Protests at the Miss World contest in London 1970: sample chapter
Miss World on steroids
from the Miss World demonstration 1970 to Cayla the doll and Pretty Little Things 2020
In 1970, after our success in halting the spectacle of the Miss World contest, we were surprised by the unexpected win of first and second place by two black women in what had always been a very white, conservative contest.
Jennifer Hosten from Grenada and Pearl Jansen, the black woman transported in as the ‘black’ Miss Africa South. This was Mecca’s ruse to defuse the anti-apartheid campaigners’ protests about apartheid South Africa being allowed to participate. The win gave rise to complex questions about the relationship between sex, race and class, which the Women’s Liberation Movement was only just beginning to become awkwardly aware of.
In 2017, a talking doll named Cayla was banned by German authorities. The Federal Network Agency recommended that parents destroy the doll.
In 2020, Pretty Little Things, a clothes and accessories online warehouse in Sheffield made record profits during the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is the connection? This is a story that takes us from that anger-fuelled feminist action through the globalisation of the beauty industry to today’s super-charged online sales and surveillance technology.
The winning of the 1970 competition by two black women foretold a period of extraordinary expansion of the tentacles of the beauty industry into the countries of the global south, which had hitherto had their very own specific ideas and practices in relation to female and male beauty. World-wide, beauty parlours, and barbers, were traditionally places to share tips about caring for black hair and skin, but importantly they were places of social gathering and information.
The 1960s ‘Black is Beautiful’ black-consciousness movement in America not only expressed black peoples’ resistance to racism and colonialism across the world, it also celebrated black beauty as defined by black people, and the word was spread via these parlours. The Black Power movement enabled black women to realise their own power and strengthen their voices. Listening to these voices (1), we have learnt something about black women’s consciousness - and beauty. At the same time so has the globalised beauty industry. As African American beauty manufacturers boomed, with a huge growth in demand for products that enhanced rather than erased black beauty, they soon began facing hostile competition from large non-black corporations. Revlon was the most aggressive in taking over that market, making free use of black manufacturers’ products and brand symbols (2). And so grew the hold of the beauty industry, launched from the US into the global south.
The 1980s heralded the backlash against the power of the liberation and socialist movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, ideologically framed by a new (but old) economic belief-system called ‘monetarism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’. Underpinning this set of ideas was the belief in the so-called ‘trickle-down effect’, where wealth creation (‘the trickle-up effect’) would enable billionaires to invest their capital freely where and how they wanted, with no fear of restraint from democratic and national regulation. This would supposedly enrich local populations who had not been reached before by wealth creation. Oligarchs throughout the world licked their lips at the opportunities for self-enrichment and embraced the new philosophy. Freed from democratic restraints, western money markets were enabled to flood the global south with investment capitalism.
Beauty pageants and western-sponsored wars (most notably the Gulf wars and the ongoing ‘ War on Terror’) embedded western finance, western culture, western values, echoing Bob Hope’s serving up of the Miss Worlds of 1969 and 1970 to the American troops in Vietnam. Western - American and European - cosmetics industries exploded into the beauty cultures of the south, led by the establishment of the beauty pageant as an exemplar of national pride. Beauty contests began entering the global south as a marker of sophistication and achievement from the 1990s onwards. In Africa, India, Asia and Latin America, young women began turning to beauty contests as a way out of acute poverty. Venezuela is globally ranked first in the number of beauty contests held there, and in the number of Miss World winners (3). Young women‘s only way of affording the gowns, glitter and breast enhancements is to find a wealthy man: “I quickly learnt that getting into the Miss Venezuela contest meant I would have to prostitute myself”(4).
A young Nigerian woman won Miss Universe 2001. Judges had picked a ‘global beauty’. This apparently included being thin. ‘When her picture started to appear in magazines and billboards in her home country, the initial reaction from young women that she looked malnourished was soon replaced by the desire to look like that themselves. Dieting became a craze in Nigeria, a phenomenon that had not previously existed’ (5).
