Looking “Pretty”: Muslim Women and the World of Cosmetics

After graduating and finding myself sub-employed in the world of retail, I have had the opportunity to closely explore the cosmetics industry. While in university I acquired my Makeup Artistry certification from a recognized school in Canada because I enjoyed colour and makeup so much. Since I was a child I enjoyed playing with my mom’s cosmetics, and I used to long for the day that I would be allowed to wear lipsticks and eye shadows.

Yet, after working so closely in the cosmetics industry, it is easy to see the challenges that come along with gender and the politics of ethnicity, which, I must admit, have made my love for makeup wane.

The cosmetics industry is often a place where beauty standards are created, defined and imposed. It is based on dreams (and training materials often indicate: “sell dreams, not products”) and on the idea that women need “help” to be beautiful or even to look healthy (thus the creams and treatments).

Cosmetics companies contribute to ideas of hegemonic beauty while exploiting them for profit. Whereas this is not surprising, the profit that comes from individual cosmetic counters is enormous. In North America (including Canada, the U.S. and Mexico) stores such as Sears, the Bay, Macy’s, and  Holt Renfrew, and their associates set daily targets ranging between $100 and $5000 dollars for each individual beauty advisor in a counter (thus the annoying cosmetics ladies chasing you around, especially on slow days).

While working at the counter, I have realized that a large portion of my clients are Muslim women; nonetheless, the industry does not seem to acknowledge this trend.  As I have explored in previous posts, Muslim women have claimed a place as designers, models and stakeholders within the fashion industry; however, they hardly seem to have a place in typical Western-style cosmetic houses.

Estee Lauder advertisement

Estee Lauder 2012 “ethnic diversity” ad. Via Asian Models Blog.

Despite the options, big Western cosmetic brands like Estee Lauder and Lancôme are popular options around the world, including some Muslim-majority countries. For instance, the Gulf countries, of which the UAE is often recognized as the fashion capital, are now a big cosmetics market. Not only did Vogue choose the Emirates to open a high-end café outpost, but last year it was reported that Emirati women spend 38% more money in cosmetics than women in France.

Even without mentioning issues of animal testing,  dangerous chemicals in treatments or ingredients that may be of particular concern to some Muslim women like pork by-products and alcohol, the industry as a whole presents challenges. For example, although houses like Clinique and Estee Lauder currently offer wider selection of makeup colours (such as foundations), many other makeup houses would not be able to colour-match a lot of non-white women, leaving out a whole bunch of ethnicities. Besides, even when these two brands offer slightly more colour options, cosmetics training in Western countries focuses on whiter demographics or the target ethnic market of the brand (for example, Shideido tends to focus on Asian women), which means that your average Western-trained cosmetics consultant has no idea how to help women with non-Caucasian complexions.

What is more, many Muslim women (although not all) go along with the trend. Lighter makeup and “brightening” and whitening products are popular not only among  South and East Asian populations but also in other countries, of which Nigeria is the highest consumerWhitening and lightening products are used to prevent and treat pigmentation, while brightening ones treat dullness and fatigue. However, these products tend to promise a “brighter,” “lighter” and “better” complexion, whatever that means.  As one of my clients put it once: “they make us feel that whiter is beautiful and we go with it.”

Lancome advertisement

Lancome ad. Via MuslimWomanConvertsReverts, which tagged the picture as a representation of hijab fashion.

Racialized notions of what women should aim for are sometimes more obvious when dealing with niqabis in North American cosmetic counters. A few years ago, while I was shopping with a niqabi friend, we decided to stop at MAC. She was looking for a concealer, but instead of being allowed to choose the color she thought would suit her, the cosmetics girl decided to give her a darker shade, while assuring her that it has the right colour. The cosmetics girl just assumed that niqab equals East and East equals dark.

In addition, imaging continues to be a problem. One would think that with Muslim women spending great amounts of money in cosmetics, these houses would broaden the images that they use in their advertisements.  Yet, we see mainly white-Western models, rarely one or two “minorities” and of course (almost) no hijabis.

