Bare Escentuals, a cosmetics company specializing in mineral makeup, has a new ad campaign that hinges upon how it found “the world’s most beautiful women…without ever seeing their faces.” Models and actresses showed up at the casting call and filled out questionnaires about themselves, which were given to Bare Escentuals. The company then cast the campaign solely on the basis of the questionnaires, choosing models not for their looks but for their “inner beauty,” posting a series of videos about the women on their website:

The campaign uses its selection process as a touchstone for all its taglines, pitting “pretty” against “beauty”: “Pretty can turn heads…beauty can change the whole world.” The commercials and print ads showcase the selected models in their daily lives: We see Lauren, a volunteer firefighter, hoisting a water hose from the ladder truck; we learn that Keri enjoys skateboarding and learned Farsi to communicate with her in-laws. This is meant to let us see the model meeting the company’s definition of beautiful by being themselves.

On its face this seems a logical, even praise-worthy, response to the constant barrage of unrealistic messages hurled at women every day about what appearance they should aspire to. But in so doing, the campaign commodifies women’s inner lives in addition to their beauty. Viewers are asked to reward the company for putting the models’ personalities on display; we’re expected to judge the models, albeit positively, for going above and beyond the model call of duty — she’s a volunteer firefigher! she has a sword collection! she blogs! By parading the inner (and formerly private) lives of the models for profit, the company appears to be showing us “real” women instead of the professional beauties that they are.

The customer takeaway is supposed to be that Bare Escentuals, more than other companies, recognizes that beauty comes from within. But the net effect is that we are shown how “being oneself” is now subject to standards of beauty. The same labor that has always gone into looking attractive — the labor that models have professionalized and monetized (smiling, appearing natural in front of the camera, speaking the company line) — is now applied to “being yourself,” which has been turned into a field of commodified emotional labor.

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Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes at The Beheld, a blog exploring the role of beauty and personal appearance in our lives through essays, cultural analysis, long-form interviews, and more.

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