Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The value of beauty: $160 billion and still counting

The enduring quest for eternal youthfulness can stir many strange habits. Medieval noblewomen were known to swallow arsenic and dab on the blood of bats to improve their complexions. In Botswana, it is not uncommon for women to use letsoku, a clay-like soil that makes their skin smoother and lightens their complexion.

The desire to be beautiful is as old as civilisation. So is the pain it can cause. In his auto biography, Charles Darwin wrote of an increased obsessive universal passion for adornment, often involving wonderfully great suffering. 

However, the “pain” has not stopped the passion. The result is a global multi-billion dollar industry encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery and diet pills. This route to beauty supports a consumer binge of at least $160 billion USD a year, notes the authoritative Economist magazine.

Such spending is not mere vanity. Being good looking or ‘not ugly’ confers enormous genetic and social advantages. Attractive people are judged to be more intelligent and better in bed; they earn more, and are more likely to marry. Studies show that the more attractive a person is, the more likely he or she is to be successful. Good looks give people a head start in most areas of life, including business and personal relationships. Beauty is something that we instinctively recognize.

Indeed, most research shows that women account for the vast majority of the consumers and create spending habits that make cash registers ring to the tune of nearly $40 billion USD in hair care alone. On the other hand, skin care is estimated to generate sales of about $23 billion yearly.

This includes purchases of moisturizers and anti-ageing ointments, which are quite popular, what with the obsession with retaining youth. Cosmetics are estimated to bring in about $18 billion USD each year.

Throughout history, people have sought different ways to make themselves more beautiful and noticeable. However, what changes is how different cultures define human beauty. The beauty industry has been a natural outgrowth of the human need to improve looks, based on modern perceptions of beauty which tend to lean more towards Western influences of fairer skin, slimmer figures, long soft hair for women and firm toned figures and metrosexual looks for men. Gone are the days when being presentable was enough. Nowadays, investing in cosmetics is also a reflection of good health, class and social stature. 

In most cultures, women are expected to be attractive, while men are often forgiven for their looks. This may be why women account for the huge majority of sales within the beauty industry.

Since this industry is fueled by perceptions of mass beauty, companies position themselves for this market through advertising via television shows, magazines, and movies. The beauty industry feeds off insecurities, with their marketing products that nit-pick at any and all perceived flaws in human beings. If there was a way to bottle a lovely personality and positive disposition, we would probably find it on the shelves, heavily priced with promises to make our lives better.

Perception of beauty can be affected by ingrained evolutionary factors, media influences and individual personalities. Research indicates that formulas were used as early as Plato’s time to define universal attractiveness. While more modern research supports the theory that certain features may represent genetic strength, making those who possess them appear more attractive, other factors can alter our perception of beauty. These include media and the images a culture puts forth to represent physical perfection.

 Ancient philosophers concluded that human perception of beauty was based on formulas that measured facial proportions. Symmetry has been noted as an attractant in some species of animals and birds, and it is thought that symmetry generally represents strong and healthy genes.

Is it realistic to try and tamper with this? This brings in the moral dimension. The beauty industry is at a stage where it can permanently change a person’s looks. Given advances in genetic engineering and the competitive drive, the race for beauty is conceivable in how people will strive to model themselves on some form of idealised human being.

Lesley Malema, a single 25-year-old University of Botswana law graduate believes it’s important for people to look presentable. He expects women to invest more into their looks but emphasizes the need for it to be subtle.

“Hygiene and clean looks are required of everybody. Women can do their hair stylishly and add a bit of make-up but nothing much. Contrary to popular belief, too much make up on a woman is a turn-off as it communicates a low self esteem. You shouldn’t change yourself ÔÇô just enhance what’s already there.”

Boitumelo Gaofise, a 24-year-old operations assistant at Standard bank, believes in spending a lot on beauty products. While she spends on the basics, she splurges often enough. “I like looking good as it improves my confidence. I do not mind spending a lot of money on cosmetics and my hair.”
Gaofise admits that she can part with more than P800 for cosmetics and hair. “It’s a lot of money, but the results are amazing. I believe that people should always look good. I work in a professional environment and have to maintain a presentable image.”

Would she go to the extreme? “I haven’t spent on anything shocking, but plan to buy human hair, which will set me back P4500. It’s a lot of money, but worth it,” she says with a laugh.

Fikile Khama, a 28-year-old married corporate professional, says that even though looking good is an integral part of her daily routine, she wouldn’t break the bank to fulfill a certain look as she is comfortable with herself. “I spend on basics and often buy quality products that last. Like most women, I have a fixed beauty routine and spend on the usual bath gels, sanitaries, etc.”

However, Khama maintains that if people want to spend a lot of money, they are free to do so. “As much as I wouldn’t spend a lot on beauty cosmetics, I am not against it. You would never know what happens; maybe when I am older, I would want to nip and tuck or invest in pricey products. I recently spent a large amount of money on having a lump removed from my breast and though it was more surgical than cosmetic, I realized that we have to do what’s necessary to maintain good health, as well as look and feel good. Cosmetics will not change the core of who you are but only serves to enhance,” says Khama.

Men aren’t being left behind, with claims that more men ÔÇô those commonly dubbed metrosexuals ÔÇô are following beauty routines and spending on expensive steroids to improve their physique.

Kaelo Disang, who refers to himself as a “30-year-old guy-about-town”, admits that he spends a lot of money on beauty products to the extent that his friends jokingly claim he is gay. “I like to look and smell great and part with a lot of money to fit the bill. I know it’s uncommon for a man, but I follow the wash, tone and moisturise routine on my skin. I also used to take muscle enhancing pills, but stopped when I fell ill,” he says.

Pine Habaganana, a 43-year-old property company owner, believes men should maintain a clean yet slight scruffy look. He believes that cosmetics and beauty routines are for women. “As long as I am clean, its fine. I won’t spend a fortune on cosmetic procedures and beauty products ÔÇô that is for women. My girlfriend spends a lot of money on her hair and make-up, but I don’t mind as she looks gorgeous in the end.”

As technology and Internet penetration advance, the beauty industry continues to adapt new strategies to interact with consumers. At the same time, the beauty business needs to guard against a growing consumer backlash. Like those facing the tobacco and food industries, this has two elements. The first concerns truth in advertising. Creams and cosmetics are making increasingly extravagant marketing claims. So far, women have been buying into the illusion. Should that change (and there are signs it might) then manufacturers expose themselves to potentially ruinous litigation. Regardless of these factors, the beauty cosmetic industry continues to rake in millions, while peddling the idea of paramount beauty.


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