In China the first ever beauty contest - Miss Artificial Beauty! - was held in 2003, a classic meeting of three obsessions in New China: beauty pageants, the western ’look’ and plastic surgery. ‘The winner, Qian Feng, said, “the nips and tucks were to enhance my beauty, but also to see what it was like, since I planned a career in the business.” The operations gave her Western-style "double eyelids" and sculpted her face into its heart-shaped form, while liposuction made her thin’ (6). Poorer Chinese girls who can’t afford the ‘western eyelid’ plastic surgery have taken to creating sticky plasters to tape on their eyelids in order to duplicate the Western ‘round’ eye. (5). By 2005 the Chinese beauty industry was the fifth largest in the country, growing at a rate of 20% a year (7).
In India, Sana Alam writes: ‘In 1994, for the first time in the history of international beauty pageants, both Miss Universe and Miss World crowns adorned Indian heads. It was a moment of sheer appreciation and surprise because no-one could think of Indian girls to be the winners of both these titles since Western or Venezuelan women have always bagged these. And a nation that was just about getting a grip on itself in the post-globalised economy was suddenly shocked in awe. Indian beauties got a whole new face, and it empowered women. One example of the sudden entry of beauty brands has to be Revlon, the first ever international cosmetic brand to enter India. In the year 1995, due to a formidable coalition between the Modi Group and Revlon, it entered Indian markets as Modi Revlon (8). Revlon’s global sales doubled to $3 billion between 2011 and 2017’ (9)
Here we see exposed the function of beauty pageants as a means of building the beauty industry’s global markets and its intertwining with political power. The promotion of women’s identity as the object of men’s desire, and as a symbol of national identity, has been used by expansionist projects for centuries (c.f. the Trojan Wars). This aspect of male power has now been stepped up to a super-industrial scale, with money to be made out of promoting and selling beauty products linked to political and financial power and networks.
‘Modi-Mundipharma Beauty Products Pvt Ltd. is a name to reckon with in the beauty industry in India’ says their advertising blurb. Although not directly linked, the name Modi carries weight because Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India and leader of the far-right BJP – the Hindu-led India People’s Party. He rose to power on the back of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 which led to over 1000 Muslims being killed in Gujarat. Since his election as Prime Minister of India in 2014, he has been conducting politics as an act of constant war against the Muslim population of India and Pakistan, stoking inter-racial, caste and religious violence. Politicians who win power like Modi, need access to millions to fund and bribe their route to power nowadays – is the use of the name Modi coincidental?
Modi and Trump celebrated their ‘special relationship’ in India in February 2020 with a ‘Namaste Trump’ parade. Modi said, “A special leader like President Trump and such a special friend coming to India is a big occasion” (10) amidst the spectacle of many hugs and kisses between the two. In the US, Donald Trump used his beauty pageant business (Miss Universe) to boost his international profile, in particular enabling a ‘special relationship’ with Russia.
The spread of these pageants globally opened up deep sores embedded by the racism of colonialism and slavery. Meetha Jha (11) tells how ‘beauty has become a site of struggle over class, caste inequality, racism and respectability. The negative correlation of degrees of darkness of skin has been well documented. Skin colour, class, the body and beauty as a form of embodied capital’. Beauty can provide access to higher income spouses, higher education and more financial security, simply put, a path to a better life, - but for some, not others.
Recent global pageants in Asia and Africa have become sites for protest against Western domination. The 2002 riot in Nigeria, when 220 people died, was brought on by religious conflict in relation to the introduction of Sharia law. Those beauty protests dating from the 1960s ‘Black is Beautiful’ black-consciousness movement in the USA have spread into ‘Dark is beautiful’ and ‘Brown ‘n’ Proud’ in India, opening up awareness to the way the beauty industry appropriates, commodifies and markets women’s bodies for the beauty industry. But whilst feminist awareness of the appropriation of our identities expanded globally, so did the reach of the cosmetics industry, with unprecedented global sales of $330 billion by 2011 (12).
