Niehoff created the brand after struggling with their skin yet feeling discomfort using products marketed to women. The traditional branding of men’s products didn’t resonate with them either, making way for a new course of action. “It’s not feminine for men to have skin care [products] in their bathrooms. This is a great thing to take this stereotype head-on and normalize skin care for men that are so slow to adopt it,” says Niehoff. Both Niehoff and Feys stress that Pretty Boy is for anyone that identifies with the brand values of health and personal growth, but they understand their target audience has specific buying habits that dictate how the brand attempts to redefine masculinity.
Most beauty companies don’t have the flexibility or the foundation to follow the exact blueprint of gender-inclusive brands, but intentional team-building and education can help the industry meaningfully move in that direction as a whole. “It’s important to have people working at your companies that authentically believe in these ideals because we can always see when a brand is hiring a celebrity that fits [a certain] identity or just hires someone during Pride,” says Doee. “A lot of people don’t understand what gender expansivity or gender variance is unless you’re a part of that community. I think an important part of our view of beauty is educating people on the gender binary and educating people on the terms and pronouns in a way that’s approachable and less scary.”
Although it’s tempting to appeal to powerful industry players to jump on board and create change, the consumer current will ultimately determine what sinks or swims. “BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ have always been at the forefront of culture and now collectively make up the majority of spending power,” says Yi. “Now it’s in our hands and our communities.”