Mags: In defence of beauty eds

Sydney Morning Herald writer/blogger Sam de Brito (All Men Are Liars) recently posted a tirade titled 'Canaries in the cage: beauty editors', taking aim at magazine beauty editors and beauty bloggers.

de Brito, who spent three days in makeup for a 'Weekend as a Woman' experiment (thereby fully qualifying him to speak on behalf of women), is concerned that beauty editors are "cheerleaders for deception, telling readers they 'can't live without' or 'must have' certain products", in order to buy into the idea of perpetual youth and vanity over health. He says beauty editors are propagandists who aid the beauty industry in "creating a demand where none would naturally exist" and "perpetuate the myth that you can't be happy or whole without these products."

He goes on to say that the beauty editors he spoke to "honestly think they're helping the sisterhood feel better about themselves", which he thinks is crap because "you can look after your appearance naturally and cheaply" by placing mashed-up avocados on your face. His post ends with a lengthy quote from Body & Soul (Sunday Telegraph) columnist and Feeding Your Skin author Carla Oates, who speaks with wisdom but also has her own (organic) agenda:

"How wonderful for women to pursue realistic beauty goals - aspirational and fun, but achievable - and spend their money on really improving their health, self esteem and skin by seeing a naturopath, taking a dance class, eating well, investing time in relationships and bestowing only pure, fresh ingredients on their skin. Mass market cosmetic companies would pay millions to be able to preserve the potency of nutrients found in fresh fruits and vegetables. But it's impossible for two reasons. Firstly it's far far more expensive to use natural, organic ingredients (synthetic chemicals are often far cheaper to use) and, secondly, it's impossible to preserve them without using a host of nasty preservatives and chemicals. You are far better off rubbing the flesh of a fresh papaya or avocado on your body in the pursuit of good skin - it is a real vitamin boost! For centuries women looked after their own skin, yet over the years we have relinquished this role and handed over the health of our skin to big companies that often don't have our health in mind and are doing a poor job. Mass market cosmetics are akin to fast food - for the health of your skin, it's best to cook at home! Or seek out ethical skin care companies that use only natural ingredients."

Funnily enough, it is commonplace for beauty editors to run the odd story on organic or at-home skin care (particularly in the teen category), and organic beauty products, like Juice Beauty, are really taking off, though I doubt your average career woman has time to mix a batch of rolled oat exfoliant to slap on her face before bedtime. The products on offer on department store cosmetics floors, Priceline and supermaket stores (the "fast food" of cosmetics, as Oates says) cater to our hectic schedules by providing all the necessary ingredients in one handy tube. It's our choice as consumers as to whether we want to pay $10 or $100 for that tube.

I am a former beauty editor. And possibly the country's top consumer of women's magazines. Yet I'm very low-maintenance. My daily skin-care regime consists of washing my face with an Olay cleanser (bought from the supermarket), moisturising with Olay moisturiser containing SPF (supermarket), applying Blistex (supermarket), brushing my teeth (Colgate; supermarket) and moisturising with Nivea body lotion (supermarket). My day makeup is usually a little dark M.A.C or Napoleon eyeshadow applied with a fine brush, curled lashes (no mascara), M.A.C Blushcreme on cheeks, a bit of bronzer powder to keep from looking corpse-like and lipgloss if I could be bothered (I don't wear foundation; my skin looks better without it). Once I week I give myself a pedicure and paint my nails and if I have an event coming up, I might unleash a little St Tropez fake tan. That's it. Oh, and I may try out the occasional product that lands on my desk for a bit of fun.

At the moment, at the age of 27, I'm starting to think about facial preservation, so I'm wary of the sun and getting good nutrition (I fear looking haggard before my time – I'll take Nigella's face over Madonna's any day). I would like to have the odd facial (they have done wonders for my aunt, who, at 41, looks 31) but rarely find the time, and when I reach my 30s I'll probably consider investing in products containing AHAs and the like to keep the wrinkles from setting in too soon (this stems from my own vanity and because I don't want to buy into Botox). My mother's routine has always been very simple, too – and she looks fabulous (no Botox) at 56. She swears by sorbolene, vaseline, Nivea creamy cleanser and Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturiser (though I personally don't like/buy into that product). And she eats a well-rounded diet and gets daily exercise.

What de Brito doesn't consider is that most women will read the beauty sections in magazines with a critical eye and not take product suggestions as gospel. It is a given that advertiser products will be given preference over non-advertisers (particularly when there's only enough room on the page to feature five products). It is also a given that if you smoke, drink to excess, eat crap and survive on no sleep, your face will display signs of wear and tear.

As in any profession, there are very good beauty journalists (Suzanne Wangmann of Sunday Magazine/Notebook, for example) and there are bad/lazy beauty journalists (obvi not naming names) who are happy to regurgitate press releases/the same old stories month after month, kowtow to advertisers and live for the freebies, champagne and canapes. Those who take their jobs seriously see beauty as a science (a good beauty ed. must have a basic grasp of biology and chemistry) and their role as gleaning the best and latest information for their readers.

Fact of the matter is, beauty advertising is what bankrolls magazines – for the most part, it's what pays everyone's salaries. And 'product mentions' are part and parcel of the business (though some of the more esteemed magazines won't package up editorial product mentions with ad pages). While most mags will run puff pieces about the new miracle product from a big-name advertiser or profile the celebrity behind the latest perfume launch, and none (with the exception, perhaps, of Frankie, which doesn't run beauty ads) will say a bad thing about a product, a good beauty section will also contain stories tailored to the reader.

