The Restrictive Notion of Beauty

Consumers have been changing their perception of beauty products since the 19th century.
  • Transcript


Question: What have been the important moments in the history of the beauty industry? 

Geoffrey Jones: The modern industry begins in the 19th century, but its predecessors go back to every known human civilization. I can hardly think of a single product that we use today that wasn’t used 400 years ago, 1,000 years ago, even 3,000 years ago. So, inflection points really are the late 19th century when products that were primarily used by relatively few people, made by craft methods suddenly started to be turned into brands and suddenly started to be sold not just locally but first regionally then nationally then globally. And that’s really when much of what we think of as the modern industry really, really gets going. 

Then if we’re looking at stages and its subsequent growth, I think Hollywood was really very important because Hollywood kind of I feel like, raised the stakes of appearance, and it also served as a medium for taking beauty ideals around the world. And by the '30s, people in towns almost everywhere in the world have access to a cinema; they could see representations of beauty, particularly hairstyles, particularly the use of cosmetics. And I think that was enormously important. And if I’m thinking of a more recent inflection point, I would probably say the 1970s, when we first begin to seek some really serious criticism about some aspects of the industry, in particular its impact on people’s health—here’s a giant cancer scare about hair dyes—and concerns that the industry was over-promising. And there begins to be a backlash from then on, which doesn’t kill the growth of the industry, not at all, but which begins to reshape it and redefine it. 

Question: What has changed since the‘70s in terms of how we think about beauty products? 

Geoffrey Jones:
If you go back to the early 19th century, every society and every culture defined beauty in their own ways. People looked completely different around the world. For example, in Japan, early 19th century Japan, the epitome of female beauty was very narrow eyes, whitened faces, and black teeth. Elite men, aristocratic men in Japan used cosmetics. They also whitened their face. And you could tell the same story about every other society. 

What happened over time was this: you could call it, homogenization of what it meant to be beautiful spreading out throughout the world. And beauty consumers came to see beauty in very much more uniform or, you could say, restrictive terms. And this conception of what it meant to be beautiful was reinforced by television, by Hollywood, by the whole ecosystem of the beauty industry area, of magazines, the gatekeepers of beauty. So if you were to take a long-term historical perspective, consumers' conception of what it meant to be beautiful narrowed and homogenized dramatically.

Recorded on April 21, 2010