Material Girls

Gendered consumerism and the allure of ‘natural’ beauty

by Annabelle Woodward

Illustration by Sophia Meng

published October 26, 2018

The ‘real girl’ lives on commercial breaks, subway cars, and the glossy broad sides of commuter buses. She is beautiful, but unlike any Barbie doll that toy manufacturers could hope to imagine—a large forehead, maybe, or a nose splattered with freckles. We see her embracing each new day as it comes: meditating, reading, wearing comfy-looking socks, and wholesomely applying X brand lipstick for a natural, glossy finish. Picking a juicy-looking raspberry from a bush, she is at peace. She doesn’t fear stock market downturns or the scrutiny of her peers. Seeing her apply that lipstick, her kind eyes backlit with optimism, I experience a sensation—first of reverence, then of envy, then of desire.

If you’ve ever heard of HBO’s hit comedy-drama series Sex and the City, you’re probably familiar with its curly-haired, Manolo Blahnik-coveting protagonist Carrie Bradshaw, the fashion & love-life blogger epitomized by her infamous line: “I have this little substance abuse problem: expensive footwear.”

While most women’s relationships with shopping aren’t as intense as Bradshaw’s, we still talk about the practice like a vice or an addiction. Though some consider it a craft, a competition, or a therapeutic pastime, the language used to describe shopping is more often penitent—think, “I shouldn’t have” or “I had to” or “I couldn’t help myself.” While part of this attitude stems from a Judeo-Christian anxiety about materialism and excess that dates back to biblical times—think ‘Thou shall not covet’—the fact that the stigma around shopping persists despite the championing of mass consumption suggests that darker forces might be at play.

The ‘sin’ of shopping has several dimensions. First, there’s the fear of inefficiency—that choosing to spend $20 on a non-essential item of clothing is a poor allocation of resources that could otherwise be saved, or invested in cryptocurrency, or used to feed ourselves or others. Then there’s the political dimension: when shopping for mass-produced goods, we feel complicit in perpetuating manufacturing practices that pollute water sources, damage ecosystems, and perpetuate (potentially) exploitative labor practices around the globe. Lastly, there’s the fact that shopping has historically been gendered as a feminine and therefore a trivial activity. In shows like Sex and the City and Arrested Development we see shopping portrayed as a fussy, un-intellectual pastime reserved for characters like Lindsay Fünke and Carrie Bradshaw, self-absorbed, materialistic women who aren’t accountable to the ‘real’ world.

This leads us to an interesting nexus of hypocrisy: Why is it ‘artificial’ when a woman buys a pair of expensive shoes, but amusing (and thoroughly All-American) when a man buys a sports car he can’t afford for his 45th birthday? The man isn’t any less real for splurging; in fact, he’s self-realized. But in order for a woman to be considered ‘real’ or ‘unlike other girls,’ she is expected to abstain from shopping and wearing makeup—activities that might make her seem duplicitous. The ‘real girl’ might be used to promote beauty and skincare products, but the 15-second advertisement she stars in implies that she is not the type to shop needlessly or ‘for fun.’ She is the kind of girl who summits mountaintops; all she needs is sunshine and all-natural lipstick.




Of course, women’s choices are also governed by their financial means, and consuming for fun is a privilege reserved for the middle and upper classes. But harmful stereotypes about women who shop ‘for fun’ or ‘irresponsibly’ overshadow the valuable contributions made by the countless women who shop ‘responsibly’ or use the power of the purse to further an ethical agenda. American women from all socioeconomic strata have a long history of using consumer activism as a means of spearheading social and political change. In a lot of cases, it has been what women have collectively chosen not to buy that has instigated changes. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, was largely planned and executed by African-American women who were members of the anti-segregation Political Women’s Council. In 1902, Jewish housewives on the Lower East Side protested a six cent hike in the price of kosher meat by rioting in the streets and distributing fliers that said, “Eat no meat while they take meat from the bones of your women and children!” to great success. And just last year, angry (wealthier) women customers boycotted Neiman Marcus for selling Ivanka Trump’s shoes.

One increasingly popular means of women’s consumer resistance is seen in the consumption of  organic products. Organic buying is widely considered a mark of privilege—a form of quasi-resistance exclusively reserved for white elites—but surveys taken as early as the 2000s show that this has never really been the case. One 2006 study by the Hartmann Group found that Asians and Hispanics were the most likely (out of Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, and Caucasians) to have purchased organic produce in the last three months, and that organic “core consumers,” or those most committed to the organic lifestyle, were found to be Hispanic or African American. While cost is often a barrier for organic consumption, a Canadian survey found that 64 percent of households in Canada with an income of less than $40,000 still buy organic, compared to to 70 percent of households with an income of over $100,000. The common association of organic buying with the high-end retailer Whole Foods prevents people from factoring in the organic buying that takes place in specialty ethnic food stores, farmers markets, or at street vendors.

