Beauty and the FeastThe Cosmetic Industry's Female Feeding Frenzy

The first thing you see is food. a breastlike dome of cake towers at the top of t­he ad, frosted pink with a raspberry on top. "It's like dessert for your legs," declares the text, and just in case this copy wasn't clear, below it a pair of cellulite-free gams balances a bottle of Skintimate After-Shave Gel in lieu of icing. A cartoonish, disembodied bald head floats in the background, licking his lips, orbited by three quotes: "In the shave aisle!," "Soothe and moisturize!," and "3 luscious flavors." The unexclamated "flavors" reveals a strange equivocation in terms of hunger and beauty. This shaving gel is inedible and can hardly claim more than a "luscious" fragrance, yet the ad presents the product as a kind of snack for the skin, an external form of nourishment that offers the sensual experience of food without the sugar, fat, and shame so commonly associated with real-life eating. 

A glut of "flavored" cosmetics and those emphasizing the vitamins, proteins, and other elements of proper nutrition point to a new imperative in the beauty industry: physical nourishment through external consumption. These days, everything from drugstore staples to high-end status brands carry with them a food frisson. While some of these products contain actual edibles—the Body Shop, for instance, goes through 70,000 bananas each year to make its products—many others merely adopt names and descriptions that would be more at home in a cookbook or on a dessert menu. The Body Shop has offered a full line of epicurean options since 1976, from the aforementioned banana hair conditioner to kiwi lip balm to "body butters" scented with mango and papaya, complete with promotional copy that reads like a restaurant review, waxing poetic on the natural goodness and nutritive prowess of their ingredients. A boutique line of cosmetics called Fresh does a brisk trade in Milk lotion, Rice facial oil, and Brown Sugar body scrub, while the Philosophy line offers a set of body washes called "The Cookbook" that allows hungry bathers to lather up with Coconut Cream Pie, Blueberry Pie, and Key Lime Pie in what their ad copy calls "a guiltless indulgence."

Beauty-product ads pitch the food angle ad nauseum, and the exceptionally long shelf life of the trend proves they've tantalized consumers' tastebuds. Still, there's clearly more than just sales strategy happening here: By imbuing these products with the power to fulfill cravings beyond the realm of looking good, advertising reveals female desire en masse. Judging by the language of the ads and the scents of fattening, forbidden treats packed into plastic bottles and destined for every part of our bodies but our mouths, it would seem that women are, in a word, hungry—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The physical hunger should come as no surprise. With the ideal body size shrinking to negative numbers and half of American women on a diet, thoughts about food claim an increasing amount of women's time and energy. Though the diets currently in vogue may not be of the traditional Ladies' Home Journal, lose-10-pounds-on-grapefruit-only variety, there's been a recent surge in popularity of "health"-focused diets that are just as stringent. (No wheat. No chicken. For god's sake, no carbs.) And while advertisers exploit images of food to attract the hungry consumer's wandering eye, pictures of impossibly thin and relentlessly airbrushed models peer out from every newsstand and billboard, reminding her of the virtues of this abstention. Is it any wonder that so many women are feeding their skin and hair with the same treats they regularly deny their stomachs?

Homegrown recipes for things like avocado hair ­conditioners and cucumber-slice eye depuffers have certainly been around since the invention of the slumber party, if not longer, but only in the last two decades have manufacturers mainstreamed the refrigerator facials of yore into neatly bottled concoctions that are chemically engineered to remind us of everyday food products—or, in the case of "natural" and "organic" beauty lines like the Body Shop and Lush, that urge you to rub actual food on your body and into your hair instead of ingesting it.

Though nourishment needs to go in your mouth rather than on your face to do any good, cosmetic companies regularly enlist scientific and medical discourse to pitch their makeup and promote the myth of living skin—living, that is, apart from the woman to whom the skin belongs.

The idea of living, nourishable skin first emerged in Estée Lauder's 1982 campaign for its Swiss Performing Extract. The two-page spread featured a closeup of a model and a facing page of pseudocientific advertising copy, complete with an imitation fact sheet that announced: 

Now: Estée Lauder and today's technology bring you super-rich nourishment.... Fact: Swiss Performing Extract is more than a moisturizer. It is a super nourishing lotion blended in the U.S.A. with natural ingredients including soluble protein: a substance plentiful in young skin. Fact: Science tells us this natural substance has outstanding capabilities. It penetrates right down to the base layer of cells to help promote resilience, good tone and to maintain optimum moisture balance…. Because makeup and moisturizers can't do it all.

The language and imagery of these ad campaigns recast female skin as an abstruse entity full of mysteries that science has only begun to unearth, a newly discovered passage to the internal body that asks to be penetrated and thus transformed. Much like the female body of traditional medicine, the skin is estranged from the woman, who must turn to science for understanding and maintenance.

A year after Estée Lauder's Swiss Performing Extract hit the scene, Lancôme advanced the so-called science of skin care further in an ad for Nutribel, a "Nour­ishing Hydrating Emulsion" billed as "a very important means of sustenance...for the moisturizing care and feeding of your skin." The Nutribel ads treated the idea of living skin as a breakthrough—it had, of course, been alive all along, but its discovery was brand new. This meant that the skin had been neglected; other products were not meeting its needs, and it was hungry. 

Nutribel was introduced at a time when the average female consumer could easily believe in the hunger of her skin because her own hunger was undoubtedly growing stronger. Issues of Cosmopolitan from the early '80s feature models far slimmer than their predecessors, while the advent of aerobics, NutraSweet, and meal-replacement products brought us images of women happily burning calories in pink leotards and purple leg warmers, a Crystal Light in one hand and a frothy glass of Slim-Fast in the other.

