Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Leeds Beckett University
L’Oreal recently fired beauty vlogger Kadeeja Khan from a hair advert. An agency working for the company approached Kadeeja through her Instagram account, arranged her travel and sent her details of the shoot. But on the day of the shoot, L'Oreal’s agency emailedKadeeja saying it was sorry but “L'Oreal can’t be involved with people with skin issues”. Kadeeja has acne.
L’Oreal claims this was just a mix up, that their agency had made a mistake “where the wrong profile had been cast” and that they actually “work with women and men with all skin types and celebrate beauty in all its diversity”. But as Kadeeja pointed out, apparently not women like her. She wasn’t invited back to do the shoot.
The reality, as research shows, is that not all skin types are represented by L’Oreal or in the media generally. In our previous research, my and colleagues and I coded every image of a man featured in popular men’s magazines, dating websites and porn sites. Unsurprisingly, we found the majority of the images used were of men who were muscular, had full heads of hair and were young.
We also found just 203 – or three per cent of the 6,349 images featured – had a skin blemish or an unsymmetrical facial feature. These features were minor such as faint eye wrinkles or a slightly unsymmetrical nose. There were no images of men with acne. We also found similar results for the images of women.
No acne, scars or blemishes
In general, people with visible facial differences, such as acne, are rarely represented and when they are represented in media they are often villified. Just think of Scar from The Lion King, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter and more recently Dr Poison from Wonder Woman – these are all characters with prominent facial scarring who represent the “baddies”.
Acne also faces stigma. The NHS has tried to break this stigma by rebutting the persistent myths surrounding acne: that it is caused by a bad diet or how clean your face is. It’s not.
Blemished skin isn’t the only under represented skin type. Older skin and darker skin is also seen less often in popular culture. Such is the poor representation of darker skin that my colleagues and I found there were twice as many lighter skinned Black women featured than darker skinned Black women, even in Black women’s magazines.
The poor representation of all skin types is especially true for many cosmetic companies. In 2009, Proctor & Gamble’s Olay announced they were using fashion model Twiggy to head up one of their adverts. Twiggy had a skin “type” rarely featured in advertising – one that had some evidence of ageing – she was 59 at the time. So how did Olay celebrate this skin type? They got rid of it.
Ofcom banned the advert for its extensive airbrushing of Twiggy’s skin which they argued could give a misleading impression of the effect the product could achieve.
L’Oreal’s decision to fire Kadeeja is reminiscent of a casting call for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign in 2010 which aims to create a world where “every body is beautiful”. The casting call specified that Dove was looking for “three or four real women for a Dove Print Campaign”. The call stated that the women “must have flawless skin”, “nice bodies” and that “beautiful hair and skin is a must”.
Dove also got into trouble in 2008 when a photo editor claimed he had extensively airbrushed some of the images of real women in Dove’s adverts. This was later backtracked, with the editor claiming his words had been taken out of context.
Companies like Dove – or its parent company Unilever – need to sell their next anti-cellulite, anti-wrinkle and skin bleaching creams. So while Dove’s campaign might claim “every body is beautiful”, its profits depend on women believing that bodies with cellulite or wrinkles are not.
Someone like Kadeeja, is an antidote to this and the plethora of images of women and men in the media that have flawless skin. So while, yes, she posts makeup tips, she is also “acne positive”. She regularly posts pictures of herself without makeup, with acne, showing her 146,000 Instagram followers that “looks are not everything” and that “beauty is self confidence applied directly to the face”. And in that sense, by today’s standards of beauty, she is pretty radical.