Gender-neutral beauty: marketing ploy or an authentic move towards inclusivity?


Gender neutrality has become a buzzword in the beauty industry. But should brands be cashing in on the LGBTQ+ community and what’s actually being done to support us, asks Vic Parsons

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By Vic Parsons on

Gender-neutral beauty is officially A Thing. According to Mintel's Trend The Next Genderation, as gender diversity becomes more visible, consumers are moving away from traditional gender stereotypes and “the traditional gender boundaries associated with fashion and beauty trends are becoming progressively blurred”. Last September, ASOS made the decision to change the name of their beauty and grooming section to Face + Body, giving it it's own ungendered channel on the site to make clear that it was a space for everyone, and this month, Liberty London reported a 40% uptick in the sales of their unisex perfumes. After years of upholding traditional gender norms, beauty brands have cottoned on to the fact that not everyone fits into the binary categories of man or woman – and, crucially, that it’s not only cisgender women they can sell make-up to. Men, transgender and non-binary people wear make-up, too, and they represent both a new market for brands to sell to and communities that brands want to be seen supporting.

I’ve always felt excluded from beauty campaigns, which historically have shown make-up as being something for women. Though I tried hard in my teens to be a girl – with the badly applied make-up and thinly plucked 90s eyebrows to show for it – and harder as a child to be a boy, I’m not either. I’m trans and non-binary, meaning that my gender identity is not the same as the sex I was assigned at birth and also that it falls outside of the socially constructed categories of “boy or girl”. Fifteen years ago, I was desperately in need of non-binary role models to show me not to be ashamed or afraid of who I am – and we’ve definitely seen a lot of progress since then.

Representation of queer, trans and non-binary people in the beauty industry is beginning to trickle in. And it feels exciting. When big, multinational companies with lots of money and influence use trans faces for their products, it gives our community visibility – and with that comes, for me at least, a feeling of being seen.

In the last two years, James Charles became the first male spokesmodel for CoverGirl Cosmetics, Manny Gutierrez was named the first male ambassador for Maybelline and YouTuber Patrick Starrr designed his own range for MAC. Munroe Bergdorf became the first trans face of L’Oréal and ASOS launched its Go Play campaign, which encouraged experimentation, pushing boundaries and wearing what you want regardless of rules or limits. Likewise, Sleek’s My Face. My Rules campaign rallied against make-up-shaming by standing up for “everyone’s right to define their own beauty, without boundaries”.

It’s definitely a step in the right direction. But, while many brands are outwardly embracing the LGBTQ+ community, some have done so more successfully than others. White, cis gay men (like James Charles and Manny Gutierrez) fronting campaigns are often perceived as being representative of our whole community, but that is simply not the case. When Charles posted a racist comment to his Twitter feed, he was seen not to be thinking intersectionally about the queer community. And, while Munroe Bergdorf’s appointment to L’Oréal was initially very exciting, she was dropped days later, before the campaign even started, over comments she made about white people being unconsciously racist – a view that L’Oréal stated was “at odds with their values”.

Bergdorf went on to become the face of Illamasqua, along with gender-fluid activist Rain Dove. Illamasqua’s campaign featured pledges to stand up to transphobia, a reminder to its customers to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves and gave Bergdorf and Dove space to talk about their own relationships with gender.

If brands are making money off the back of being seen to be promoting diversity – not just of size, race or age, but now also of gender – what are they giving back?

This kind of queer representation in beauty marketing has changed my relationship with make-up – it can be playful and expressive for me now, rather than gendered.

However, I do have some questions. As we’ve seen with Pride, many companies jumped on the rainbow-capitalism bandwagon – and this does not always benefit the LGBTQ+ community that it purports to serve. Using increasing queer visibility to market products is all very well, but the queer community is still in need of actual support. If brands are making money off the back of being seen to be promoting diversity – not just of size, race or age, but now also of gender – what are they giving back?

There have been two efforts by beauty companies recently that have made my heart melt. In May, Sephora launched in-store beauty classes for trans and non-binary people – run and developed by trans Sephora staff. Not only are the classes free, but trans allies wanting to show their support can buy the Sephora Collection Retractable Brush or the Sephora Stands Fearless Lipstick, profits from which go to Sephora’s community programmes. As genderqueer beauty writer Arabelle Sicardi wrote for Them.: “To see a company cater to the trans and queer community, not as token models in one-off beauty campaigns, but in centering us as essential to their community is a relief. By employing trans people and providing them resources through which they can help themselves and their customers, they’re showing that beauty and politics are linked, all the time, and sometimes wonderfully.”

Another brand making a difference is Fluide Beauty. Not only is their tagline “Makeup for him, her, them, everyone” – a lovely inclusive nod to those outside the gender binary, like me – but 5% of their profits go to LGBTQ+ health and advocacy groups. One of these, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, is named after a trans veteran of the 1969 Stonewall uprising. Sylvia Rivera is a legend of the queer community and the group named after her provides legal support to the most marginalised of us – trans people seeking legal help to change gender and trans immigrants who need legal advice. Seeing her name associated with a make-up brand feels radical to me – like real progress. It helps, of course, that Fluide’s first collection was fronted by model Jacob Tobias, a prominent genderqueer activist, who described the founders of the brand as an “allied mom” and “a gender nonconforming, cool Brooklyn kid”.

These two examples, in particular, make me hopeful because they show that it is possible for companies to be real, authentic allies to the queer community. The LGBTQ+ community cannot just be used as a marketing tool. If we are ever going to truly see an inclusive, representative and supportive industry, then any brand purporting to be such things needs to put their money and resources where their mouth is.


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beauty honestly
gender equality
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