The changing language of beauty.

31.03.21 | By Brittany Stewart | business

The changing language of beauty.

The easiest place to start? Not just what you say, but how you say it.

Diversity and inclusion should no longer be just buzzwords but genuine values built into - and practised - across your brand.

And the easiest place to start? Not just what you say, but how you say it.

Because the language of beauty is also finally changing. From the way we talk about ageing to skin colour, the old way is no way. And if you want to last, then you need to be at least keeping up with (if not helping to drive) the change.

Normal. Nude. Natural. Just common, helpful beauty words, right?

Nuh uh.

According to a study of 10,000 beauty consumers across nine countries commissioned by Unilever, 7 in 10 people believed that the word ‘normal’ used on beauty products or in advertising had a negative effect. That jumped to 8 in 10 for those aged 19-25.

Because what is ‘normal’ anyway? 

It’s a large part of the reason Unilever announced, as part of a larger brand strategy, to stop using the word across their products or advertising by 2022. It’s made countless headlines.

And while it might seem like a strategic rather than a purely altruistic move (which, let’s be honest, it probably is) it’s a significant one that signals a positive shift in beauty language and marketing that consumers are calling out for.

Because it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

What has seemed like an ordinary, inoffensive word to some, has long been a flag for many more.

“I have to say, for me the word ‘normal’ has always jarred. I think particularly on hair products, it’s always irked. I mean what is ‘normal’? What is ‘normal’ hair?”, said British beauty editor Funmi Fetto on an episode of her beauty podcast, On Reflection.

“For so long, the global beauty industry has thrived and profited by promoting and perpetuating euro-centric beauty ideals and we’re now in a place where we’re questioning so much of this.”

Words can hurt, just as much as they can ‘other’. They demonstrate bias, no matter how unintentional - or well-intentioned.

‘Normal’ immediately creates the existence of the opposite. Of difference. Comparison, and not in a positive light. There is no real ‘normal’ in hair type or skin type or anything else when you’re being inclusive because it indicates a difference to the ‘default’. And who says what the default is? get it.

What’s in a name?

Nude is another. 

An incredible deep dive, The Naked Truth, by Ofunne Amaka and Amber Thomas for Pudding analysed the names of 6,818 complexion products across a variety of brands.

When looking at foundations with the word ‘nude’ in the name, the majority of shades were clustered in the light to middle end of the shade spectrum. Even when taking shade availability into account (brands offer fewer darker shades in general) the results stayed the same.

The same was found with ‘natural’. 

“The persistent association of the words ‘nude’ and ‘natural’ with light light complexions leaves us with unanswered questions that hint at an implicit bias and anti-blackness,” Amaka writes.

“Are people with darker complexions ‘unnatural’? Why aren’t the skin tones of dark skinned people considered ‘nude’ too?”

Of course, beauty is the tip of the iceberg. It’s long been a sticking point in fashion and until a campaign called for otherwise in 2015, Merriam-Webster dictionary actually defined nude as ‘having the colour of a white person’s skin’. 

The inherent bias is everywhere.

Even foundations that used a numbering system are implicitly prioritising those at the beginning of the sequence, says Amaka.

Yep, those are the lighter shades again.

So how can I fix these?

Be conscious of the language that you’re using. If big brands are starting to do it, then new and smaller brands - who are far more agile in their flexibility and innovation - should definitely be doing it.

Awareness of these terms and consumer concerns is the start. Then it’s time to action.

1. Don’t just follow what’s already been done and instead question, interrogate and explore how you can do it better. From shade naming to product descriptions, the little things speak volumes. When it comes to hair, terminology like ‘kinky’ or ‘natural’ hair can also be found offensive. Are you using any of them? Reevaluate.

2. Consult and work with - or just listen to - communities who can outrightly say the beauty terms that are outdated, exclusive or damaging. While it’s new changes, it’s not a new conversation. Chances are they’ve been talking about it for a while.

3. See it as an opportunity. You can be part of a positive change in beauty just by taking time to consider the language you use. 


Need help to navigate changing language? Our in-house word nerds (read: copywriters and strategists) can help with that.

Download our Health and Wellness Brand Report