The Language of Beauty

The Language of Beauty


An Analysis of Masculinity in Sephora

As they enter Sephora from a busy Seventeenth Street, at the top of Union Square Park, clients are met with the warm, musky scent of various colognes melding together. An employee in a black uniform greets them at the door. In the fragrance section, the atmosphere is calm, and the lighting is subtle. Products of all shapes and sizes line the sleek black walls in neat rows, and some are presented in freestanding displays. As the clients move through the store to the skincare and hair section, the lighting becomes brighter. They can hear the low buzzing of voices from the bustling cosmetics section, marked by six evenly spaced striped pillars; some clients wander, others “swatch” products, or test them on the backs of their hands, and employees rush to assist them. Customers receive makeovers and participate in beauty seminars in the Beauty Studio, a centrally located area with twelve black-cushioned chairs, brightly lit double-sided mirrors, and tablets that match clients’ skin tones to shades of various products. Minimalist displays present cosmetics by brand, which are then organized by product and shade. Above the products on the walls are several images of three smiling, young women: one Caucasian, one African American, and one Asian. As these images reflect, most of the clients in the space are women ages fourteen to fifty, but men of a similar age range enter the store as well.

As a makeup artist, I consider myself familiar with the brands and products sold at Sephora, the normative behaviors in the space, and the language surrounding beauty products. I also resemble a typical client in the store, as I am female, young, and use cosmetics on a daily basis. As a result, while I conducted my field research I was able to easily blend into the space, and my presence was never questioned. Both my strong interest in beauty and the substantial amount of time I have spent in the store prior to my fieldwork contribute to my biases. Though I began my research with preconceived notions of what goes on in the space, my passion for the industry fueled my research, and my familiarity with the environment allowed me to easily identify behaviors that deviated from the norm. When speaking with Sephora employees, my insider status as a makeup artist was particularly helpful; I used my knowledge of the industry to strike up a conversation about a new collection or a popular product before asking more pointed questions related to my own research, which helped ease into the interviews and establish a connection with my interviewees.

Throughout my research, which I conducted between September 2016 and December 2016, I faced several unexpected challenges. The volume of the music playing in the store often made it difficult to actively listen to those around me, and made the process of recording interviews in the space challenging as well. The initial times I selected to conduct my field research were simply not busy enough to search for patterns, so I experimented and found more suitable times. However, beginning in late November, I experienced the opposite problem; As so many additional clients filled the store (the security guard confirmed that this occurred because of the holiday season), three new checkout lines were created. One of these lines formed in a large part of the “boyfriend” section, an area along the Park Avenue side of the store where some men choose to wait for the women with whom they have come. As I studied this area closely, the change in the natural flow of this section, in addition to the increased noise level and number of people in the space (making it difficult to move quickly) disrupted some of my research, so I found additional, less hectic times to continue my work.

As a multibillion-dollar industry that sells appearance over all else, one could argue that the beauty industry contributes to the oppression and universal subordination of women. By aspiring to an unattainable level of attractiveness, women could be seen as prescribing to the normative behaviors of a culture based on compulsory heterosexuality: that women emphasize appearance because they wish for men to desire them, and therefore exist in relation to men. However, my research led me to believe that these heteronormative ideas do not fully dictate the ways in which people actually behave and speak about beauty in Sephora, a microcosm of the beauty world. Within the last ten years, the beauty industry has expanded and advanced with the development of new cosmetic technologies, and the industry requires its participants to have increasingly specialized knowledge to participate.1 My research indicates that as Sephora has become a specialized world, normative gender roles have been altered inside of the stores themselves. As Michelle Rosaldo writes in Women, Culture and Society, “Women gain power and a sense of value when they are able to transcend domestic limits…by creating a society unto themselves.”2 In presenting my findings, I will show the ways in which men’s behavior in the female-dominated environment of Sephora can shed light on standards of masculinity. I will explore how some men may feel a lack of belonging in the specialized world of Sephora that manifests not only in an internalized version of this disconnection, but also as an inverse of normative roles in the space.

To analyze gender dynamics in Sephora, one must first understand the ways in which customers interact with products and perform gender in the space. On some level, the entire industry is based on identity performance because clients use beauty products to alter their appearance. This interpretation is supported by Judith Butler’s view that all individual behaviors in a space are performative in nature because gender does not exist outside of the acts through which it is expressed. All “acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.”3 Clients “swatching” products, moving and positioning themselves in the space, or selecting certain products over others in Sephora are all crucial behaviors to analyze because over time they represent a “stylized repetition of acts,” which solidify norms in the environment.[4. Ibid.  179.]

