Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Nutricosmetics, Part II: Morality, Capitalism, and Selling Us Ourselves

"Apples' soluble fiber helps your body eliminate nasty toxins that could show up on your skin.
It's nature's beauty bar!" —Cranach the Elder, subtextually

When I first learned about Renaissance beauty ideals in high school—or rather, the idea that physical beauty was then widely understood as an indicator of moral superiority—my first thought was that we still sort of think that way. We’re just not as blatant about it as Castiglione was in 1528 in his Book of the Courtier: “Beauty springs from God, and is like a circle of which goodness is the center. And hence, as there can be no circle without a center, there can be no beauty without goodness...outward beauty is a true sign of inward goodness.”

Today I think we still do make that equation, but the myriad variants on female beauty—the femme fatale, the beautiful damaged soul, heroin chic, the gorgeous bitch whose looks could kill—complicates it a good deal. We’ve introduced more archetypes, more ways to be prototypically feminine and beautiful, than just our walking angels. Morality still comes into play in our discussions of beauty—for example, we still use terms like “good skin” and “bad skin” that reflect our conflation of morality and beauty—but we’ve largely shifted away from openly and directly equating morality and beauty. Instead, we readily talk about another sort of “inner beauty” that manifests itself physically. Radiance, confidence, allure, je ne sais quoi, “a special quality,” or simply “it”—we freely talk about “inner beauty” as something that can’t be faked, as something that has to come from within. And in that sense, I’m wondering if nutricosmetics are being touted as a route to a sort of “inner beauty,” serving as a modern-day extension of Renaissance ideals of beauty and inner goodness. Nutricosmetics promise more than good skin; they promise inner beauty. Not the sort of inner beauty we’re referring to when we talk about radiance or confidence, of course—but I’m pretty sure nutricosmetics companies are banking on consumers making the connection between their product and confidence-as-inner-beauty. And given the ways that we moralize what women put into their bodies, nutricosmetics marketers are probably wise to take that bet. Nutricosmetics attempt to commodify an intangible spiritual quality, using words like glow, energy, balance, and replenishing, by linking it to something similarly intangible (health) via something highly tangible (a pill, a tea, a tonic, a beverage).

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that we equate health and morality (certainly the “war on obesity” and the intense vitriol it brings speaks to that), and that in particular what women choose to put into their bodies becomes a moral issue. (The success of many a trite diet-food campaign—hell, the success of an HSBC ad campaign from several years ago—depends upon it.) Putting the right things into your body is near the top of the pyramid of morality for western women. We link health and morality, and we certainly link health and beauty (I challenge you to find a beauty guide of any length that doesn’t address nutrition and exercise; certainly if I were to write one I’d include health). So nutricosmetics, in linking health and beauty, become a representation of the ways we still link beauty and morality. The pills and potions become the linking object that allows beauty, health, and morality to combine in ways that become difficult to consciously untangle—which is exactly what makes it ripe for capitalist culture, where such elisions and difficulties become the basis for effective marketing.

Capitalism works in part because it takes our private, intrinsic qualities and makes them extrinsic. With nutricosmetics, capitalism takes our abstract ideas about goodness and beauty—specifically “inner beauty”—and transforms them into products we can buy. Nutricosmetics marketing works specifically because it takes our most abstract and intrinsic of qualities—radiance, vitality, glow, “a certain quality,” whatever you wish to call it—puts it into a capsule, and sells it right back to us. Is there a more tangible manifestation of “inner beauty” than a pill that promises good skin?

We talk about how the makeup industry does this, and certainly there’s a moral component to face paint and topical skin care, but throwing health and ingestible products into the mix complicates matters. Where cosmetics enhance and correct, nutricosmetics purport to transform us, literally from the inside out. Cosmetics try to cover our flaws; nutricosmetics try to make us flawless. And specifically in American markets, they do so while allowing us to skirt our old-fashioned Puritan ideals. With nutricosmetics, we don’t even need to do the work of sticking to a “good” diet or eat “right.” All we need to do is buy.

For part I of The Collected Thoughts and Writings of Autumn Whitefield-Madrano on Nutricosmetics, click here.


  1. Hm, very interesting. As I read I kept thinking of the Christian trope that 'our bodies are temples.'

  2. I found this to be very interesting. It made me think of how in school, right before the holiday break, a teacher brought in donuts and offered one to each of the students. When a (female) friend and I both said no thank you, the teacher (also female) just smiled at us conspiratorially and said, "Oh my god. You girls are so good." My friend didn't think anything of it, but it infuriated me. I think that relates to this. (The fact that we had both just eaten a brownie given to us by our friend, I think, is irrelevant...)

  3. Terri, I keep trying to write something about how that "our bodies are temples" plays into the way we treat not just nutricosmetics but food itself, but it's difficult. Because I think we *should* treat our bodies like temples, but what exactly does that mean?

    Alexa, that is infuriating. For a teacher in a role model position to reinforce the idea that not only is a doughnut "bad" (what did a doughnut ever do to us? It's bad FOR you, sure, but it's not bad) but that you, Alexa, are "good" for not eating it--that's reflective of her and her own issues, but still, she should be aware. Ugh!

  4. So many of the pills out there that fall into this nutricosmetics category are plain and simple: quack. It's like snake venom or whatever they sold back in the days. Capitalism and trickery. However, I still think that there are also a ton of nutricosmetics that work and have validity, such as omegas and antioxidants and all that.

    Great series!

  5. Cameo, it's funny to me that nutricosmetics are fairly new as far as being called that, but people have been taking omega-3s and antioxidants for years. If it can be packaged and sold for a marked-up price, you know Americans are going to try it1

  6. I wonder how this relates to the poisonous stuff that we put into/on our bodies in the pursuit of beauty? Diet pills, botox, even the Victorian women who ate arsenic to get that translucent skin and consumptive glow... although we do see these as 'bad', they are somehow redeemed because they make us beautiful. As if they are an unpleasant but necessary medicine, not a guilty pleasure like a chocolate brownie. Makes me think that beauty ultimately outweighs goodness and badness - a worrying thought.


  7. Carina, what an interesting thought--that beauty becomes sort of extracurricular to morality entirely, that we've created this whole other code around it that morality needn't apply. It certainly makes sense--for every tale of the beauty-as-goodness trope, there's another of the goodness-despite-not-being-beautiful. It's not moral or amoral, it's extramoral!

  8. I love this series. It's interesting timing, because I am halfway through "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan, in which he rails against what he calls "nutritionism," which can be summed up as deconstructing "food" into "nutrients" with little to no respect for the complexity of food or its relationship to culture. As a result, we end up with all of these processed foods being sold back to us as "healthy" because they have been "vitamin-fortified"/"low-fat"/"low-carb"/whatever while whole foods tend to be a bit ignored. It works out wonderfully for corporations, but kind of screws us in the process by making it seem as though health/fitness/beauty are these complicated things that can only be achieved with the help of engineered products developed by scientists. (And don't even start me on the paradox of a society that lacks in scientific literacy, yet cannot help but be seduced by the promise that something is backed up by "science"...)

    Anyway I read these posts last night and was super excited about them. Thanks for all of the research and work you put into them!

  9. Caitlin, now I totally want to read the book--I didn't realize he got into that. I'm in utter agreement--it's like the weird segmented education of consumers isn't really helping US, it's helping the companies. We all know that we're supposed to have calcium, but sometimes it seems easier to just get it from our friggin' ORANGE JUICE (?!) than from, say, dairy or kale.