The conclusion of a recent study in Journal of Consumer Research—that ads for beauty products make women feel worse about themselves—falls squarely into the category of duh, along with "Clumsy Kids Less Popular" and "Eating Healthfully and Exercising Is Good For You."
What’s interesting to me is not the grand conclusion but the smaller conclusions of each experiment. Participants were shown a variety of images: “beauty-enhancing” products like lipstick and eye shadow, and “problem-solving” products like acne concealer and deodorant. Both types of products were shown both in a neutral image (white background, no type) and embedded in an ad, with all its seductive additional imagery and words.
Unsurprisingly, seeing the enhancement products in an advertising setting made women feel the worst about themselves, when compared with the same products in a neutral setting, and the problem-solving products in both settings. But in addition to participants reporting thinking worse thoughts about themselves, they were thinking more thoughts about themselves. Their self-consciousness increased when being posed with a product that, ostensibly, was to make them more beautiful. It strengthens my resolve to do my best not to check out my reflection in every shiny surface available. (I got some excellent beauty advice once, which was to look in the mirror as little as possible because then you can think you’re as beautiful as you’d like, even if you see hard evidence otherwise. Oh but to stick to it!)
The study participants’ self-esteem remained the same when shown the problem-solving products, a wild difference from the beauty-enhancing products, whether within the ad setting or in a neutral one. A logical but counterintuitive—counterintuitive to me as a woman, anyway—response to these experiments might be surprise. Wouldn’t a product whose very nature was calling you flawed—zittily, stinkily so—make women feel worse about themselves than a product promising the fantasy playland of glossy lips and tinted eyelids? Can’t makeup be some exquisite place of luxury and pleasure? (Certainly that’s often how it’s sold to its consumers.)
But as the target of these ads, I know right away why the “beauty-enhancing” products made women feel worse. We know full well we’re not the ethereal creatures we see in the advertisements. We know we sweat in an unattractive fashion; we know we get pimples and ingrown hairs, and that our teeth get stained over the years, and that our hair falls out of place. We might get frustrated about it, but we’re also terribly matter-of-fact about it. Problem-solving products don’t promise to turn us into something we’re not; they guide us to a sort of place of neutrality. Give me the right product and I turn into a purer version of myself, a non-acne-scarred woman whose hair doesn’t slip from her ponytail, non-coffee-stained teeth gleaming. It’s corrective measures that feel like beauty work nonetheless but that ultimately are only letting me know that I’m human.
Let forthright beauty enter the picture, though, and things shift: Suddenly, instead of simply looking like a non-zitty version of myself, I might be able to look like Brooke Shields—except I’ll never look like Brooke Shields, of course, even at my non-zittiest and whitest-toothed. The beauty-enhancing products take us from the realm of humanity into some other realm where we’re supposed to transcend ourselves, with our just-bitten lips, just-pinched cheeks, miraculously blue lash lines.
The results—of beauty-enhancing products decreasing women’s self-esteem while problem-solving ones had no effect—stayed true whether or not the ad featured a person. This did surprise me; I’d always championed the Clinique makeup campaigns because they were selling me a product, not the implicit promise of looking like Brooke Shields (a Photoshopped Brooke Shields at that). It’s the lure of glamour and beauty, whether it comes from a stiletto or a glamorous actress, that leaves us feeling deflated. Now I sort of feel duped, like Clinique hired a smart, well-meaning woman to reinvent the beauty ad (Dr. Faye Miller?) for women like me who think we’re too savvy to be taken in by a bevy of starlets peddling their sheen to us. I look at Clinique’s thin sans-serif lettering, which somehow looks elite; its artful styling of products in ads. Their ads are as close as can be to the neutral-background approach used in the study, actually. So maybe they’re lowering my self-esteem less than Maybelline—but I hardly walk away a winner.