Though the beauty industry is commonly understood to promote traditionally feminine ideals of appearance and imply a strong belief in biological sex (thus departing from the ideas of Butler), this may not be the case in Sephora, where appearance is often viewed as play. Throughout my fieldwork, I observed several young boys incorporating cosmetics into their play. When I first approached a young boy around age seven, he was bouncing a small action figure on and off of a cosmetic display while his mother tested products. When the mother then tested out a shade of foundation on her son’s face, the boy giggled and seemed to enjoy the experience. He then shoved his action figure into his pocket, and, mimicking his mother, tested some blush on the back of his hand. He proceeded to test several eye shadows as well, blending all of the shades until his hands were shimmering and rainbow-colored; he was beaming, and resisted when his mother later attempted to clean his hands. This experience was significant to witness because it adds another dimension to the inherently performative nature of beauty: Clients can play with gender and appearance in an expressive, non-heteronormative way. As Butler argues that there is no innate gender, beauty products allow clients to bring their genders into the world through playful expression.

One can also see the performative nature of beauty through the use of cosmetics for drag. During my field research, a Caucasian male around the age of sixteen approached a Sephora employee for assistance in finding beauty products suitable for drag. The employee worked quickly and professionally to provide the young client with the products he needed, presenting him with subtle and more extreme options of eye shadow, glitter, and highlighter. To Butler, drag is the ultimate challenge to the idea of biological gender or sex as it “fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.”4 By providing clients with some of the necessary tools for drag, Sephora can support a group of individuals who prove that appearance is not only a performance, but also that “‘appearance is an illusion,’” as well.5

What sets Sephora apart as a specialized environment is the unique language and set of knowledge in use at the store. Given the incredible specificity of these two elements, it is noteworthy that there is a relatively strong sense of intersectionality in the space; despite the complex language and knowledge required to engage, individuals of a wide range of social identities and backgrounds are able to participate in the experience. Sephora Union Square has employees and clients of all races, though the majority of clients have lighter skin. In an interview with Sephora employee Melanie, she pointed out that the store’s customers may be naturally diverse because of its location in New York City and also at Union Square, stating, “Since we’re so close to a train station, people come from everywhere . . . so it’s a very diverse client[ele].”6 Additionally, the images on the walls of the cosmetics section, presenting three women of different races, suggest that Sephora as a company encourages and promotes diversity. It is interesting to observe that many clients of such diverse backgrounds and within a large age range (which Melanie describes as “twelve to seventy”) can successfully participate in the specialized world of Sephora.

This intersectionality has its limits, however. Sephora is known to be rather upscale, and while some brands such as Sephora Collection have more reasonable price points, the products are generally expensive compared to drugstore brands. Throughout my research, I noticed many clients entering Sephora with shopping bags from other stores, which suggests that they have some disposable income. Additionally, the crowded nature of the store and the arrangement of the displays could make it difficult for disabled individuals, such as those in wheelchairs, to participate in the space as easily. Finally, though the pictures on the walls present the appearance of diversity, they still promote heteronormative ideas of beauty, as the women are incredibly thin and the images are retouched.

Language plays a central role in the culture of beauty, particularly at Sephora. One can compare the ways in which people speak about beauty to Michel Foucault’s analysis of discourses on sex, which he explores in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Just as the discourses on sex regulate societal opinions surrounding it, the discourses on beauty and the politics of the language surrounding beauty can establish taboos and create norms that inherently exclude others.7 In his analysis, Foucault notes the transition of a multiplicity of discourses on sex to the medicalization of sex. This shift occurred in the beauty industry as well with the launch of the brand Clinique in 1967 (currently sold at Sephora), which introduced “a clinical approach to skincare” and presented their employees in uniforms resembling white lab coats.8. The first high-end cosmetic brand developed by dermatologists, Clinique introduced “the Clinique Computer” early on, which “determined a woman’s skin type and her skin care needs, [and] offered women a highly informative and tailored consultation”.9 This interactive and clinical approach suggests that the scientific representation of the brand contributed to the sophistication of the language surrounding beauty products.

