Smart vs. Pretty???
I was scrolling through Instagram and stumbled on a post that included the hashtag #skipbenefitnotclass that led me down a bit of a rabbit hole of people on Instagram upset about a new Benefit cosmetics ad for their concealers using the tag line “skip class, not concealer.”
I think whoever approved this ad skipped one class too many and missed out on learning how to create a dynamic and successful ad campaign. I give this one an F. I can think of a few tag lines that would be pro-education, and I’m hardly a marketing genius. Considering the “school supply” vibes from the design of the packaging, I would think they’d run with that angle. Oh well.
This is the second time a Benefit ad has really irked me. The first was an ad/display for a brow or mascara, I can’t remember, that instead of saying “before/after” with the pics they said, “yuck” and “wow.” I’m sorry, it was laughable but also infuriating. Laughable because their “before” was hardly “yuck,” to be honest it still looked photoshopped.
The problem I have with both of these ads is twofold:
1) They perpetuate ridiculous beauty standards and false ideals.
2) Benefit seems to have no shame or remorse when backlash occurs (I saw no official response to the yuck/wow ad and minimal response to the skip class ad) and they seem perfectly happy to perpetuate these pathetic standards and stereotypes.
We as women, and as consumers, deserve better.
I’ve had a very complicated relationship with the “pretty vs. smart” dichotomy for years. I never felt that beautiful as a teenager, so I always felt my value came from my good grades and intelligence. Boy did that mess me up big time over the years. I loved fashion but felt hopeless with makeup. It really wasn’t until my 30s that I started really experimenting with my makeup (pretty much around the same time I finally started clearing up my cystic acne) and it was around this time that I finally started to feel like maybe I was smart AND pretty. Wow. Who knew you could be both. When I went back to grad school I was lucky to fall in with a group of girls who loved makeup and nail polish, especially those of the sparkly, glittery variety. These were the women who introduced me to the beauty community on YouTube (there was more than just cute cat videos? Who knew?!) and helped me realize that I can be a feminist scholar AND wear red lipstick and silver sparkly nail polish (bonus points if it’s holo).
We traded products we didn’t use anymore and had get togethers that included wine and testing out eyeshadows. It was freaking awesome. We’re all pretty serious scholars, and we can talk you under a table on a pretty wide range of subjects. But at the end of the day we’re also women. Women who like to feel pretty, even though we know that’s not the source of our worth or value. It took me years to realize that smart and pretty are not mutually exclusive. You can be both. You can appreciate both.
I wear makeup because it gives me confidence and helps me express parts of my personality. I wear concealer because while I’m not ashamed of my dark circles from staying up late working on a draft, I don’t particularly want to see them every time I look in the mirror.
Young women today have to contend with so many mixed messages from the media and society. We don’t need more ads like this that emphasis the pretty/smart dichotomy. Pretty girls need to hear they’re smart. Smart girls need to hear they’re beautiful. We need more young women who are confident, both in their appearance and their abilities. I know, all too well, the pain of feeling like you’re not pretty enough. But I’ve also seen the pain and hopelessness in the eyes of young women who clearly were never told they were smart enough. Every year I see young women in my college classes who arrive to class with hair and makeup done to perfection but are filled with self-doubt about their ability to write even a two page essay. I want to go back through their lives and scream at anyone who ever made them feel like they weren’t good enough or smart enough. How dare anyone make these young women feel anything less than amazing and confident about themselves!
On my YouTube channel I periodically get comments from new viewers expressing both shock and joy that they found another PhD/grad student who loves beauty stuff. Within academia beauty topics can kind of feel a bit taboo. Like, we as “serious scholarly women” should be above such things. Or that perhaps, as feminist scholars especially, we should be against the trappings and oppression of the beauty industry. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty about the beauty industry that pisses me off, This Benefit ad is a perfect example of that. But I separate the industry (and all it’s flaws and oppressive potential) from the freedom of expression that cosmetics offer me. I want to feel more powerful? I put on a red lip. I want to feel fun and carefree? Let’s get out the glitter.
What this ad, and others like them do, is prop up the “beauty myth.” In her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, originally published in 1990 but still incredibly relevant today, Naomi Wolf discusses the ways that images of female beauty and femininity were used politically as a weapon to hinder the advancement of women (2). Comparing beauty to a system of currency, Wolf explains, “In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves” (3). She goes on, “The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behavior that period considers desirable: the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance” (4, emphasis in original).
At it’s core, this ad is not about concealer. It’s not about makeup. It’s about prescribing behavior. It’s about making young women think that their education is not important as long as they look pretty. It’s about making other young women think that if they can look prettier their problems will go away. It continues this pretty vs. smart divide. And I’m not the only one getting sick of this when I look at the response to the ad and the resulting #skipbenefitnotclass.
Wolf ultimately concludes, “The real problem isn’t whether women wear make-up or don’t, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make their clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment all together. The problem is their lack of choice” (228, emphasis in original).
Women want choices. We want to wear makeup AND succeed academically and professionally. We want to be pretty AND smart. We deserve to feel both.
I’m a firm believer in speaking not only with my words but also with my dollars. Will I get rid of the few Benefit products I own? No. I get the occasional product in my Sephora Play box and I’ll use them up because I don’t waste products. Will I judge people who continue to support the company? No. We all get to make our own choices and what a beautiful thing that is. Will I buy any Benefit products in the future? Nope. Not until they change their tone with the marketing and show some self-awareness about the damage they do with these ads.
I’m tired. I’m tired of companies that continue to try to make women feel like we’re not good enough. I don’t really know how to end this post, because there isn’t an end to this story. But Benefit, and companies like them, need to realize that we’re watching and we’re deciding where our money goes. And it might take time, it might take years, but eventually companies that engage in this kind of advertising. You don’t need to make us feel like crap to get us to buy your products.
So just stop.