In a TikTok that was published in 20211, a young man interviews a young woman in a bikini at the beach and asks her: “What would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?”, and she confidently replies “I am a ten.” Clearly unsatisfied with her answer he follows up “For real, like realistically, what would you rate yourself?” and she insists “I am flawless”. Since then the TikTok sound has been used by many creators to show off their skin imperfections, belly fat or stretch marks as it sums up the core message of the body positivity movement in 26 seconds of dialogue: beauty is not defined by the opinion of others but only by how much we accept and appreciate ourselves the way we are.
What would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?
Let’s be real: most of us do not feel like a ten every day. Loving ourselves unconditionally at any given time is an illusory ideal, especially when every image we pass by on our way to work, see on covers of magazines or scroll by in our social media feeds keeps reminding us of our presumed flaws and encourages us to just try a little harder. If we just lose a few pounds, straighten our curls, dye our gray streaks, work out twice a week, get a face treatment once a month, layer our skincare products in the correct order, bleach our teeth, take our daily vitamin supplements, shave off all our body hair, get up before sunrise for our morning meditation, only eat organic food and put on make-up, but not too much, we could be prettier and happier, right? Even though, none of these are bad advice, the number of things we expect ourselves to do in order to become a little more satisfied with our appearance and our performance has become ridiculous and exhausting.
Social media is rightfully blamed for the excessive amount of self-optimization trends. Ever since brands and influencers discovered Facebook, Instagram and YouTube as potent and impactful marketing tools, the frequency of new fads has increased massively while their life span has declined to a couple of months on average. Is the body positivity movement just another one of these evanescent trends or are we witnessing a real shift in how we define, portray and pursue beauty?
The idea of body positivity has been criticized for romanticizing and encouraging unhealthy lifestyles, obesity in particular, even though we know the more we value ourselves, the more likely we are to take good care of our personal hygiene as well as our mental and physical health.
Others think that body positivity is about encouraging “natural” beauty and call out the alleged hypocrisy of not shaving off body hair while getting lip fillers and lash extensions, when it is actually about liberating beauty from dichotomies like “natural” versus “un-natural”.
So, did beauty fall victim to cancel culture? Absolutely not, but it’s getting a make-over. Instead of defining beauty in the narrow image of a light skinned, slim woman in her early twenties with a symmetrical, blemish-free face, people are longing for a broader, more inclusive definition, beyond euphemistic attributes like “exotic”, “curvy” or “unconventional”.
Body positivity is not trying to separate health from beauty but to turn around the hierarchy. Instead of investing time, money and energy into clothing, beauty products, gym classes, supplements and salon procedures to optimize their appearance and believing that somehow health will follow along the process, people have started prioritizing their health before anything else.
Of course, the idea of not letting your self-worth be determined by the opinion of others is way older than social media. Even though, it is Gen Z who are pushing the conversation about body positivity on TikTok, Instagram and in pop culture, the idea resonates with consumers of all age groups.top
During the pandemic, when we spend so much time apart from our friends and loved ones, many people realized that how we treat ourselves is just as important as our other close relationships. We would not criticize our grandmother for having wrinkles, our grandfather for balding, our mother for having stretch marks or our teenage sibling for having acne, because we look at them from a perspective of love. What, if we looked at ourselves in the same way?
How we are perceived by others is not completely irrelevant, though. The so-called Halo-effect, a psychological bias first identified in 1907, describes an unconscious tendency to attribute positive features to a person who has characteristics we perceive as favorable2. As physical features are one of the first and most obvious things we notice about other people, the Halo-effect applies to attractiveness in particular. People who are considered attractive by many people are often more successful, wealthier and happier.
So, does it make sense to pursuit a traditional image of beauty then? Well, it’s a two-sided sword. Some features can be optimized through sport, diet and cosmetic products and procedures but some are genetically determined and cannot be changed like our height, hair texture or skin color and trying anyways can be very harmful. Depending on how much our biological features differ from the current beauty standard, the more demanding, more expensive or simply impossible it is to achieve this ideal. Even people who are widely considered beautiful, struggle with high expectations and pressure and some celebrities even publicly called out toxic beauty standards in the entertainment industry3.