Today, the language of beauty is technical in nature: one can describe products as having cool/warm undertones, shimmer/matte/frosted/metallic/pearl/satin finishes, and textures ranging from “cakey” (too thick) to “watery,” both of which can result in “creasing,” or the settling of makeup in the fine lines of the face. Additionally, Sephora trains their employees to use specific terms when referring to nearly all aspects of the store; in my interview with employee Melanie, she explained that employees refer to the floor as “the stage.” They also refer to customers as “the client,” other employees as “cast members,” and employee uniforms as “costumes,” reflecting the performative nature of the cosmetic industry. The various “looks” one can achieve through the use of cosmetics have their own names as well, ranging from the subtle “no makeup” look to the “smokey eye,” which implies a “bold eye,” or heavy eye makeup, paired with a neutral lip color. Though the language surrounding beauty is not exclusive to Sephora—one can learn some terminology through makeup blogs, magazines and YouTube channels—specialized beauty vocabulary saturates the language at Sephora to a unique degree. Certain beauty terms are constantly used within Sephora when employees recommend products to customers or teach classes in the Beauty Studio. Beauty terms often appear on the packaging of many products available in the store as well. Familiarity with this language, which results in the client’s ability to express what he or she wants, plays a crucial role in achieving “insider status” in the space.

One can argue that the complexity of the language surrounding beauty products reflects a specialized knowledge that is specific to the environment of Sephora. This knowledge includes a general understanding of how to use various products and beauty techniques, what constitutes appropriate behavior in the space, and where the products are located in the store. Though these may seem like basic concepts, they are based on the sophisticated language demonstrated above, and have a substantial effect on power dynamics in the space. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes that “power is not an institution, and not a structure . . . it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” 10 In the case of Sephora, it appears that the possession and use of specialized knowledge is a symbol of power. Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 1 clearly reflects this concept. Foucault’s Rule of Immanence states that knowledge and power are always connected, as knowledge is determined by power relations, which then motivate us to expand our knowledge, etc.11 Additionally, Foucault’s Rule of the Tactical Polyvalence of Discourses brings language into the equation when he writes, “Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it.”12. In other words, discourse links knowledge to power. In Sephora, one can deduce that the proper use of language surrounding beauty confers power onto consumers, who display their knowledge to establish insider status.

Displays of knowledge at Sephora can be subtle. For example, in my fieldwork, I noticed a Caucasian woman, possibly in her late twenties, searching for a specific shade of lipstick. Though she had located the correct part of the display, the shade for which she was looking appeared to be unavailable. Her male friend, who looked on as she searched, asked her if they should go to another store. The woman replied that Sephora often carries extra products in the large drawers located underneath the displays, so they should check there before they leave. Remarking that clients are not supposed to open the drawers themselves, she then found an employee who opened the drawer and found the lipstick. This conversation reflected the woman’s knowledge of the various procedures and appropriate behaviors at Sephora.

In relation to gender dynamics, the above scenario reflects a pattern that occurred frequently in my research: When men entered the store with women (as they almost exclusively did in my time there), many seemed disconnected from the world of beauty. Though occasionally I would witness women and men engaging in the space together, my interviews and observations suggest a weak relationship between masculinity and Sephora. Oftentimes, men appeared to determine and accept that they lacked the specialized knowledge required to fully participate in the space, and as a result, seemed to completely disengage from the experience of being there. This disconnection on a superficial level became particularly evident in several of my interviews with male clients in the store, who often commented that they simply “don’t wear makeup,” have no interest in doing so in the future, and therefore “don’t . . . understand makeup.”13 While one may dismiss the men’s disconnection as fitting for an industry marketed primarily toward women, one can analyze the setting and discourses surrounding Sephora to better understand the potential ramifications of prevailing norms of beauty. When justifying his own observations of male disinterest in the space, interviewee Evan stated, “It’s not the store for [men], right?”14 This response took the concept of disconnection one step further to suggest that men do not belong in Sephora.

However, an interview with client Alex revealed insights beyond my initial observations: the disconnect between men and Sephora appears to have significant effects on masculinity in the space, altering the ways in which power and gender dynamics exist there. In our interview, Alex shared a past experience of searching for a gift at Sephora. Though he entered the store with confidence, he quickly “failed really miserably” in finding a specific product. An employee who offered Alex assistance informed him that the name of the product for which he was looking was actually the name of a color, and that the store carried several products in that shade. How Alex dealt with this situation is significant. He continued, “I called my other friend, who did understand makeup, and she told me exactly what it was I needed. So I then relayed this exact information to the person who was helping me . . . it was like a stick of eyela—I don’t know actually, I don’t understand anything about it.”15 Through this conversation, it became clear that Alex was unfamiliar with beauty products and the general environment of Sephora. However, he was not only aware of this lack of knowledge, but he also seemed to have accepted his role as a more passive agent that came as a result. By relying on information from female friends and relaying their exact words to complete his goal, Alex is merely the messenger in his story. When he is finally successful, he even emphasizes his distance from the process altogether by restating his lack of familiarity with the industry.

