Ideal Beauty: An Imagined State Of Mind
Where did the idea of ‘Beauty Imagined’ originate?
“I was particularly struck by 18th-century Japanese women and subsequently, the 21st-century Japanese women. I started to think about the nature of beauty and how much standards have changed since then. I saw how it varied according to each society and time period and concluded that beauty was probably imagined rather than real. For quite a number of years, I’ve been interested in the impact of globalisation on society and on people. Once I started looking at all of these images, it struck me that the beauty industry was really important in this process because it affected the confidence of every single human being.”
Has your time and experience at Harvard Business school influenced the way you think about beauty?
“On one level it gave me unprecedented access to the beauty industry, so I was able to talk to beauty executives all around the world and that was only possible because of Harvard Business School. On the other hand, I’ve had multiple female students talk to me about social pressures they’ve felt about their figures and their appearances. So research and personal anecdotes influenced my writing.”
What are your thoughts about the Indian beauty industry?
“I actually have a photograph of Fair and Lovely in my book and looked up the origins of the brand. What’s disappointing is that it’s manufactured by Unilever, a multinational that wouldn’t dare to sell a product based on skin colour in the US and European market. Unilever was able to combine western marketing expertise to push this product forward along with the marketing message that came with it: ‘the fairer you are, the better husband you get, the better job you get’ and that’s not a great contribution to society.”
What impact do you hope this book will create?
“I talked a lot about the book in conferences, to beauty executives, and people in the industry. The message was the same: when they launch a brand or a new product they should take a moment to think about the impact of what they’re doing because beauty and fashion products are not just beauty and fashion products, they affect people and their feelings of self-worth. So I wasn’t telling them what to do but I was giving them examples of what had happened in past and how these things have an impact on society. It’s no rocket science that the beauty industry is intensely competitive but history is a good way of showing that you have some kind of responsibility for what you’re doing.”
Big beauty brands have been influencing consumer buying patterns and playing on insecurities. Do you think there’s an antidote to this?
“The antidote is that companies need to behave more responsibly because they have the capabilities. Some give it a thought and some don’t. There are beauty companies like Natura in Brazil which have been at the forefront of environmental sustainability and attempt to be very careful about their brand images. I did a study of cosmetics advertising throughout Latin America, and in Natura’s advertising, they have women and men of all different ethnicities which is suitable because half the population is not white in Brazil. In countries like Peru, however, the advertisements had blonde and fair-haired women; I did not see one indigenous person in their cosmetics ads. We’re reinforcing historic views about white skin being a symbol of beauty and completely ignoring the natives but as I said, Natura stood out for diversity and I think that’s an example of what beauty campaigning can or cannot do.”