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A Question of Identity

Consumers are embracing their individuality — and increasingly, so are a number of forward-looking brands, who are creating a new approach to conventional beauty standards.


It’s the perfect word to describe how the beauty industry has functioned for decades when it comes to casting models for campaign imagery and influencers to create content.

Yes, there’s been some improvement along the lines of racial diversity, but beyond showcasing a wider breadth of skin tones, brands tend to spotlight people with similar facial features, body types and skin types. Identity and sexuality are rarely taken into consideration, and disability and those of a certain age are almost nonexistent.

Increasingly, though, as consumers are actively engaging their individuality across social media platforms, an increase number of brands, like Dieux, Topicals, Starface, Saltair, MAC and Tood, are reflecting it back.

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“This is a really powerful time where we’re not resting on a singular type of beauty,” said Linda Wells, beauty and wellness columnist and founding editor in chief of Allure. “We’re in this time of the triumph of the individual, fueled in much part by social media. Even posting a selfie is an individualistic statement of identity and a way to say I’m here.”

Whether in magazines, social media or even the metaverse, representation is becoming increasingly considered. “We’ve been trained to believe what is considered beautiful,” said Sharareh Siadat, founder of Tood Beauty, “but the Tood customers desire to see my unibrow, my silver hair, my armpit hair, my COVID-19 curves.”

Inclusive Beauty Shoot
Inclusive Beauty Rochelle Brock/WWD

Siadat brought up the idea of curated diversity within beauty, someone considered beautiful who is spread across every brand. But she is always pushing to do the opposite. During Pride Month last year, for example, Tood launched a nail polish collection and each shade was named after an activist. “For us, Pride wasn’t about picking cool kids who are queer and putting them in makeup,” she said. “It was about who is doing the work to create inclusive spaces.”

Siadat researched LGBTQ activists, which included a 13-year-old who lives in Connecticut and does a lot of political work to create more diverse spaces to an Iranian who’s created a rainbow railroad initiative to bring queer people into safety in countries where you die for being queer. “We were promoting and selling a new product, but we honored it with people who were doing work, and giving them the platform for that awareness,” Siadat said. “An integrated, holistic approach to diversity, storytelling, community building and connection is the way to always approach the topic of representation.”

Since its inception 40 years ago, MAC has representation a core brand value, an effort that goes far beyond the models in an ad. “It’s not just in front of the camera; it’s behind the camera, too, because the storytellers change the story and bring it to life,” said Drew Elliott, global creative director of MAC Cosmetics.

Beyond skin tone, MAC is focused on diversity among gender and identity, specifically, the representation of trans people. Elliott is also expanding its casts included in campaigns and bringing people together who know each other and have a relationship. For example, MAC did a campaign for Studio Radiant Face and Body. It was shot during quarantine, so Elliott had to rely on people to self-shoot and self-submit. “We had some amazing photographers capturing different groups of people and what we got back was unbelievable,” he said. “The relationship the cast had with one another to celebrate each other was super MAC because one of our pillars is about community.”

Creating community around people who have experienced shame from showcasing one beauty standard is more important than ever. Starface, the acne-forward company, has created a community who openly share their acne from the beginning. Its Hydro-Star Pimple Patches have become a social phenomenon with even Justin Bieber and Charlie D’Amelio sporting stars. “What’s unifying about acne and pimples is that experience doesn’t discriminate,” said Julie Schott, cofounder of Starface. “When you see someone like Justin Bieber wearing the patches, it’s so validating. There’s no amount of influence or access that changes the way the body works. And that’s really comforting.”

Similarly, Topicals is on a mission to change how people feel about themselves and their skin by erasing negative connotations around skin conditions. For decades, a flawless complexion was always deemed ideal and known as “good skin.”

However, Topicals showcase complexions and bodies with scars, eczema, texture and autoimmune conditions, among other skin syndromes that have been unfavorable in beauty campaigns. “Our audience resonates most with honest yet playful messaging,” said Olamide Olowe, founder and chief executive officer. “Overall, our messaging encourages our customers to want healthy skin and understand that, in every instance, that does not necessarily equate to clear skin. We’ve taken a stand against the stigmatization of “bad skin” and made it less harsh.”

This expansion of representation also brings about the expansion of problem, solution products. “Thigh chafe, butt acne and boob sweat are the problems that we’re talking about,” said Katie Sturino, founder of Megababe, author of “Body Talk,” and body acceptance advocate. “It’s not; how do I get rid of cellulite? The products we’re creating help people feel less ashamed and more included.”