Beauty editors, as working journalists, have access to experts in the field – dermatologists, scientists, nutritionists (and, yes, health and beauty are inextricable) – which means readers essentially get consultations for free. Now days, unfortunately, many experts are aligned with beauty companies (or selling their own product line), rendering their opinions somewhat one-sided, but a good beauty journo will endeavour to write up a balanced story containing several opinions (given word-count limitations, this can be tough), as well as research from a number of sources.

Most beauty editors come into the role by way of advancing from junior magazine positions. And as it's a varied, demanding and time consuming role, which sees an editor attending launches (during and after office hours), organising shoots, testing product, visiting ad clients and writing copy (unfortunately, there's often little time left for this part!), the beauty beat is an excellent fertilising ground for future editors. Yes, it's also fun – and you are spoilt rotten – but you can't really hate a girl for landing a plumb job?

Many beauty editors donate time to worthy causes like Look Good, Feel Better, send product to women's shelters and bestow gifts on staffers suffering emotional issues. Though some relish (and even live for) the fancy launches and being snapped for the social pages, most would rather be at home with their families or kicking back watching TV. None of them, I'm sure, want to make women feel bad about themselves. They are employed to do a job, and if they were not beholden to advertisers, could do their journalistic skills real justice. But such is the nature of magazines.

I do find all the current reporting on Botox and cosmetic surgery unsettling, as it has the affect of normalising these procedures (just as showing skinny model after skinny celebrity normalises, um, skinny), but am smart enough to make up my own mind. Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't mean I have to. I also know, as most women are aware, that true beauty comes from within – good self-esteem, thinking of others and being grateful for what we have.

As Wangmann wrote in her recent story 'Truth in Beauty', of the 175,000 Australian women aged 18 to 55 Nivea interviewed last year, most rated looking healthy and natural as the most important aspect of visual beauty, while being "caring and compassionate, happy, friendly and optimistic" were ranked as the most important indicators of inner beauty.

The Dove Beauty campaign has been a real turning point for the beauty industry and for beauty editors. Finally something positive to write about! If beauty editors can balance the fluff and puff with substance – talking to real women about their concerns, helping them address them in a meaningful way and starting a dialogue about what drives us to seek perfection – then I don't think they can wear the blame for feeding female insecurities.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Anonymous said...

Nice one Miss B xo

Anonymous said...

Great post, Erica. I'm kind of torn on this one - I can see both your and de Brito's perspectives.

I never really thought that much about beauty (aside from basic make-up, and hair - I've been obsessed with hair since I was a teenager) until I started living with a girl with a cupboard full of beauty products. Since then, I've started doing the basics I probably "should" have been doing years ago (cleanser, moisturiser, acne cream when that's an issue), but I can see how it can very easily become a slippery slope of expensive (and probably unnecessary) products and treatments.

I have had several occasions recently where I've wondered if I should drop my cash on various $80 skincare products.

So I agree with Sam de Brito to the extent that I do think it's BS that women cleanse, moisturise, exfoliate, put on make-up, blow-dry hair and so on (and while this is to an extent optional, it's also part of looking presentable and mainstream), when most of the guys I know struggle to make it to the gym or eat a salad to maintain their appearance. I also remember reading in Naomi Wolf's the Beauty Myth (loved it when you guys recommended this in Girlfriend) that most anti-aging treatments don't work. And the effects of women investing such a significant proportion of our money and time on our appearance are on the whole negative for our wealth, our achievements and our personal growth.

On the other hand, I think that health and maintenance-based beauty advice (as disseminated by Katrina Lawrence, to name but one example) is respectable and beneficial. As are all the points you raise in your post.

PS Isn't Olay moisturiser great? I use it too. ;)

The Chicken said...

Hi there Erica. I'm in one of your tute groups at QUT and decided to check out your blog. I hope you don't think I'm sucking up for extra marks or something...
Anyway, I really like this entry. You're totally right - it's up to the reader to interpret beauty magazines. It's not the editor's fault if one particularly overzealous woman decides to buy every beauty product they ever see.

I also like that you used to work on the most influential girls' magazines in Autralia and your beauty routine is as simple as mine (and i'm not the most girly girls in the world). :)

Anonymous said...

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frangipani princess said...

Interesting read. I love the dove beauty campaigns! They make you feel good about yourself, have catchy sound tracks and great messages. I'm a bit young yet to worry about make up too much, a bit of mascara for special events is about it for me, although some of the girls in my year go extremely ott. I cleanse and moisturise and wear sunscreen. Easy as 1,2,3.

gg xx

Anonymous said...

Here here sista. As someone that has worked in beauty PR for years - beauty editors are a lovely breed. They are mostly lovely, genuine folk who as erica says - are doing a job. They write beauty pages because the consumers of the magazine are demanding MORE and so are the advertisers. Magazines are, after all, a business. So don't blame the bloody beauty editors - blame the massive corporations like L'oreal etc if you must.

Author of said SMH blog is also a bit of a tool from memory meeting him numerous times years ago. I'm sure he was trying to get back at one or more of the beauty eds that he dated, or tried to but didn't succeed.

I must say however that once again, the beauty industry is a thriving business. They create hundreds of products that realistically, we probably don't need. If they create a need for them, then we'll feel that we must have them, and whamo - they'll make squillions. It aint rocket science. But since when did girls NOT love pampering themselves? The same could be said for Fashion. We certainly dont NEED to buy new clothes all the time but we do because its fun and we like to look nice.

Meh, I could go on about this for hours.

Good girl Ms Bartle.