Just like with Barbie or “Muslim” Barbie, whom I discussed few weeks ago, the cosmetics industry calls for particular standards. It teaches us that “whiter” is more valuable, even when the majority of the market is non-white, and it also endorses that Western is better (many of us still believe that French equals better cosmetics, Chanel being one example).

The reality is that this is an industry that it is not about to change. The companies involved strongly rely on the fact that we follow their trends and accept their imaging. However, there are alternatives out there. Most countries have locally produced cosmetics, and while I cannot speak for all of them, I can tell you that Mexico produces some excellent no-name avocado oil mascaras and eye liners!

Samina Pure Makeup. Via saminapuremakeup.co.uk.

Likewise, I have come across few lines designed by Muslim women for Muslim women. Some of these brands, which have been reviewed on sites like Muslimah in Reverie and Sweet Modesty  are often defined as “halal” options and are not only alcohol- and pork-free but also cruelty-free. Some of these also provide mineral and vegan options.

Though I cannot guarantee that representations of diverse women in their advertising images will be better among these brands, at least there is an effort to accommodate Muslim women of a variety of ethnicities, and an attempt to address some Muslim women’s concerns as far as alcohol, pork and cruelty goes.

My hope for the ladies who enjoy cosmetics is that eventually they will use cosmetics for and by themselves, not because companies “sell dreams” and “aids” for non-white, non-Western, non-young imperfections.

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  • http://www.archibaldacademy.com.au/ Archibald Academy

    Hey.. this was a very nice informative piece.. In fact, there are many Muslim women who follow these basic concepts of makeup and they are made to believe these false conceptions of makeup.. There are various beauty & makeup artistry courses that help out Muslim women to look beautiful without any attempt to hurt some of their concerns..

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Very well thought out post! I just wanted to mention something I find quite disconcerting about the ads for skin whitening creams. I currently live in the Middle East and I’m very dismayed to find print ads for skin whiteners, in which they use hijabi models to bring attention to their products. I think it’s depressing enough that such products even exist, but for them to use models in hijab, and for no one (consumers, retailers, ad executives, etc) in this Muslim-majority society to even find this problematic is disconcerting. It’s like Muslims know how haraam it is to discriminate and humiliate others based on their physical characteristics, yet we display some type of cognitive dissonance when it comes to fighting such discrimination. It’s like no one seems to find it terrible that a woman in hijab advertising skin whitening, is sending the message that it’s ok to ashamed of having dark skin, despite the fact that we know this to be absolutely forbidden in Islam. I know also that the ads for skin whiteners is unfortunately part of a broader issue we have towards not fighting racism/colorism within our societies.

  • http://www.yasmin-raoufi.blogspot.com Yasmin

    Thanks for this very interesting and informative post!

  • Chris

    I am inclined to agree with you that it is problematic a women who openly identifies as a believing woman is the advertising model for a practice many would consider unislamic. (Although, I am unaware whether skin whitening has a long-lasting or permanently altering effect on the body like tatoos or eyebrow plucking have; it is at the very least a cosmetic product altering one’s appearance, which, the way I understand it, is not considered forbidden by broad consensus among the Ulema.) I am not sure I agree with what I consider a subtextual message – “if you are going to advertise a practice that (I consider to be) is unislamic, at least do not utilize a model in Hijab (which is the epitomy of belief, and a non-veiled woman is not/is not to the same extent)”. I can only understand your message with this subtext of a hierarchy of believing women with the woman in Hijab higher up on the hierarchy than a model that is not veiled. I think I am not alone finding this hierarchy inherently problematic. Sure, women in Hijab carry their belief outwards. But what about the rest of the story – is it only the external signal? What about a celebrity that has identified as Muslim, and does such an ad without wearing a veil? Would that not be the same, a Muslim spokesperson carrying a (possibly) unislamic message? Also, what is the benchmark for “Muslimness”, is it really only the Hijab? Are there not some who may advocate that a women who does not wear the veil, but does not make up and present herself to the public on photos more modest than the made-up Hijabi from a photo shoot?

