Except nobody’s interested in those achievements. They’re barely applauded. Instead, the narrator observes, when Sara finally “reached the moon,” everyone just wanted to know what shade her lipstick was.
This is a funny position for a cosmetics brand to take on, as it implies one’s beauty choices are perhaps the least relevant things about them. But there’s a lot to unpack before merely writing that off as a category-diminishing choice.
Let’s go back to the topic of cognitive dissonance. You’re born into this world, and maybe you’ve got good parents—people who make you feel like anything is possible, like you are possible. Your curiosity is nurtured; your soul expands.
So you take on challenges. It doesn’t make them less hard, but you’re driven by a desire to expand into the world and share all that with others.
While all this is happening, you’re not growing up in a vacuum. If you’re a girl (or even a boy), you get conditioned, right? There are benefits to becoming a woman who’s mindful of her appearance. It’s also a creative pursuit, and pleasurable. A lipstick choice is personal. My nail polish, or the color and cut of my high heels, are not anodyne. It’s flattering when people take note of those careful choices.
But there are contexts in which appreciation for those choices are welcome, and contexts when that same appreciation is happening at the expense of something else. An erasure is occurring, masquerading as a compliment. Maybe the suppliers of the latter don’t even realize it, which can make the cognitive dissonance even greater for the recipient.
Some years ago I read a woman’s obituary in The New York Times. She’d lived a long life, and accomplished a number of things that changed the course of world events. But in her quite lengthy obituary, everything she’d personally achieved was reduced to a couple of sentences. The rest was devoted to the fact that she was a wife of, and a mother.
Sara’s hypothetical triplets shows that the choice to make a family is no less a way of “reaching the moon” than the ambition to become a top athlete or, say, to invent wifi (props to Hedy Lamarr—a genius who was publicly so reduced to her looks that she spent the last years of her life housebound). This isn’t about pitting one great accomplishment against another.
But I spoke to someone about the Times article when it came out. The person immediately shot back, “How can you feel sorry for that woman? She got an obituary in an important paper. She should be grateful.”
That she was seen at all is not the point. It’s how she was seen, and what people decided mattered in the scale of her life.
I had similar thoughts the other night, reading about the academic struggle to recognize Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess, as the first known author. Her contributions in literature have been field knowledge for decades, and she began writing just as ancient Sumer was passing from an oral to a literary tradition. What she accomplished is obvious. Generally, though, she usually just gets cited as the “daughter of Sargon,” and her role as a high priestess—whose temple oversaw all major Mesopotamian commerce—is sometimes belittled as managing a “nunnery” or even a brothel. The “first author” credit most often goes to male writers, like Herodotus.
There is something about our culture—this triumvirate of patriarchy, imperialism and capitalism—that causes us to struggle with recognizing the contributions and wholeness of women outright. Instead, we are liable to issue a compliment for something else (“Your skin’s so smooth. What’s your secret?”). By acknowledging them in this way, and arguing they should be grateful for the fact they were seen at all, we handily erase their stories and contributions from our annals.
This subtle violence is nicely managed by “Look Beyond Beauty.” An admirative question about lipstick, on a stage designed to recognize you for your achievements, throws you off-guard. In a different context, you might relish it. But when you’ve just pushed yourself all the way to the moon, it hits different. Some part of you goes to war: the one that wants to be gracious, and the one screaming, I’ve done all this, can offer so much, and this is still all that merits mention?
I think back to my friend and that New York Times article, that whole “she should be grateful” subtext. Humility’s important, right? So why can’t you just have gratitude and not make this situation a thing. The cognitive dissonance created in that moment is enough to shut a person down—in the instant, and over time. It’s not that makeup’s not important. It’s not that humility’s not important. But you’re also not arguing those positions. You’re arguing for the right to be perceived as someone for whom those things aren’t all.
Later in the ad, Nilens Jord gets less subtle about the barbed nature of these charming observations on lipstick and skincare. The statements get mashed up and entangled with less complimentary reflections: “Who’s looking after your kids? What’s up with the big hair? That outfit—so unprofessional.”
This nails the coffin shut, so to speak: In those eternal moments where you’re being asked to accept the compliment, answer the lipstick question, to be grateful, you’ve tacitly agreed to something: Here is your bar. Once that’s established, you’ve invited the opportunity for people to judge you against that bar only. There’s the trap we’re guided into.
“When we reduce women and girls to their looks, we limit their potential,” the ad concludes. “Look beyond beauty.”
As I mentioned, it may seem odd for a cosmetics brand to go this route—to seem like it’s deriding its own raison d’être—but the target audience lives with that cognitive dissonance all the time. Beauty is important; you can move more confidently in the world, people are nicer. We just don’t want it to be the most important thing, and this insight, I suppose, is how Nilens Jord seeks to differentiate itself.
A lot of beauty brands might suggest the opposite, subtly (or not so subtly) leaning on the empowering nature of beauty, the oh-là-là! appeal of striding through the world feeling gorgeous. This “exclusively positive” focus casts a shadow, and “Look Beyond Beauty” draws its contours. What is complementary and even well-meaning can be used to remind you of your place. You’re being asked, in those moments, to participate in your own disappearance.
Nilens Jord is kind of in the business of telling women this isn’t a sacrifice they have to make, even if “upkeep” is something we all care about, to varying degrees. The company has been creating unfussy, paraben- and perfume-free products since the 1980s, when natural beauty products were mostly seen as less effective versions of more technologically aggressive ones. In the same way they’ve stuck with that vision, it extends the same gift to women: You’ve got your own compass to follow. Don’t get hijacked by this other shit.
This philosophical approach is even visible in the production of the work. The midwife depicted is an actual midwife, and the teenage tennis player is a tennis coach for children.
“This is not a campaign but a holistic new direction for the brand, one that will inform everything from partnerships to how the brand shows its products and the women it casts to help tell that story,” says Jakob Marum, managing director at Nilens Jord. “We were beauty activists when we introduced perfume and paraben-free products, while other players in the beauty industry focused on colors and ’80s trends without caring about the consequences for the makeup user, and we continue to be true to that spirit in everything we do.”