“Beauty is pain” or, in the words of Beyoncé, “pretty hurts”. If you ever plugged your eyebrows, walked a full day in stilettos or waxed off your body hair, you know this to be very true. Some procedures like chemical skin lightening, permanent makeup or excessive tanning can even cause permanent damage to the human body. “No pain, no gain” is still a popular motto people use to motivate themselves to achieve their “body goals” but there is also a growing number of people who refuse to suffer for beauty and are no longer willing to sacrifice their health or happiness for other people’s approval.top
The need for new marketing recipes
Product marketing has been using aspirational imagery for as long as we can remember. When you are trying to sell baking mix you use the image of a luscious cake to show your customers the ideal outcome of buying your product, right? Marketers have been applying the same logic to beauty products. The aspired result of using the product is demonstrated by the photograph we show along the claim. When marketing anti-aging claims, we use the picture of a young woman, when promising anti-acne results we present skin without imperfections. But people are not cake. Our appearance is part of our identity and therefore cognitively and emotionally linked to our sense of self and self-worth. Even when we are not explicitly saying “this is the beauty ideal”, by showing solely one specific image of beauty throughout huge parts of our industry we are sending this exact message to the consumers. When we exclusively say, this feature is beautiful, we do imply the opposite is not. And the narrower we draw the ideal of beauty the more people we exclude from it.
Promoting a narrow beauty ideal can actually be detrimental to your marketing strategy. One problem is consumer relevance. As marketers we know that it only takes targeted audiences a couple of seconds at most to decide whether an ad is worth their attention or not. The human brain subconsciously filters all the information we are exposed to as we would not be able to comprehend all of the stimuli and it does so by evaluating their relevance. If consumers cannot relate to the imagery used in the ad, they will not recognize it is for them and lose interest before even reading the headline. When advertising foundation with the photograph of a light-skinned face it might not pass the information filter of a dark-skinned consumer even if the actual product range does cover their skin tone.
Plausibility is another issue. Consumers are highly suspicious of marketing claims, especially when it comes to the efficacy of skincare products. When using the image of a 20-year-old woman to promote wrinkle reduction claims, consumers are simply not going to “buy it”. Your customers will only believe your claims if you show them actually attainable results. By not showing what the product can do for the age group you are trying to address you might even unwillingly imply that you do not believe in the efficacy of your own product.
Another factor is the ongoing global migration. While here in Berlin and in other big cities around the world a diverse society is very normal, many smaller and rural communities still have more homogenous populations. In the last 30 years the number of people who live in a different country than their birth country has increased by 84% according to the UN Migration Report4 and due to political conflicts, economic migration and climate change this statistic is probably going to further accelerate in the next decades. As a consequence, our societies are not only going to be a lot more diverse in terms of skin colors and hair textures but also a lot richer in ideas and perspectives on what is beautiful.top
Opening up the beauty discourse
So, how can we translate individual concepts of beauty into successful marketing? As it turns out, authenticity is the key in more than one aspect. Marketing should be authentic in the sense that it acknowledges the authentic identity of its addressees. According to a recent study conducted by The Pull Agency in the UK5, 60 % of consumers feel not well represented in beauty advertising and 39 % cannot relate at all to the people they see in ads.
When asked what kind of imagery they would like to see from health and beauty brands, only 5 % said, they prefer to see aspirational models, 53 % want photographs which show a range of people and 21 % would like to see authentic users of the product advertised. Unsurprisingly, groups that feel particularly underrepresented are plus-size (66 %), older (54 %) and POC consumers (42 %).
Authenticity is not only important when acknowledging your customers but also in communicating your identity as a brand. Consumers value actual ethical behavior higher than taking a public stand on a social cause. People have been rightfully calling out brands for greenwashing, wokewashing or pinkwashing, e.g. for simply editing their logo in rainbow colors for Pride Month when not actually supporting LGBTQ+ rights. When asked what social purposes they would like brands to support, participants of above-mentioned study named sustainability (58 %) and body positivity (71 % of women, 43 % of men) as most important to them.top
Creating authentic consumer relationships
Social Media has opened up a great opportunity for marketers. Additionally to conducting consumer studies, today we have access to a very powerful tool to get to the bottom of what the consumer actually wants: we can just ask them. And we should.
The key to connecting with consumers is authenticity. The way you communicate with your customers should represent your shared purposes. Everyone is different and unique but everybody has preferences and values. Find out what values you and your audience have in common and what makes them feel good about themselves. As an industry that is centered around the idea of enhancing beauty we should ask our customers what beauty means to them and what we can do to make them feel their most beautiful.
(1) @custom_motion on TikTok: “I am a ten”
(2) “The Halo Effect” on Wikipedia
(3) Kristin Harris for Buzzfeed: “Lizzo’s VMAs Gown Was Praised For Challenging The Expectation For Plus-Size Women To Shrink Themselves, And 22 Other Times Celebs Challenged Toxic Beauty Standards”
(4) IOM UN Migration: “World Migration Report 2022”
(5) The Pull Agency: “Is your brand too woke?”