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A look at gender in the beauty industry

Selfie of Manny Gutierrez
(Photo courtesy of Manny Gutierrez)


When she finished, I hardly recognized my reflection. I didn’t look like myself and 10-year-old me was the only person I wanted to look like.

It was just before my first dance recital. My mom had recruited a neighbour—another dancer a few years my senior—to apply my stage makeup. I was thrilled. I idolized her and her basement full of sequined tutus. When she handed me the mirror, signalling she had finished, the reflection that stared back at me wasn’t me at all. My freckles had vanished under a thick layer of foundation. My lips were unnaturally red and gooey. My false lashes were somehow tickling my forehead. 

I put on a polite smile, walked home and cried it all off. 

Over time and out of necessity (ballet teachers are demanding), I developed a genuine interest in primping for the stage and eventually for day-to-day. Along the way, I found products and practices that genuinely resonated with me. These days, when I look in the mirror, I still see myself.

It was an amazing thing for boys who wanted to play with makeup,” said Hannah. “Suddenly that whole world was inviting them in and saying, ‘you’re a part of it.’

To be clear, I am aware that how a brand markets itself and its products impacts whether it resonates with me. I am aware that the mascara I most recently purchased was modelled on a freckled, redheaded female, like me. I am aware that my favourite brand could be such because its packaging is my favourite colour (lilac, in case you were wondering). I am also aware that just because it resonates with me doesn’t mean it resonates with everyone else. 

Beauty is defined differently by different people; it’s a spectrum. 

The beauty industry has come a long way. But for the sake of diversity and inclusion, it needs to keep making space on its shelves for new and varying brands and products.

Polishing the message 

Over the last two decades, award-winning writer and editor Lesa Hannah has covered the beauty industry for several notable publications, including Elle Canada and Fashion. Throughout her career, Hannah has watched the industry evolve from the female-focused and prescriptive industry she first encountered in the 90s.

PHOTO BY: AMY SHAMBLEN / Unsplash

“The whole language of the beauty industry was framed around making women feel bad,” said Hannah. “It was all about saying, ‘here’s your problem and here’s how you need to fix it.'” Often, the reason to “fix” something was to find a man. Hannah also pointed out that the big beauty companies at the time were mostly run by men. 

Look! I’m putting beautiful on.

These men were imprinting their ideals onto women, telling them how they should present themselves to the world and doing it in a way that had women convinced it was for their own good. After flipping through their trusted magazines, like Flare Magazine where Hannah worked in the late 90s, women would head to their local drugstores to pick up the latest anti-wrinkle moisturizers, pore minimizers, and waist thinner-izers. 

Nowadays, the language used to promote beauty products is less about attracting a spouse and more about expressing and caring for yourself. And it’s not just the ladies who are interested in self-expression and self-care via the beauty industry.

Boy’s beauty and ‘boy beauty’ 

Cue the ‘metrosexual.’

James Charles posing for Covergirl for the first time after signing.
(Photo courtesy of James Charles)

Hannah recalls the term ‘metrosexual’ buzzing around sometime in the mid-2000s. The ‘metrosexual’ is essentially a cis-gendered, heterosexual male who is interested in his appearance and grooming but doesn’t want to feel any less masculine for it. Think of guys lining up for man-icures and tweezing their bro-ws. 

Hannah remembers an increase in men’s products emerging around this time, which were more or less the same products women used. Instead of tying them with a pink bow, they were sealed in a grey bottle and slapped with a label that confirmed, as Hannah put it, “it’s okay, you’re still a dude.”

Then came the rise of the ‘boy beauty’ movement in the 2010s. Boys were not only being invited to use makeup, they were also being paid to do so. James Charles launched his self-titled YouTube channel in 2015 when he was a high school student working as a makeup artist in Bethlehem, NY. 

Charles caught the attention of the beauty industry in 2016 after one of his Tweets went viral. The post featured images of the tux-clad Charles retaking his senior photos with a compact and brush in hand, and a ring light at the ready to make sure his “highlight would be poppin.”

Shortly after, CoverGirl signed Charles as their first male spokesperson. Maybelline followed suit in 2017 by signing Manny Gutierrez, another male beauty blogger.

Manny Gutierrez posing for Mabeline after signing on.
(Photo courtesy of Manny Gutierrez)

“It was an amazing thing for boys who wanted to play with makeup,” said Hannah. “Suddenly that whole world was inviting them in and saying, ‘you’re a part of it.'”

Edmonton-based makeup artist Calvin Alexander fell in love with makeup at a young age. He recalls being caught with his mother’s Chanel lip liner in hand, exclaiming, “Look! I’m putting beautiful on.” Being able to make himself feel beautiful through makeup was a huge motivation to pursue makeup artistry as a career. 

Alexander works primarily with cis-gender and transgender female clients. He also puts together his own makeup looks, regularly inspired by Kim Kardashian, circa 2012, he noted. 