This tendency to dissociate from the experience of shopping at Sephora, along with many men’s unfamiliarity with the space and the specialized knowledge required to participate there, all appear to have significant effects on masculinity in Sephora. The first of these effects manifests as the potential threat to masculinity in this environment. As Kimmel defines masculinity as the renunciation of feminine characteristics, it is possible that men can assert their masculinity in various ways by actively rejecting all things feminine.16 This appears to occur in Sephora when male clients attempt to assert their masculinity through the products they purchase. Employee Melanie remarked, “Sometimes clients will ask for a product that looks a different way—like maybe some men think it’s demasculating [sic] or something to buy a pink face scrub, so I’ll show them something else.”17 That some men feel the need to ask for products that appear to be less-stereotypically “feminine” looking suggests that masculinity has been threatened in this environment. This response is only strengthened by the fact that masculinity is never stable; it must be constantly proven.18

Based on Kimmel’s ideas, one can argue that the tendency of men to enter Sephora with women (as opposed to entering with other men or alone), has significance because of the feminist misconception “that individually men must feel powerful,” whereas in reality, “men’s feelings are not the feelings of the powerful, but of those who see themselves as powerless.”19 In Sephora, where many men do not possess the knowledge necessary to easily participate in the space, these men are not just unfamiliar with the environment, but are also separated from other men. The setting of Sephora itself is therefore a direct threat to masculinity, and contributes to the men’s feelings of powerlessness.

The ways in which space is organized at Sephora also seem to have an effect on masculinity. Several of my male interviewees found the environment visually overwhelming, suggesting less of a direct threat to masculinity, and more of a sense of subtle intimidation. Evan elaborated, “Being a person who doesn’t really use makeup, I got very overwhelmed by the mirrors and the black and white . . . it’s very hectic . . . everyone is kind of walking in each other’s path.”20 As he justifies his reaction by restating his distance from the world of beauty, Evan’s response may develop from his unfamiliarity with the beauty industry as well as the actual physical environment of the store.

The existence of fractal distinction, or the layering of public/private spheres within the space, may influence Evan’s reaction as well. As Susan Gal quotes Joan Landes in her piece A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction, the “line between public and private [spheres] is constantly being renegotiated.”21 Identifying public/private boundaries becomes more complicated when the public/private distinction exists on many levels; Gal writes that this idea “can be projected onto different social ‘objects’—activities, identities, institutions, space and interactions—that can be further categorized into private and public parts.”22 One example of fractal distinction at work in Sephora is that the store itself is a public space, but the Beauty Studio exists as a private sphere within it; in the Beauty Studio, Sephora employees interact more intimately with clients through the application of makeovers. When sections of the Beauty Studio are not being used for makeovers, clients tend to walk back and forth to the mirrors there as they test products, suggesting that these sections have a public purpose as well. However, if a client stands near a mirror in an empty section for an extended period of time, this becomes a private sphere that exists within the public section of the Beauty Studio, the larger private sphere of the entire Beauty Studio, and the even larger public sphere of the store. The multiple types and forms of potential interactions within Sephora add an additional level of complexity to the space, which can easily be interpreted as overwhelming to someone who is generally unfamiliar with this setting.

One can observe the effects of fractal distinction on masculinity through the example of several awkward encounters I experienced in Sephora: On three separate occasions, I turned a corner in the store to find a man applying a lotion or lip balm. After we briefly made eye contact, the man either quickly put away the product or immediately stopped applying the product. It is noteworthy that on all three occasions, the men were not using the mirrors placed around the store to apply the products (though the mirrors exist specifically for this purpose), and were instead using the reflective surfaces of the black walls of the store. Though I was unable to interview these men, their deliberate rejection of the provided mirrors suggests that they felt the need to create their own private spheres within the public space of the store. While it is not possible to know why these men all chose to apply products in this manner, it is interesting to note that they all did so behind a sharp corner of the store, in a relatively hidden location. The fact that the mirrors at Sephora would have been convenient to use, given that they are spread evenly throughout the cosmetics section (one of the most visible sections of the store), as well as the men’s startled reactions to my presence, suggest that the they may have felt some discomfort regarding the existing public/private dynamics of the space.