What is the vehicle that enables this extraordinary rate of expansion? Global media circuits, such as Instagram, Facebook, You Tube, Twitter and web blogs, are spreading norms and values that promote Western ideals of beauty – long straight hair, fair skin, round eyes, white even teeth, pert figures. The circuits maintain a global beauty industry devoted to skin lightening, skin bleaching creams, corrective cosmetic surgery, dieting and fashion. Unilever’s skin lightener ‘Fair & Lovely’ was launched in 40 countries in Asia, Africa, Caribbean and the Middle East from 1992 onwards. By 2017 Unilever’s India market was worth $3 million annually (12).
But the cosmetics industry has to be supersensitive to trends in cultural movements, has to be careful not to strike a jarring, racist chord and remain at the forefront of ‘what women want’. When black women rebelled against the oppressive hegemony of the thin white supermodel, cosmetic companies responded with the ‘Brazilian butt’, thanks to Beyoncé & Kim Kardashian. Beautiful big bums became officially approved as desirable and buyable commodities. By 2015 the ‘Brazilian butt’ was the most popular cosmetic enhancement globally at a cost of $10,000-$17,000 per operation (13). The African American grooming market is now worth $592 million a year. The industry has woken up fairly recently to the fact that black women in the US and Europe spend nearly nine times more than white women on their hair and beauty (13).
Acquiring deep knowledge about street culture has long been necessary to the fashion and beauty industries, as the very nature of the industry is based on the requisite to be a leader in fashion and THE cultural influencer. But the leaders of these industries are pale, male (or male oriented) and stale and haven’t a hope in hell of being ahead of the mainstream because they ARE the mainstream. Thus the industry has to turn to the street, where the real innovative culture is taking place. The very nature of being young and feeling you are an ‘outsider’ demands its own rebellious culture, and this was epitomised by the hip-hop movement of the 1970s. The Black Spades, influenced by the Black Panthers and the teaching of Malcolm X, took to the street with their own block parties, their own music and dance, their own ‘look’. The cultural industries couldn’t get over their excitement at this explosion of innovative imagination and began their inexorable appropriation of every aspect of this revolutionary culture – music, fashion, dance, the spirit of rebellion, celebration of difference. The beauty magazines’ covers began to showcase the beauty of black people, to the point where Teen Vogue complains about the dominance of black women on magazine covers in 2018 (14).
With its greed for expanding markets and the targeting of the black communities, what cosmetics companies are doing is promoting beauty products and sales as a way out of poverty (again) for both black and white women. Companies like That Sister offer black women the dream of setting up their own business. If black women spend so much on beauty products, what could go wrong? This is what can go wrong: my daughter’s friend was persuaded to bulk buy cosmetics and beauty products from That Sister (15), wisely avoiding the usual contract which would have tied her in to buying their branded products at £150 a month for two years. She set up a rental contract for a corner shop near where she lives for two years. She was full of plans and excitement and borrowed and spent a lot of money on doing up the shop and buying the merchandise. She wasn’t given any marketing advice or support – not only did she not attract the black female clientele she anticipated, she did attract the attention of the two adjacent pubs which happened to be full of white racists. After six months of racist abuse and attacks she had to shut up shop and was left with a lot of beauty products and the rental for the remaining period.
