Photo series reimagines vintage beauty ads through an inclusive lens

Written by Marianna Cerini

Holding an array of cosmetics in one hand and a multi-color compact in the other, a model with a coiffed hairstyle smiles contentedly at the camera. “It’s literally everything!” reads the text beneath, referring to the tidier of the two. “It’s confidence, it’s fearlessness, it’s stability, it’s everything you could want and more!”

The image looks like a beauty ad straight out of the 1970s — except it’s not. The brand being advertised, Max Fab, isn’t real. And the model is plus-size and Asian. The ad copy is meant to poke fun at its own absurdity: a makeup compact can’t really be “everything.” It might offer confidence, sure, but as for its other touted attributes? Not so much.

The work is one of five photos featured in “Prim ‘n Poppin,'” a new photo series that reimagines ’70s and ’80s beauty advertisements to be more inclusive. Photographer Julia Comita and makeup artist Brenna Drury set out to challenge the industry’s heteronormative notions of beauty, which often result in White, cisgender, thin models starring in its campaigns.
Model Kaguya poses for the "Prim 'n Poppin" series.

Model Kaguya poses for the “Prim ‘n Poppin” series. Credit: Courtesy Julia Comita

“When we decided to collaborate on recreating the ads … the first thing we noticed as we went through them was how they only showed young, White women,” Drury said in a phone interview. “There was no diversity in the group of people who were being represented. We asked ourselves: ‘What would society look like today if inclusivity and diversity had been standard practices in the past? “Prim ‘n Poppin'” is our way to begin answering that question.”

To that end, Comita and Drury riffed on the vintage ads’ campy style with bright hues, lots of pastels, voluminous hairdos and dreamy smiles. Their casting choices, however, were markedly different, with their models varied when it comes to race, gender, size and sexuality. Two of the people featured have vitiligo, an incurable skin condition that causes colorless patches to develop on a person’s body.

The photos are accompanied by interviews with the models, in which they share their personal experiences and thoughts on beauty, representation and the industry.

“We wanted to flip the whole thing on its head in a fun, empowering way,” Comita said in a phone interview.

Comita and Drury hope Prim' n' Poppin will become an ongoing series. "We obviously know we can't represent everybody in five pictures," Comita said. "There are still too many people who haven't been accounted for."

Comita and Drury hope Prim’ n’ Poppin will become an ongoing series. “We obviously know we can’t represent everybody in five pictures,” Comita said. “There are still too many people who haven’t been accounted for.” Credit: Courtesy Julia Comita

A history of gloss and shame

Beauty ads have historically targeted White women, pressuring them to buy products through a mix of emotional appeal and appearance-shaming.

Their message was that if you didn’t buy beauty products to become more attractive, you risked letting yourself and the people around you down, therefore missing out on life opportunities, social recognition, romance and general happiness.

In the early 1900s, a deodorant brand called Odorono became one of the first to use these strategies, warning that women could experience heartbreak if they didn’t invest in antiperspirants (sales spiked after it was published).
Nail care product brand Cutex ran similar campaigns in the 1910s and ’20s, cautioning that unmanicured nails were a marker of low-class status, and should thus be avoided at all costs.
Interviews with the models feature on the Prim 'n Poppin' website, which also includes a list of beauty brands, modelling agencies and education groups that stand for diversity and inclusion.

Interviews with the models feature on the Prim ‘n Poppin’ website, which also includes a list of beauty brands, modelling agencies and education groups that stand for diversity and inclusion. Credit: Courtesy Julia Comita

Beauty ads continued in a similar vein in the 1950s, with guilt-marketing directed mostly at housewives. Firms also began betting big on their slogans — the most famous being Clairol’s “Does she… or doesn’t she?” first used in 1956, which essentially helped normalize hair dyes by emphasizing their subtlety.

By the 1960s, the messaging — while still fairly conventional — had turned to objectifying women. In the latter part of that decade, an ad from British brand Yardley of London read: “She couldn’t fix a proper cup of tea. She even beat him at darts. But he loved her madly because of her English Eyes.” (Translation: You can be forgiven for being a bad housewife as long you look pretty).

It was in the 1970s that things became more empowering. L’Oreal’s “Because I’m worth it” campaign debuted in 1971, putting a woman’s point of view — rather than pleasing others or the fear of being judged — at the heart of its ad.

The popularity of African American and female-centric publications, such as Ebony, Jet and Essence, as well as the Black is Beautiful movement (which had started in the ’60s), also saw more Black women and celebrities promoting beauty products on TV and in print ads. But, for the most part, the faces selling cosmetics continued to be predominantly White, and brands peddling “Black beauty” rarely accounted for varying skin tones or hair textures with their products.

Ads then became flashier, screaming phrases like ‘Hello, Fresh Face!” and “Great Look, Great Body, Great Lash Mascara!” The trend carried into the 1980s, which is what made Comita and Drury pick these two decades as inspiration.

“The bright eyeshadows and nail polishes felt more relatable,” Drury said. “Though it was also apparent everything else wasn’t.”

The project's creators used heavy messenging to emphasize how beauty brands rely on slogans to drive home beauty values.

The project’s creators used heavy messenging to emphasize how beauty brands rely on slogans to drive home beauty values. Credit: Courtesy Julia Comita

This included the messaging. After looking at the texts of different ads, the duo hired copywriter Bre Harrison to create slogans for their fictional shots that would feel more contemporary — “It’s sheer! It’s queer!” reads the copy for a flavored lip balm; “Colors that scream ‘I’ll probably leave your text message on read,'” boasts an ad peddling eyeshadow — while also exposing the hilariously unrealistic promises made by beauty brands.

“We were keen to point out how both the language and imagery of those (vintage) ads kept selling the idea that beauty products would magically turn you … into the best, most alluring version of yourself,” Comita said. “Their message, essentially, was that the way you looked simply wasn’t good enough.”

The photographer was also interested in deconstructing the ads’ subtext, which often positioned male desire as a chief reason to invest in beauty products.

“In so many instances, it was implied that you should ‘make yourself better’ so that you could be more acceptable to men,” she said. “‘Buy this so that he will find you more attractive,’ ‘buy that so that you can make yourself better, more beautiful for him.'”

Recasting beauty

While still far from inclusive, the beauty industry has made efforts to diversify in recent years, with celebrity-led lines like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty rolling out products for all skin tones.

Representation has become a global talking point, as have our notions of what looks and is deemed beautiful. Kaguya, the model who features in Comita and Drury’s “Max Fab” ad, said the project’s subversion of rigid standards and marketing helps to highlight “what genuine representation in the industry could look like … from (having) different size ranges, to visibility beyond … cisgender women and Eurocentric standards.”

“If we had ads like these from the get-go, I believe we’d all be a lot kinder to each other, and more progressive as a society,” she said over the phone. “I, for one, would have loved seeing someone like me represented this way growing up.”

Prim'n' Poppin' aims to be a call for the beauty industry to diversify their talent pool and marketing strategies. This ad features model Jesi Taylor Cruz.

Prim’n’ Poppin’ aims to be a call for the beauty industry to diversify their talent pool and marketing strategies. This ad features model Jesi Taylor Cruz. Credit: Courtesy Julia Comita

Non-binary model Jesi Taylor Cruz, who appears in a nail polish ad for the photo series, agreed. “For too long, real people have had no place in the portrayal of what’s considered ‘beauty,'” they said in a phone interview. “This project shows that there’s so much more in life than the ads and conforming to one ideal or the other.”

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