With beauty in mind

In 2004 Facebook was a novel way for college students to communicate, Twitter was yet to be hatched and this was life before hashtags or selfies.

The same year, the polished re-touched glam of advertising was hitting its peak when Unilever launched the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Billboards appeared featuring pictures of “real” women taken by A-list photographer Annie Leibovitz.

The public embraced the “au naturel” style of the imagery – minimum make-up, white underwear, all shapes, ages and ethnicities. The accompanying Self-Esteem Report encouraged women to embrace their natural beauty and shake off self-doubt. It felt like a new era of beauty democratisation.

Ten years on, Dove’s new report The Future of Beauty focuses on the “beauty paradox”. Positive findings include 35 per cent of women believe that everyday women, including friends and mothers, now have more influence on the definition of beauty than celebrities, models and advertising.

Some 56 per cent of women think people are more accepting of age and, in appreciation of inner beauty, 80 per cent of women agree attributes, such as self-confidence and happiness, are the most important factors in making a woman beautiful.

Yet women in the UK find it hard to apply such thinking to themselves – 69 per cent don’t think they are beautiful. Some 38 per cent of women say the pressure to be beautiful comes from within, rather than from celebrities or society. Ultimately, the superficial counts – 71 per cent of women think body weight and shape matter in the definition of beauty compared with 47 per cent in 2004.

We’re realising we should strive for a very personal definition of our own beauty

Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, primarily for young girls aged 8 to 17, has been running for ten years and latest statistics show it has reached 15 million globally.

For childhood conditioning is much at work, says psychotherapist and social commentator Susie Orbach. “Girls are praised for their cuteness and prettiness, so they learn to see themselves from the outside. We are own worst critics in the sense that we absorb the messages about always needing to fix ourselves. That is what we are presented with and it would be odd if we weren’t influenced by all these forms of persuasion,” says Dr Orbach.


The politics of pretty remain complex, yet we can’t ignore that basic biology and sexual attraction comes into it. “The anthropological view is that beauty is vital for procreation,” says psychologist Elaine Slater, citing the book Survival of the Prettiest by American evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff.

Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford goes further to claim it’s what the beauty industry is all about. “Even though one in five women are choosing not to have children, we are still hard-wired to make babies and the biggest clue to fertility is youth, signified by such things as a lack of wrinkles or a luxurious head of hair,” she says.

There’s no doubting the ripple effect of Dove’s “real women” and social media, but the democratisation of beauty was kick-started by 90s niche brands, which are now global players. For example, MAC’s tag line “All Ages, All Races” set the trend for inclusive beauty, with outré figures including Boy George and more recently Nicki Minaj as their “faces”.

Quirky retro-looking Benefit has stuck to its “Laughter is the Best Cosmetic” promise and, according to researchers at NPD, is the number-one prestige cosmetic brand in the UK.

Inclusive in a very different way, Bobbi Brown hit the market with just-right-nudes more than 22 years ago. Now her Pretty Powerful campaign continues the “me, only better” approach. “We’ve moved away from the idea that there’s only one definition of beauty,” she says. “We’re realising we should strive for a very personal definition of our own beauty.”


Yet the pressure is on. “We deal with a lot of high-ranking female company heads who regularly make presentations. They are finding that, in this age of social media, their entire presentations are uploaded to YouTube; they need to look camera-ready”, says Fiona McIntosh, co-founder and creative director at blow Ltd Fast Beauty, whose stylish “make-over bar” opened in London last November.

The trickle-down of maxed-out American salon blowouts and lash extensions, sported in British reality shows The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, is on every high street. Lopo Champalimaud, co-founder of online beauty booking service Wahanda, says it’s growing 200 per cent year on year despite launching right after Lehman Brothers crashed in September 2008.

He says: “It’s successful because we give access to great little unknown salons and it’s a discreet way to book. I realised this when my sister, who worked at Goldman Sachs, asked me, ‘Have you ever tried to book a Brazilian [wax] in an open plan office full of men?”’

Standards have been raised both in what brands need to offer and in consumer expectation. “I talk about living consciously, and I see that in the food, exercise and beauty choices people are making. We are trying to align our lives to our values without looking like we’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. We want to look good while achieving internal and external balance,” says psychologist Ms Slater.

But what does that mean for future advertising and marketing? “Clever brands are understanding that in the past we conformed to culture; in the future consumers will be constantly evolving their individual expressions,” says Karen Welman of London and New York-based brand agency Pearlfisher, commenting on findings in their Futures Body Mode report. “Aspirational beauty is about becoming who you are.”

It’s not about hard sell, but complex emotions as demonstrated in the Always sanitary products #LikeAGirl online video by Lauren Greenfield that has had more than 36,988,102 YouTube hits and counting. And Nivea has launched its #bringiton campaign with feel-good films from home-grown hipster director MJ Delaney.

Clearly, the key to successful brands in future is authenticity, honesty and connection.