“It’s very much this blown-out bedroom eyes type of look with tons of spiky lashes,” Alexander described. 

In the past, Alexander presented more traditionally masculine than he does today and felt fairly represented in the beauty industry during that time. As his look has shifted, he sees less of himself in mainstream media, highlighting that there are still gaps to be filled. Today he dons long, wavy hair, lined eyelids and manicured brows along with a five o’clock shadow. 

“Now that my gender expression occupies a gender-variant space, I actually feel like I don’t see many people like myself,” Alexander said, regarding representation in the beauty industry. “There are many more trans people and men, which is amazing! But aside from Conchita Wurst, I feel like there aren’t really men who look specifically like me.”

That being said, defying traditional gender norms is increasingly becoming the norm. 

Gender-neutral beauty

“I do think gender-neutral marketing, especially in the beauty realm, would reduce many barriers people might have around entering the beauty and skincare world,” said Alexander.

Beauty is defined differently by different people; it’s a spectrum. The beauty industry has come a long way.

And that future may not be far off. Over the last year or so, gender-neutral beauty brands have picked up momentum, according to Hannah, although she is quick to point out that they’ve been around for a long time, offering Kiehl’s as an example, which opened its doors in 1851. 

Selfie of Calvin Alexander.
(Photo courtesy of Calvin Alexander)

Intentionally gender-neutral brands land somewhere between the pink-bow touting brands and in-your-face masculine brands, and can usually be spotted thanks to the use of universal language and a clean, simple aesthetic. 

The hyper-feminine and macho-masculine brands also offer up gender-neutral products; they just don’t tell you. With a few exceptions, most beauty products can be used by anyone, regardless of their biological sex, gender identity, or anything else really. It’s the way the products are packaged and marketed that suggests to consumers whether the product is meant for them or not.

Finishing touches

So, what role does marketing play in all this? A big one, but not the main one, according to communications veteran Janis Galloway. 

Galloway is the vice president of communications at Press + Post, a full-service marketing and public relations agency based in Alberta. Galloway got her start in the non-profit sector, offering her services to brands dedicated to supporting their communities, like the Art Gallery of Alberta and The Alberta Library. After falling “ass-backward” into the fashion industry, Galloway founded her own public relations firm, Publicity Room, before joining forces with Press + Post in 2020.

Galloway’s clients often come to her with requests to diversify their marketing campaigns to include more people of colour, sexual orientations and gender expressions. While she believes this is positive, she hopes to help them understand the importance of diversifying their entire business model. Galloway says marketing professionals have a huge responsibility to ensure brands promote diversity and inclusivity, but that these values need to be implemented long before the marketing team gets involved.

“That idea of inclusivity needs to be thought about throughout your entire business model,” Galloway said. “It can’t just be tacked on at the end.”

Moreover, Galloway says implementing catch-all inclusivity into your marketing can do a disservice to consumers and companies. 

Most beauty products can be used by anyone, regardless of their biological sex, gender identity, or anything else really. It’s the way the products are packaged and marketed that suggests to consumers whether the product is meant for them or not.

“I don’t think every brand needs to be for every person,” Galloway says. If every brand tries to reach every person, she says, it is unlikely that they’ll be able to reach anyone well. It would be better, she says, to have many different companies serving different audiences rather than fewer companies trying to serve everyone. 

Most successful companies are clear about who their ideal customer is. They know intimate details about this person—whether it’s a real customer or a made-up one—in order to sell to them. They know where they live, what they do, how much they get paid to do it, and just about everything else in between. By knowing this information, brands can create products, services and marketing assets that will resonate with their ideal customer. 

In the beauty industry, even different brands that all target women can vary significantly from one another. Benefit and Too Faced are hyper-feminine make-up brands that likely resonate with different customers than Gucci Westman, an edgier, urban make-up brand.  

The identities of brands can be polarizing, with customers either being drawn to the use of language, branding or products, or repelled in another direction. So, it is unlikely—if not impossible—that a single brand can resonate with every person.

“The most equitable path would be the inclusion of as many perspectives as possible,” says Alexander.

“I think the more options you have, the greater it is,” says Hannah. “Beauty is such a spectrum and there are so many things that appeal to people about it. It democratizes it more to have all these differences.”

Everyone should have the chance to find brands and products that resonate with them, whether it’s because they see themselves represented in an advertising campaign, or because the packaging happens to be their favourite colour, or because it lets a 10-year-old prima donna see her true self in the mirror.


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Madison Krupa

Madison Krupa

Madison Krupa (she/her) is passionate about sustainability, fashion and beauty. Growing up, she saw feminism all around her, as she was surrounded by strong women who supported one another. Completing her degree in 2021, she aspires to one day be a creative director for a fabulous brand with stand-up values. She says that cereal is soup if you want it to be.