In 2022, Sturino was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterized by facial weakness or paralysis of the facial nerve. It can also result in a rash affecting the ear or mouth. During that time, she started thinking of products that would help those with different mobility challenges. “I heard from a lot of people with invisible illnesses and there are several who are unable to take daily showers, so they use our shower sheets as refreshers,” she said. “So looking at our products through the lens of being able to help people who have different mobility challenges is something that I want to include more on our social and site. We’ll continue to show up in places where there might be shame or isolation and where we’re able to help people feel more comfortable about normal body functions.”

The debate is also being played out in the metaverse. Neha Singh, founder and CEO of Obsess, noted that the overarching promise of the metaverse is that it is a place where all communities are welcome and represented. Obsess’ branded avatar technology allows beauty brands to preselect a range of skin tones, facial features, hairstyles, colors, body shapes, clothing options and makeup looks.

“On the branded avatars front, we are going to continue to add more customization options that enable users to create personalized avatars that represent exactly who they want to be in each brand’s metaverse,” said Singh, who noted that brands like Bakeup Beauty are utilizing virtual experiences to showcase its approach to inclusivity. “Many of the products Bakeup Beauty has released don’t fit into the traditional definition of beauty products, such as face gems or an eye veil adornment with micro-crystals,” she said.

But according to Ziad Ahmed, cofounder and CEO of Juv Consulting, a purpose-driven Gen Z consultancy, Gen Z is wary of the metaverse. “The advent of the metaverse is quite troubling from the perspective that you can customize identity and pretend and posture that you are anything,” he said. “That can be really damaging and actually roll some of our progress back. People have fought really hard to be able to show up as themselves in physical spaces. For too long, the things that have been seen as beautiful are actually the things that make us feel most ugly.”

When it comes to content, Ahmed noted that first-person anecdotes reflect Gen Z’s larger mindset, which is that the expert is the person closest to reality. For example, the quick rise to fame of TikTok phenom Alix Earle is not only based on her nonchalant, I don’t take myself too serious attitude, but the idea that she shared her complexion when it was covered in cystic acne and she spoke about how her antidepressants make her feel.

Highsnobiety, which launched its beauty vertical in January, hopes to further the conversation by examining how beauty choices reflect the evolving cultural landscape. “We see beauty as so much more than ‘pretty.’ It’s self-expression, it’s art, it’s subversion, it’s politics,” said Willa Bennett, editor in chief of Highsnobiety. “We see beauty as a medium to express identity, subvert stereotypes, create art, build community and feel good — and our visuals represent that.”

For its first cover, Highsnobiety shot and interviewed TikTok creator Noen Eubanks, who, according to Bennett, doesn’t feel beholden to outdated aesthetic standards and gender binaries. Most publications only speak to a small subset of consumers: cis, straight, white women, but Highsnobiety is looking to do things differently. “We are not: ‘for men’ or ‘for women,’ Millennial pink, a regurgitated press release or prescriptive,” Bennett said. “We are a platform where people of all identities can engage with beauty in a meaningful way. Young people are smart — and we respect our audience too much to give them anything else.”

Inclusive Beauty Shoot
Inclusive Beauty Rochelle Brock/WWD

Dieux, too, is focused on casting a variety of faces, skin tones, skin types, body sizes, ages and how people identify. “How do we shift the industry from the knee-jerk reaction of trying to shame people and focus more on what the product does?” said Charlotte Palermino, cofounder and CEO. “Let people come to their own conclusions and decisions rather than trying to use these emotional levers to get them to buy. That’s why we focus so heavily on education because that’s how we create less stigma around what’s happening to our bodies.”

Saltair founder Iskra Lawrence built that vision into the body care’s line, with the slogan, “Every body is welcome here.” “When I go on Pinterest, and I look at mood boards, the images are 99 percent straight size, able-bodied, white women,” Lawrence said. “It was really important that we created Pinterest-worthy, beautiful images that were inspiring, but included a range of diverse models.”

Lawrence, who is also a model, works with NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association, to spread awareness. “I didn’t just partner with NEDA because it looked good,” she said. “It’s because I know it can save people’s lives. It stems from my own experience of disordered eating and body dysmorphia.”

Wells added that the implications for this representation expansion is great for everybody because if it tests brands, they can’t fall back on easy solutions. “There’s so much shame attached to the body and face,” she said. “It’s always about this element of exerting control over your natural self and it ends up becoming insidious, causing mental anguish and great unhappiness. Limiting shame is accepting the fact that we’re human and vulnerable and messy, and we include all parts of ourselves, and that is a really positive movement.”