Kim M., Creative Director at VSA Partners, a branding agency in New York City, told the Independent that she believes buying natural and organic products has become a means of civic involvement for many Americans: “It’s pretty obvious that we’re not getting anywhere on a governmental level in terms of protecting the environment or protecting our water and food supplies. Purchasing natural things seems to be a way of exercising control amidst all this chaos that’s going on.”

When I buy earth-friendly beauty products from an outlet like Sephora, I know in the back of my head that I’m succumbing to packaging that was expertly designed to capitalize on the guilt that I feel as a knowing participant in ecosystem-damaging market capitalism. There’s something eerily algorithmic about the soothing shades of green and the labels promising to refresh, renew, and heal me from the sins of modernity. I know I’m being played, but I still walk out of the store feeling like I’ve saved myself, saved the earth, and said screw you to the political and corporate powers that be.

Buying organic has become a redemptive exercise, and a large number of cosmetic and skincare companies have rebranded or expanded their natural product lines to satisfy women’s desire for resistance and redemption through identification with nature. This trend is exemplified by the “I Am Not Synthetic” campaign that Burt’s Bees used to launch their first full cosmetics line in 2017. The campaign featured commercials that showed ‘real’ women of all colors being empowered by real ingredients. “Burt’s Bees is taking a stand against synthetic chemicals,” says the narrator as the screen jumps from a girl doing a pirouette in an empty but expensive-looking apartment to a picture of fresh-looking raspberries. The words “take a stand” coupled by the fast paced, urgent tone of the advertisement suggests that a ‘call to arms’ is being issued; it’s framed as resistance propaganda.




This is a really compelling advertising campaign. Visually stunning, topical, camaraderie-generating. Like many effective advertisements, it successfully capitalizes on several shifts in cultural attitudes, namely the naturalization of cultural chemophobia, or the irrational fear of chemicals, and the rejection of traditional beauty standards. But  this advertisement is most effective because it reclaims of the words “real” and “natural,” words which have historically been used to signify places and people associated with men. When FOX newscasters talk about the “real America” they mean the manly America, the gritty, industrious, bootstrap-pulling white working class. When they discuss “the real problem,” they are referring to the economy, and they emphasize the word “real” so that other issues (a woman’s right to choose, for example) seem marginal in comparison. When someone refers to a “real man,” I imagine a man who has rejected the modern world and its trivialities, who drinks Natty and lives off the land.

It’s no great secret that this manly “real American” was dreamed up by mid-century advertising agencies to sell cigarettes and elect Nixon. But despite Mad Men’s valiant effort to shine a light on it all, these fictions continue to influence predominant cultural attitudes about women and reality. Burt’s Bees is setting a good example by encouraging women to reclaim the word “real” and incorporate ethical consumption into their identities, and it’s hard to find fault in their “be true, be you” message. But their campaign exemplifies a potentially problematic trend in activism: that women should resist the political and corporate powers that be by somehow returning to nature and rejecting all things modern and messy.

When watching the Burt’s Bees commercial, I am compelled to purchase the all-natural product not because it is pretty or user-friendly or non-carcinogenic, but because I feel like it will cleanse me of myself.  It will somehow wash away all the weird, contradictory caveats that confuse my identity as a woman, and I will be reborn as a wholesome, nurturing femme forest creature, totally ignorant of stock markets and shopping centers, just living and loving and spreading good cheer.

I know this idea of return is totally fictive and illusory, just like I know that I’m probably not really saving the earth or saying ‘screw you’ to anyone when I buy organic beauty products, but I still sometimes go online and put beauty products in my cart. Maybe I don’t buy them but I think about them for a while, you know?

Companies will continue to use this “Be real! Be simple! Be natural!” messaging because nature is hip right now (for good reason, the earth is dying!), but a woman’s identity (or human identity, for that matter) is never natural or pure, and all attempts to distill it into an essence have proved futile or damaging. Depending on your perspective, we’ve been corrupted/enriched/constituted by so many chemicals and conflicting stories about ourselves and others that there’s no easy return to a singular ‘reality’ in sight. We’re all real. Or maybe none of us are real. And if  young girls grow up believing that being ‘real’ is synonymous with being ‘all-natural’ and ‘pure,’ they’ll internalize an essentialist, reductive understanding of identity.

If women working in television, advertising, and other creative fields fight to promote more realistic (and therefore, proudly impure) portrayals of what women look like, perhaps our idea of what’s real will no longer be reserved for stock markets, lumberjacks, and forest nymphs. Perhaps it will include real, real women, too.


ANNABELLE WOODWARD B’20 has two plants.