In 2018, the Oxford dictionary chose the word “toxic” as its word of the year. The English dictionary said in that same year, searches for the word on their website increased by 45%, adding that “toxic” captured the “ethos, mood, and preoccupations of the year.” Basically, toxicity is everywhere. And no, it’s not because of a revival of Britney Spears’s 2003 hit single (unfortunately).
Similarly, the word “empowering” has had similar impact, though it hasn’t been word of the year just yet. These two adjectives, to me, represent the dichotomies of these past few years. In a world where most news articles talk about how divided we all are (unironically unaware of the unanimity of this statement), everything is split into these two categories: toxic, or empowering.
It’s very easy to pin all the world’s things down into two opposing binaries with no wiggle room in the middle. Whilst it might be helpful in the short term, I think it’s becoming more of a hindrance than a help.
Where this phenomenon particularly rears its head is in the beauty industry. The beauty industry comes with this whispered appendage: “Everything is empowering.” Everything. Botox, fillers, lifts, shots, and even the humble mascara; it’s all about self-improvement. “Covering up your flaws” because you’ve chosen to, is very different to doing the same thing because adverts told you to. These days, covering up pimples, skin texture, acne, and conforming to beauty standards can be reframed, and all be done in the name of self-care, and not be seen for what it actually is: participating in a multi-billion dollar industry.
I’m not blaming consumers here at all. I want to make that clear. I won’t belittle a person for the way they cope with living in a society that straightjacket’s people (particularly women) into caring about beauty, whilst simultaneously laughing at them for doing so. No, my problem is with advertisers who, let’s not forget, have the weight of huge corporations behind them.
There’s something sinister about adverts using words like “empowering” to sell something as banal as mascara, or shampoo. A word that’s become ubiquitous with the feminist movement has been repackaged (literally) to sell products. Really, they’re selling confidence, aren’t they? We all know beauty is currency, and to say to people (aka women) that you can have back your confidence that patriarchy stole in exchange for signing up to beauty standards for the rest of your life is really quite pernicious.
I think it would be far more empowering if, for example, wearing make-up was an actual choice rather than a gender-biased expectation. I’m well aware that this appears to be a controversial opinion. Questioning these sorts of adverts that call for us to define ourselves with [insert brand name here]’s shampoo, and rejecting beauty standards altogether, is not a socially acceptable thing to do. It puts you on the back foot. Even further so, if you’re not white or cisgender. If you question an advert – even one of those diverse ones – you’re toxic. If you challenge a company on where they make their products or challenge an influencer for the bad message they send to their young followings, you’re a hater who must be ignored. If you expect transparency and honesty, you’re not letting them live their best lives. The message is clear: if you do what we say, it’s empowering. If you don’t, you’re toxic. There’s no grey area. Nuanced conversation has left the chat.
Hopefully, most people can see that the grey area isn’t a toxic place to be, however uncomfortable it may be to be in there, in the thick of it, trying to figure out what you think. It’s a seductive idea that all we need is bullet-proof self-confidence, and that the way to get that confidence is by finding your “London look”. In times of crisis, self-help industries soar. Quick fixes, simple solutions, inspirational quotes, and pretty little infographics flood our timelines with easy answers to all our problems. And since we’re almost always in a time of crisis these days, this sort of thing never lets up.
It’s a really cruel thing to sell quick fixes to people, especially minorities, but this is what most industry giants do. If you just empower yourself with a face mask or some mascara, somehow the numbers are going to be different. If you can just hop on that Peleton bike for ten minutes a day, life will be easier. L’oreal have a lipstick in a shade called “empower”. How empowering is L’oreal, when its gender pay gap averages at 35.14%, with an average bonus pay gap of 51.81%? How about some structural change, L’oreal? Ya thought of that?
It would be great if we could trust people enough to decide for themselves what’s empowering and what’s toxic, instead of constantly being told what to think, say and do. Really, though this feels like the bare minimum, it would be nice to buy some lipstick without being told it’s going to change my life.
Written by Rochelle Asquith
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