  • Chris

    I have a slight remark to the comment on whitening and brightening in the article. I am fully with the author on whitening, but do not agree with criticism of “brightening”. Everybody, and you know this way better than I do with my limited, second-hand and experience-based knowledge without formal education in the cosmetics industry, looks better when some areas of their face are brightened from the individual skintone, especially the under-eye area. Women who like to look a little “catty” look great when not only the under-eye area, but inner parts of the cheek to the nose are brightened. Regular contouring and brightening in my opinion does not carry the connotation “lighter is beautiful”. It helps you look fresher at every complexion, if you wish to do so. And it does not necessarily go for “whitening”, but just 1 tone lighter than your natural colour. I am just saying, because I would think it unfortunate if women felt they should not brighten some areas of their face for political reasons (which I fully sign for whitening products), when this is a technique for everybody to look dewy and fresh, no matter what complexion they have.

  • eren cervantes

    Thanks for your comments! I am happy you are reading our blog. Now, in regards to makeup as “Islamic” i feel that it is not my place to say whether or not one should wear it. I am a Muslim woman and i like makeup. What i am problematizing here are three main things.
    1. If we are spending so much in cosmetics, would it be too hard to create product that accommodate our concerns?
    2. Why are we still invisible in this industry? Yes for sure some people would find it problematic to see a woman in hijab in a makeup add . But many others would not. And continuing to play the “beauty is white” card fails to acknowledge that the main market is not white.
    3. About brightening… It is complex. For example, shiseido is the number 1 brightening line in the world [they claim]. They have a serum that treats dark spots and dark circles which is something that many of us face. However, i see two issues. First it doesn’t not address men even if they face such an issue. Second, the rest of the line called White Lucent focuses in whitening although they do not call it that way. The target market are Asian women, who they assume, prefer whiteness as opposed to any kind of color.
    In sum, i feel that the gender and racial component fail to incorporate Muslim women without telling them what beauty must mean and prescribing how to achieve it based on an idea.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thanks Chris for your comment. I apologize for not being more clear earlier. When I expressed my disappointment over seeing a hijabi model advertising skin-whitening creams, I should’ve also mentioned that my aversion to the skin-whitening industry and everything it stands for (based on demeaning/elevating individuals based on the perceived amount of melanin in their skin) would make me disappointed in any model who advertises it, whether they wear hijab or not. Thus, I didn’t mean to imply earlier that if the model didn’t wear hijab, that I would find the ads acceptable. I would still be disappointed that Muslims for the most part have also turned into consumer-slaves for the skin-whitening industry. Also at least with skin-whitening creams, it’s been found that not only are most of them ineffective, but they also carry the risk of permanently damaging one’s skin through excessive use. This is particularly the case with creams that contain hydroquinone. Since I doubt the country I live in effectively monitors all the products that are imported here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those dangerous creams have made their way into storeshelves here. As for skin brightening I am not too familiar with that (as I am not normally a make up person!)

  • Pamela J Bell

    I am not a Muslim woman. I am a 63 year old female. I have to echo both remarks made by RCHOUDH . The message is really quite devastating for all women and men. The Lancome ad is offensive, as are the other cosmetic giants that push the “lighter, brighter” campaigns. I enjoy makeup, however what ever the cosmetic industry lacks in ethics… it certainly lines it’s pockets with low self-steam for young woman/men and capital. Heart breaking.

  • Izzie

    In the middle east especially in UAE I have felt that women actually dress up and use makeup very well. So this article was an eye opener, cause we face all of these issues in India a lot. But i wondered that was because we were a developing country. Things are changing in India as well, as we have Indian ambassadors for most cosmetics, and hence color ranges for foundations etc which suit the indian complexion.
    That being said. about fairness creams. Hmmm. Lets face it, most of us look better when we are fairer, and some fairness creams do work. ;)