This article is an attempt to analyse women’s toxic relationship with perfectionism fuelled by social media, and the rebellious community driven undercurrent forming against it
As I tap on the Instagram lab…oops app, and click on Kim Kardashian’s profile — The first three pictures carefully lay out her positioning as a youth icon — a picture of her pouting followed by a picture of her and her sister Khloe Kardashian in the aesthetic of a future barbie— the vibe she seeks to give her new skincare brand and a picture of her using her beauty products. In her interview with the New York Times during the launch of her new skincare line Kim claimed that If she had to eat shit everyday so that she could look younger she maybe would.
This was a statement that was made by a youth icon followed by 326 million people on Instagram (just to put things in perspective, the population of the USA is 329.5m as of 2022).
A statement that further cemented her commitment to the beauty construct being standardised by Instagram and other social media platforms. It makes me curious, what makes her so successful on social media and in pop culture, and yet why it doesn’t quite translate to the businesses she has embarked on in the past.
Kardashians aren’t the only ones who have been trying to monetise popular beauty standards, legacy brands such as Victoria’s Secret too have been popular for promoting them. Yet the brand lost its mojo back in 2019 — when it shuttered down several retail stores and discontinued its fashion shows with an ever falling TV viewership. Many accused the brand of not being inclusive of real body types nor being adequately representative of different ethnicities. A song released by singer Jax (an American Singer and Songwriter, based in New Jersey) on Victoria’s Secret went viral recently — Its lyrics are:
“...I know Victoria’s Secret,
girl you wouldn’t believe,
she’s an old man who lives in Ohio,
Making money off girls like me…
I know Victoria’s Secret
She was made up by a dude…”
The brand quickly responded to the release of the song and their response has been pinned in the comments section of the cover release, up top.
It says: “We hear you…We have a new leadership including a board made up almost entirely of women (& that dude from Ohio is no longer a part of our business).We are focused on being an advocate for women & recognise this is a journey…”
I reached out to Jax personally to understand her side of the story, what really inspired her to compose this song and film it in pyjamas on an iphone with a messy bun and some really funny choreography. I asked her if inclusivity and authenticity are now going to become bigger themes than perfectionism in times to come, here’s what she said —
I grew up on stage and on social media. From a young age I felt the pressures of what my body should look like. How I should act. How I should perform. At 14, old men were telling me to be sexier, be more mysterious, be skinnier. I went through all sorts of body image issues. It took a long time but I finally got to a place where I am comfortable in my skin. I like who I am and I will never listen to some old dudes in an office somewhere, trying to push what they find sexy. That is where my song Victoria’s Secret comes from and that’s where my whole business mentality is rooted. I want to support other badass women CEOs and surround myself with the best of the best women out here. And I am not anti men by any means, I work with some super smart guys that respect women and understand that the value of a person is not seven by their dress size or skin color or sexual orientation. And I think that there are a hell of a lot of other people that feel the same way as me!
Victoria’s Secret recently relaunched with a campaign representing more diverse body types and ethnicities. In many ways the response seems to have been lukewarm with it being welcomed by some while at the same time being accused of mere tokenism.
Meanwhile other brands in similar categories seem to be going beyond the aesthetics and contributing more deeply to the inclusivity culture.
Eby, a newer lingerie brand in USA, founded by Renata Black and backed by actress Sofia Vergara has on the other hand been praised for empowering female communities in India and around the world with its microfinance loans.
I reached out to VS India, however they were not available to comment .
I truly believe we overdosed on the perfection-attention diet, served fresh to us by Instagram, as #nofilter becomes one of the most trending hashtags on the platform. It seems as if the consumer has now embarked on a quest for representation and authenticity, where are the Indian consumers in this narrative?
“Indian consumers aren't as driven by social media, they go beyond the digital influence. The Influencer community is now suspect in india. In India, the community has a stronger impact on individuals , the friends and family are more likely to influence than social media or influencers.” says Samir Srivastav, CEO, Jean Claude Biguine Salon and Spa.
He may not be wrong as per a recent survey, consumers placed more trust in peers and family members than they did on digital influence when it comes to making a purchase decision.
In India, brands such as Fair and Lovely have rebranded themselves, this can be seen as an important first step, but has also been labelled as mere performance, since the central brand narrative and product ingredients stay as is, as does its focus on promoting normative beauty standards.
As young girls we have all grown up watching Fair and Lovely ads, it continues to be one of the oldest and most widely available beauty brand in the country, where the woman is able to earn all she wants in her life — from job interviews to a promotion to a marriage — only by becoming fairer skinned.
This social phenomena closely relates to the terms Beauty Sickness as proposed by Renee Engeln — who emphasises that women are being increasingly taught to use beauty as a form of social currency in the world. She goes on to say that there’s nothing wrong with that, except its power is inversely proportional to normal human experiences like an increasing age or opinion. She further emphasises that beauty sickness inhibits real connection with the world as it’s more like walking with a mirror in front of you and observing yourself for perfection continuously rather than functioning as a part of the world, and connecting or observing it. Beauty sickness also keeps women from participating in other meaningful experiences, and directs them to get involved in activities that involve the upkeep of beauty.
