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Photography Donna Trope. Dazed and Confused (1995) Issue 11

Why the rise of ‘natural beauty’ is a scam

On the face of it, the ‘natural beauty’ trend might seem like a step in the right direction – but it isn’t about using fewer products, just ones that carry different promises

When Pamela Anderson stepped out make-up-free at Paris Fashion Week last month, it was hailed as a “revolution”. Anderson appeared to be taking a stance against the beauty standards she has been subject to and helped perpetuate throughout her career by embracing her age. It was a decision which helped bolster a vision of beauty that has been gaining ground over the past few years – one where looking ‘natural’ reigns supreme. 

If the beauty industry is to be believed, we’re entering a new era of self-acceptance. People are doing away with full-cover foundation, contouring and heavy eyeshadow in favour of more ‘off-duty’ looks, such as “status skin”, “no make-up make-up”, “clean girl make-up” and “five-minute face”. There’s also been a rise in people dissolving their filler in pursuit of a more natural look. On TikTok, there are countless videos of people eulogising famous faces with little to no make-up, with captions like “natural beauty always wins”. 

On the face of it, this might sound like a step in the right direction. But the idea that people have been freed from the shackles of oppressive beauty standards thanks to ‘clean girl make-up’ and the likes should raise suspicion. As the writer Rian Phin pointed out, what we’re really seeing is a new set of demands on women, and the prizing of “biological capital” above all else. “Beauty [has] shifted to being about the semblance of biological advantage rather than skill,” Phin wrote, “away from high glam make-up baddie skills […] into natural girlie who woke up beautiful.” Minimalist make-up, says Phin, is favoured because it implies inherent genetic advantage.

There are reasons why we prize a natural look over a heavily made-up look – and it’s not to do with self-acceptance. It’s about concealing the labour that goes into meeting the beauty standard, and attaching a moral superiority to women who don’t need to try to be beautiful. “This helps obscure the fact that the things that are expected of women in the public sphere are really expensive and effortful,” says Jessica DeFino, a beauty critic who writes The Unpublishable newsletter. “The idea that there is a ‘natural’ way for a woman to look is inherently patriarchal, sexist and capitalist”.

This labour is increasingly being poured into skincare, which exploded in popularity during the pandemic. According to one recent survey, for the first time in three years, Gen Z spent more on skincare than make-up. Rather than chasing the kind of “skill” Phin described, women are now being encouraged to devote their time, money and energy into achieving the perfect dewy, glowing complexion. This often requires even more effort to maintain through extensive skincare routines and things like chemical peels. 

The shift towards an emphasis on natural beauty is often traced back to the pandemic. “In one way [lockdown was] a real step back from beauty pressures,” says Rosalind Gill, a sociologist and author of Perfect: Feeling Judged on Social Media, “but in another way, it’s actually capitalising yourself, using that time as a means to add value to your appearance”. 

Gill’s research showed that the pandemic was a time in which people embarked on “beauty projects”, such as giving their skin a break to improve their complexions, or cutting their hair short to help it grow longer. Along with looking for ways to improve on our ‘natural’ appearance, according to Gill, spending even more time on social media at home and staring at our appearances on Zoom helped to fuel new beauty anxieties. “It intensified women’s worries about their appearance,” she says.

The rise in ‘natural beauty’ hasn’t been about using less products, but ones which carry different promises. Alicia Lartey, a beauty writer and esthetician, says that since the pandemic, she’s noticed more demand for things like lash serum and foundations which double as skincare. “It’s just mimicking this ‘natural’ look,” she says. In general, the make-up used in campaigns has become less creative, Lartey says, as the focus has shifted away from skill. “The looks have become a lot more boring,” she says.  

Likewise, the pursuit of a natural look hasn’t resulted in less people opting for surgical procedures. Rather, it’s helped fuel the popularity of things like ‘baby Botox’ which are intended to look more natural. In fact, since the pandemic, there has been a rise in people getting tweakments and filler. In a 2022 audit, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPs) found that demand for Botox treatments rose 124 per cent compared to the previous year, with their members carrying out 6,639 treatments last year. 

Achieving the natural beauty look through products and procedures is expensive and time-consuming – even more so than heavily made-up looks. Botox, for example, usually costs around £100 to £350 for each treatment, depending on the clinic and the area being treated, and usually needs to be topped up every three to four months. It’s unsurprising, then, that cosmetic debt is on the rise, with more people overspending in pursuit of the perfect face.

As a result, natural beauty has become associated with those wealthy enough to avoid getting work done that looks “too obvious”. Along with being rooted in classism, Larety also notes the racial element. “When you think about the ‘no make-up’ look, it's definitely attributed to the very rich, very Eurocentric looking people,” she says. “It’s a display of proximity to whiteness. Especially when it comes to certain features – like having a broader nose, having bigger lips – which have come in and out of the mainstream trend.”

‘Natural beauty’ as it’s been sold to us by cosmetic companies is a sham. It has nothing to do with acceptance, rather it exposes how the goal posts are always shifting for women.

Still, there are ways women can reclaim the concept of ‘natural beauty’ from the beauty industry. DeFino sees Anderson going make-up-free as significant, and says it’s important to separate what she’s doing from natural beauty commodified by the industry or clean girl make-up. As she points out, Anderson isn’t using her bare-face to sell us any products or procedures. “[Anderson] is not constructing this idea of a natural beauty,” she says. “She’s just not wearing any make-up… I think it’s very clear that she is reconsidering the beauty standards that she adhered to, and is deciding she doesn’t want to buy into that anymore.” 

However, it’s worth remembering that if Anderson didn’t adhere to certain beauty ideals, she wouldn’t necessarily be receiving the same praise. Being thin, white, and wealthy enough to have access to certain products and procedures has allowed her to age in a way that is more aligned with the beauty standard. “That really should shine a light on how embedded beauty culture is with white supremacy,” says DeFino.

‘Natural beauty’ as it’s been sold to us by cosmetic companies is a sham. It has nothing to do with acceptance, rather it exposes how the goalposts are always shifting for women. If the rise of ‘natural’ beauty teaches us anything, it’s that we need to let go of the idea that there is a ‘natural’ way for women to look, and instead embrace a vision of beauty that allows our bodies to just exist.

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