Today, thanks in no small part to these pseudo­scientific "advances" responsible for both NutraSweet and the medical language of cosmetics, we are more aware than ever of how our bodies stack up against cultural ideals, and appetites are raging in response. We are told to look to science as the day spa of our dreams, as though its ever-expanding technology only exists in service to the whims of beauty. Indeed, another societal hunger is at work in this approach: the hunger for faster, prettier, better living through chemicals. Even if scientists are taking their own sweet time to trot out the male birth-control pill, at least we know they're plugging away at all hours to end the wrinkle epidemic once and for all.

"Believe in beauty," urges Lancôme. "Reveal sensational skin with pure Vitamin C. For soft, flawless skin." In this 2003 ad for Sensation Totale, "a perfecting complex," a model's face and a luminous pink rosebud provide concrete evidence for the concept of perfection. A zipper is attached to the rose's outer petals, half pulled down. Below it, the text coos, "A unique time-release reservoir of pure Vitamin C works with skin's natural enzymatic activity to reveal healthy-looking, sensational skin." So though the ad tells us ­little about just what this "complex" is (a cream? a serum? a gas?), we do know that, just as the rose-zipper reveals tender new petals, so the complex will reveal new skin—a face-zipper, if you will. The deliberate word sequence of "vitamin," "enzyme," and "healthy" cleverly mimics the natural process of digestion. The ad thus acknowledges true internal hunger just as it exploits socially imposed hunger for external perfection. Furthermore, the fulfillments of these hungers have been deemed mutually exclusive. Enter the sale.

This cycle of self-denial and appeasement through moisturizing lotion is also enacted on an emotional and spiritual level. You might not have realized it, but your skin has needs, too. In a recent print ad for Dove Essential Nutrients Day Cream, a vitamin caplet—apparently formed by rainwater from a big green leaf at the top of the page—drops into a jar of cream. A block of pale, lowercase text floats tranquilly at the center, informing us that this potion is "made with a perfect blend of skin-loving nutrients plus vitamins, pure spring water, and green tea extract. It has what's essential to moisturize skin so it can glow with health." 

The inclusion of green tea and spring water implies purity and calm, while the simple visual scheme provides a sort of quiet, meditative space where one can contemplate the pressing metaphysical questions involved in moisturizing. The consumer's emotional and spiritual longing is projected onto her exterior in simple yet convincing terms: The phrase "skin-loving nutrients," for instance, transforms the skin into an entity both capable of digesting nutrients and extracting love and comfort from the experience, thus imitating a very human relationship with food. 

An ad for Estée Lauder's Day­Wear Plus echoes this sentiment: "Wear DayWear Plus and your skin will thank you." By using gratitude as shorthand for a state of beauty, the text evokes a complex give-and-take relationship between the consumer and her skin. Like a pet or a child, the skin is recast as a point of pride and responsibility; if its owner feeds and cares for it well, it will mirror her virtue to the world.

Similarly, the connection between food and sensual pleasure is also played out through cosmetics marketing. In a typical ad, for Gillette Satin Care Shave Gel, an extraordinarily tall and slender model rolls around naked in a pile of citrus fruit. She smiles widely, her eyes closed in ecstasy, as if all that grapefruit were delivering a serious contact high: It's hard to imagine anyone enjoying food more even if she were actually eating it. At her toes, the ad's text reads, "Introducing Satin Care Citrus Infusion Shave Gel. Its zesty fragrance with moisture-rich skin nourishing vitamins leaves legs feeling soft and satiny smooth." 

The ad would have us believe that the model is overwhelmed with pleasure at the mere idea of food, and it's that idea that has proven so appealing to consumers. Calgon employs the same tactics in an advertisement for its Ahh...Spa! line. A model's seemingly flawless skin covers most of the page, digitally retouched to glow with garish highlights. Below her is a row of various tropical fruits; beside her, a bottle of Nourishing Body Butter containing "Nourishing Fruit Complex with Mango Extract." The slogan "Pleasures of the tropics, pampering of a spa" evokes sensual pleasure and loving care, all under the pretense of nourishment—if the customer can't hope for such treatment, at least her skin can.

Over time, the creation of hundreds of products for hair care, body moisturizing, body-hair removal, wrinkle fighting, and so on has compartmentalized feminine features like a Petrarch sonnet, alienating women from their whole selves and breaking them into parts that can then be scrutinized accordingly. The resulting insecurity behooves the cosmetics industry just as it did religious, academic, and professional institutions of the past. The beauty tower might topple if women were widely exposed to a more holistic approach to body maintenance—like, you know, eating vitamins and protein instead of slathering them on our legs, reducing stress through division of household tasks and improved childcare, and finding ways to attend to our bodies that don't involve plucking, scrubbing, or loathing.

Sadly, female hunger is rarely acknowledged outside of beauty copy. By transferring our human needs to our skin, advertising attempts to placate consumers with the notion that real satisfaction is only $10, $20, or $70 away. It trivializes our desires by making them a simple matter of appearance, denying the importance of what deeper needs lurk beneath our skin and inside our bellies. We are encouraged to bear our hunger like a shameful secret, lest our guilty pleasures become societal demands and incite real changes that can lead to satisfaction that goes beyond the corporeal. With their let-them-eat-body-butter take on our hunger, marketers continue to make it viscerally clear that where women are concerned, it's still what's outside that counts. 

This article was published in Taste & Appetite Issue #23 | Winter 2004
by Juliana Tringali
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