Is this why perfectionism is receiving a pushback from consumers, and inclusivity and authenticity are now emerging as real trends for businesses and brands internationally as well as in India?
“Absolutely. Consumers today want transparency. People buy into people before they buy into brands and remaining authentic to who you are is key to creating a sustainable brand that withstands and evolves with the ebb and flow of retail, beauty trends and consumer behaviour”, says Nyakio Grieco, Co-Founder to USA based beauty Ecommerce platform Thirteen Lune and Founder of the brand, Relevant Skin. Thirteen Lune, a majority women-led and managed platform represents black and brown-owned businesses in the American beauty industry which has been traditionally dominated by normative beauty standards. The platform has recently secured a partnership with retail giant JCPenny and is quickly scaling to reach an even bigger audience.
Closer home, brands such as SUGAR Cosmetics — a makeup brand driven on authentic community sourced content and inclusive products, have been experiencing success as their belief in authenticity has paid dividends over time. It has now translated to strong business numbers both in terms of brand awareness and record revenue numbers-
“The number that makes us the happiest at the top of the funnel is just the awareness about the brand. This is without counting television or print before we invested or had the money to invest, we were clocking 400 million impressions across our own social media channels… Similarly we are inching towards a $100 million run rate as a business and a lot of that is maybe the scale which makes our investors or consumers happy. However, for us, it's just about continuing the growth story that started to find a product that the market loves. It is our duty to take it across the length and breadth of the country and that’s exactly what we are doing right now. The whole inclusivity angle — the best example I can think of right now is our foundation sticks. We had a lot of debate internally if we should launch 8 shades, 10 shades, etc.. We went ahead and launched 22 shades, the maximum for any brand at the time. This product has become more than a position driver right now, it’s actually among our top 10 products right now. We went ahead with what we thought was true and the market rewarded us over time.” says Kaushik Mukherjee, Co- Founder and COO, SUGAR Cosmetics.
My conversation with Jax made me want to probe further, does the inclusion of women in the leadership team have any effect on the way the brands market themselves?
“We are big believers in representation. When we started, when we looked up at the biggest brands and didn’t see a team like ours. There was a lot of self doubt on whether we can make it. Today if you look at our whole workforce, 75 percent is women. I know for a fact that this culture of representation starts right at the top, right from my Co-Founder and CEO, and others in the leadership team. When young women join the company, when they see there’s space to grow into a decision maker and drive large initiatives, across the years, I think that starts from the top. There’s inclusivity and authenticity in everything we do, not just the products — even in recruitment, even in our messaging. it’s very, very ingrained in our culture at every level.” adds Kaushik.
As per a recent UN research done post COVID-19 to assess the impact of female leadership, one of the findings was that women were more decisive and inclusive in their decision making process.
So women like Jax and brands like Sugar or Thirteen Lune which are actively women-led and managed definitely do not seem to confirm to the existing beauty standards , they do seem to be actively trying to communicate with women beyond just asking them to look pretty or planting an idea in their heads of what pretty should look like. Where are the millennial social media influencers on this?
“ I feel like people feel a little represented every time I talk about acne or when they see someone who doesn’t necessarily conform to the perfect body image. My followers and community has especially been very encouraging of me and they never let me look at my imperfections as imperfections , it encouraged me to open up to them and engage with them genuinely despite the pressure to give in and try to be a perfect female beauty influencer” says Khadija (@beautyanamoly) , a young beauty influencer. As per own experiences, she definitely saw a sharp increase in her engagement when she started showing up as her own self.
As new DNA editing technologies like CRISPR and other potent product active discoveries gear up to empower people to genetically or significantly change their appearances to further become a part of the perfectionism narrative and artists, influencers, brands or businesses rise up against it and pushback to introduce a counter culture on authenticity, inclusivity and diverse representation, it would be interesting to see who will set the new tone for popular culture and win the hearts and trust of consumers in times to come.
If conformity to aspirational beauty standards would make a strong comeback or inclusivity and authenticity will turn the tide. The question now remains —Should businesses and brands stick to setting aspirational influential standards that poorly commercialise or go very relatable and earn trust of consumers to engage and monetise?
Toxic perfectionism vs imperfect authenticity and inclusivity, this would be an interesting war of influence and ideology
Aishwarya Sawarna Nir is a 28-year-old young female entrepreneur, who has founded and is actively involved in managing Global Beauty Secrets — a luxury beauty brand. She’s also a Director at Aishwarya Healthcare — a pharmaceutical company. Follow her on Twitter: @aishwarya_nir and Instagram: aishwaryasawarnanir
(Edited by : Niral Sharma)
First Published: IST