This is not a new story; my generation may have had mothers who fell for the Elizabeth Arden (now a subsidiary of Revlon) pyramid schemes or became ‘Avon Ladies’. The schemes were devised as a way of getting women who were stuck at home to sell cosmetics to each other, using coffee morning friendship circles and progressing to enlisting other women to do the same, until there were literally thousands of ‘Avon Ladies’. Today, the ‘Avon Lady’ is getting a digital makeover: CEO of Avon, Jan Zijdfeld says he wants Avon Ladies to become ‘e-representatives’, targeting contacts through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. ‘Friends selling to friends … You trust your friends, the lady you may know.’ (16) Pyramid schemes are now more commonly referred to as ‘Multi-Level Marketing’ and have recently been exposed by Mumsnet: ‘Mumsnet decided in 2017 not to allow MLMs to advertise on the parenting site. ‘We thought about it long and hard because we know that home-based, flexible opportunities are very popular’, says founder Justine Roberts, ‘but many Mumsnet users have posted about what they see as MLMs’ invidious marketing techniques and the effects on vulnerable individuals, and we came to the conclusion that business models based primarily on recruiting have too much potential to be exploitative.’ (17)
The forces behind these coercive tactics have now found the Holy Grail of marketing – what is currently known as Surveillance Technology. At its most obvious level, this technology is simply the use of online social media to access and manipulate people’s opinions and choices. We now know more about how deeply and powerfully manipulative the use of surveillance technology has become, thanks to ‘The Big Hack’ (18) and the investigative journalism of Carole Cadwalldr (19). They exposed the scandal of Cambridge Analytica, a data collection enterprise developed to illegally shape voters’ preferences in the US presidential election of 2016 and the Brexit referendum of 2016 in the UK (20). Cambridge Analytica set up a pilot research project where a selected audience were paid to answer a survey. The personal data of up to eighty seven million Facebook users were acquired via the 270,000 Facebook users who answered the survey and used the Facebook app called ‘This Is Your Digital Life.’ By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app access to information on the user's friends’ networks; this resulted in Cambridge Analytica illegally acquiring the data of about eighty seven million users. Cambridge Analytica was then paid by a US billionaire, Robert Mercer, and Aaron Banks, a millionaire British businessman supporter of Nigel Farage’s Leave campaign, to access and influence British voters via Facebook and other online activities, to vote Leave in the referendum on European membership in 2016.(18) Channel 4 news on 19 March 2018 further exposed how Cambridge Analytica was using whatever method available: data collection, psychological profiling and targeting of millions of voters, as well as more conventional blackmail and corruption.
And so the dots join up from Cambridge Analytica to Revlon. The beauty industry has also found its dream machine in surveillance technology: access to the personal data of billions of internet users. The machinery of psychological profiling, targeting and manipulation is now being constructed on a global scale via data extraction that mines ever deeper into our personal lives. Global media networks are being used to shape human behaviour on a scale undreamt of before. The pinnacle of achievement for the advertising industry is to deliver predictable outcomes – predictable consumer purchasing and therefore profits. Global finance markets have long practised gambling on future sales and profits (Note 1). Predictable consumer profits are the golden chalice: reliable profits that can be used to bundle up and disguise the riskier gambles (Note 2). In 2020, annual sales of the top five cosmetic brands amounted to $96 billion (21). With an overall valuation globally of $532 billion, the industry is predicted to overtake the automotive industry by 2025 with a value of $800 billion (22). With the global economic slump that will certainly be generated by the coronavirus pandemic, the ‘Lipstick Effect’ will mean that the beauty industry is one of the few that will maintain its value..: When people can’t afford a more expensive luxury item, they will buy a cosmetic to give them a feeling of experiencing self-pampering, luxury and change. All this means that the invasive forces of data mining on women and on all young consumers (20-24 year olds are the highest spenders on cosmetics (21) will be stepped up.
During the coronavirus lock down, one of the largest online distribution warehouses in the UK of beauty products and fashion, ‘Pretty Little Things’, was busier than during the Christmas period (22). Pretty Little Things is a distribution warehouse that specialises in online delivery of fashion and beauty products that sprang up in 2019 on the outskirts of Sheffield. It has taken over the site and buildings of what used to be one of the largest steel mills in the UK at Tinsley, Sheffield. What is happening in a once great industrial city exemplifies how the capitalist process of production is changing: from mining coal and ore for steel for armaments, to mining data for sales of beauty products.
Increasingly, the hardware that we rely on, and delight in – phones, tablets, p.c. – are gathering this deep data about our behaviour. When teenage girls confide in each other, or swap experiences, the data gathering algorithms (Note 3) are sucking up every nuance to transform it into hard data, saleable to the cosmetics and fashion industries. You may say ‘nothing new here, advertising companies have always done this’. But this process is turbo-charged and is now an altogether different creature, invading our privacy at the deepest level.
Specialised cameras in our hardware analyse nano-second body language as we communicate: blinks, eye movement, smiles or shrugs. ‘Using facial recognition technology, your intentions, motives, meanings, needs, preferences, desires, emotions, personality and disposition are analysed’, writes Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (23). She explains how your inner life becomes raw material to be extracted and worked on in a process of ‘body rendition’ – literally turning your inner needs and insecurities into marketable products which will then render your outward appearance into the desired image. This process of body rendition is thus carried out by the consumer herself, turning herself into a marketable commodity which also consumes – the perfect circle! Millions are spent on cosmetics, clothes, slimming solutions, chemical enhancers (or lighteners), cosmetic surgery. As with ‘Pretty Little Things’, happiness becomes a service that can be delivered daily to your doorstep.