A final, and perhaps most important effect of the previously mentioned elements on masculinity in Sephora is the adoption of a passive masculine role in this space, inverting normative gender roles. In addition to Alex’s story, which clearly demonstrated his passive response to the internalization of his lack of knowledge surrounding beauty, several other indications of male passivity exist in Sephora. The first involves the ways in which clients move and position themselves in the space. Throughout my research, it was almost comical to witness the way many men moved in Sephora in relation to the women with whom they entered the store: Men consistently and blindly followed the women as they moved through the store, sometimes while texting or clearly looking somewhere other than the direction in which they were walking. As women searched for products in a display, men often stood about two feet behind them, sometimes looking on from this distance, and more often than not, using their cell phones.

Cell phones became an area of interest in my research, as they seemed to serve as the ultimate symbol of male disconnection in the space. Employee Melanie commented that she often approached clients who were texting or on social media, referring to cell phones as “just another body part.” In my interview with Evan, he remarked that he often used his cell phone in the store when he was bored. This remark created a discussion on what he called the “boyfriend section” of Sephora, the area along a wall of the cosmetics section where men often wait for their female companions to shop. The area features outlets, so men can charge their phones and use them as they wait for the women with whom they have come. When I asked Evan why he thinks men tend to gravitate towards this section of the store, he replied, “Because they don’t want to walk around—like, it’s not the store for them, right? . . . [Men] kind of just want to sit in the corner and wait for people to be done.”23 This reaction reflects a new level of disconnection between men and Sephora: the “boyfriend” section represents a space where men are not simply creating their own private spheres, but through a combination of physically isolating themselves and being mentally absent, they are completely dissociating from the experience of being at the store, resulting in extreme male passivity.

Finally, during my research I witnessed one of the strongest indicators of the inversion of normative roles in Sephora: Throughout the course of my fieldwork, when a couple with a child entered the store, I observed that the father usually pushed the stroller or held the child while the mother shopped. The father and child either directly followed the mother around the store (in accordance with the previously discussed pattern), or went to the “boyfriend” section to wait for her until she was finished. This has significance for several reasons: It challenges the heteronormative assumption that women are the primary caretakers, the association of men with the public sphere and women with the domestic sphere, and the notion that men are active and dominant while women are passive and submissive. By challenging each of these elements, the gender and power dynamics in Sephora suggest the inversion of normative gender roles in this space, which exists in constant tension with its broader cultural context: a society based on compulsory heterosexuality that has been socialized in heteronormativity.

It is important to remember that in any space, power is constantly flowing and being transferred between individuals, and that gender is relational: “patterns of masculinity are socially defined in contradistinction from some model (whether real or imaginary) of femininity” at any given time.[25.  Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1]24 However, through the analysis of language, knowledge, normative behaviors and their effect on masculinity in Sephora, my research provides insight into the possibility that heteronormative assumptions are temporarily reversed in this space. Occasionally, clients challenge the notion of gender itself, but even through a heteronormative lens, femininity dominates and men take the passive role, suggesting the inversion of normative roles in Sephora.

  1. Meltzer, Melissa. “South Korea Exports Its Glow.” The New York Times. October 30, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2016.
  2. Rosaldo, Michelle and Louise Lamphere, eds. “Theoretical Overview.” Women, Culture, and Society (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1974). 17-42.
  3. Butler, Judith. “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.” In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York: Routledge, 1990) 173.
  4. Ibid., 174
  5. Esther Newton, qtd. in Butler, Gender Trouble, 174.
  6. Melanie. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 5, 2016.
  7. Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality, An Introduction, Volume 1. Translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
  8. Clinique. “Eye On: Carol Phillips and The Creation of Clinique.” Clinique Laboratories LLC. Accessed December 12, 2016.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (New York: Pantheon, 1977) 93.
  11. Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1.
  12. Ibid., 101.
  13. Anonymous interviewee. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 5, 2016.
  14. Evan. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 8, 2016.
  15. Alex. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 6, 2016.
  16. Kimmel, Michael. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” In Theorizing Masculinities. ed. Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman. (California: Sage Publications, 1994). 119-141.
  17. Melanie. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 5, 2016.
  18. Kimmel, “Masculinity as Homophobia.”
  19. Ibid., 136
  20. Evan. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 8, 2016.
  21. Landes qtd. in Gal, Susan. “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction.” Difference: A  Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 2002. 13(1): 77-95. 79.
  22. Ibid., 81
  23. Evan. Interviewed by Lindsay Karchin. November 8, 2016.
  24. Connell, R.W. and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society, 2005. 19 (16): 829-859. 848.
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