My Friend Cayla, the talking doll, was every little girl’s dream, marketed at girls between 4 – 13 years, with her fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair, she was the dream companion. She could listen and respond, able to receptively take in the little girl’s hesitant confidences and sympathetically give advice. The only problem was that there was an adult listening and responding at the other end, via the doll’s embedded speech recognition technology, which could be accessed from any mobile phone. The Germans, with their experience of the listening technologies employed by the Nazis and during the cold war, have enforceable privacy laws and banned the doll in 2017. The doll has also been criticised by the Norwegian Consumer Council for allowing the use of the collected data from the child's speech for targeted advertisements and other commercial purposes and its sharing with third parties, as well as for hidden advertisements through the doll's positive statements about certain products and services (24).
Deep data collection and transmission to be used in the shaping and directing of female identities is being targeted at girls from infancy. The feminism of the 1970s revealed the shaping of female identities from childhood into a constrictive gender formula. Embodied by the 39-25-36 vital statistic insisted on as a measure of female beauty, feminists first demonstrated against the intrusion of beauty contests into our identities at the Miss World contest of 1970. Little would we have dreamt of the technologies of penetration and manipulation that global beauty markets would subsequently develop. Our generation has a strong resistance against the incursions of surveillance technology in undermining and appropriating our self-esteem, and of course, that sense of ‘the male gaze’. We did not grow up with the delights and dangers of online media communication, and so are relatively unbothered by online manipulation and the drive to consumerism. New generations of feminists are skilled in using the technological tools, but the tools are still predominantly designed by men for a male-defined world. Google (25), Facebook (26), Apple etc. are notorious as companies that are imbued with sexism (27 & 28) and now we all know what happens with the likes of Cambridge Analytica.
Maybe one of the most powerful antidotes we have to this deep manipulation is the joy and excitement we discover in expressing our anger together. As we did with bringing the beauty contest to a halt in 1970, younger women are again experiencing that joy and power in deciding for themselves, together, what their lives are going to be like. We are going to freely enjoy the beauty of our own and each other’s bodies without ‘THE MAN MAKING MONEY OUT OF US’.
Note 1: Futures markets: The practice of buying and selling a specified amount of commodities via contracts that are based on a specified future delivery date, but at price fixed at the present date. Therefore, the consumption of these commodities by the end user has to be fairly guaranteed and the amount and rate of consumption accurate. The accurate prediction of this rate of consumption therefore becomes the most important tool: surveillance technology shaping consumer behaviour into predictable outcomes.
Note 2. In 2008, the infamous practice of hedge funding was one of the causes of the 2008 global financial crash. Hedge funding was the practice of selling investments in bundles that were so complex that investors often did not know exactly what was in them. The famous example is that of the USA Housing Companies Fannie May and Freddie Mac, set up in the 1970’s to provide homes with mortgages at affordable prices. With the relaxation of financial controls under ‘monetarism’, these mortgages were sold with terms and conditions that were irresistible to people who wouldn’t normally take on the risk of paying a mortgage. With the rise of precarious jobs which could be cancelled at a moment’s notice, like delivery workers, people began to default on these mortgage payments on a big scale. When investment brokers began to realise what was happening, they began to divide up these mortgage investments and hide them in ‘bundles’ of complex investment contracts with more secure investments and sell them as complete bundles. The scale of these investment failures and gambles finally couldn’t be hidden any more, and several major banks collapsed, having to be bailed out by national government.
Note 3. An algorithm is a mathematical term for a program of steps designed to achieve an outcome. In computing, it is a programme designed to allow the computer to carry out a set of tasks independently of human control. The film The Matrix in the 1990s was an exposition of a future society run by algorithms out of human control. Algorithms have now become immensely complex and powerful. Algorithms can design their own algorithms.