Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins

Beauty Industry

Nora Ruck

The notion “beauty industry” is employed in various fields and from manifold angles, including everyday language. In order to make a critical interrogation of the beauty industry fruitful for Marxist thought, and vice versa, both the beauty industry and the ‘hidden labor of beauty’ (Black 2004, 66-91) must be situated within an analysis of the capitalist gendered division of labor. Marxist feminists have furthered Marxist thought by emphasizing and analyzing the fundamental necessity of house and care work (‘reproductive labor’) in capitalism. Attending to the beauty industry from a Marxist feminist perspective allows for extending the analysis of the capitalist gendered division of labor beyond these domains of ‘care work’ or ‘emotional labor’.

In line with Euromonitor, the beauty industry can be defined as including fragrances, hair and skin care products, sun care, color cosmetics, men’s grooming products, bath and shower products, as well as oral and baby care, and as overlapping with other industries and services such as fashion, hairdressers and beauty salons, and plastic surgery and other more medical services (Jones 2010, 9). The use of products to increase attractiveness and alter one’s scent goes way back in history to ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as medieval Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans (ibid., 4). The development of the beauty industry, however, was initiated by a number of female and male entrepreneurs during the nineteenth century. The mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of beauty salons and of businesses that marketed beauty products, workplaces which in industrialized countries such as the UK or the US provided some of only a few employment opportunities for White (mostly working-class and some middle-class) women as well as for US Black women and men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Black 2004, 15-21). The history of the beauty industry is by-and-large a history of “large numbers of small and medium-sized entrepreneurial firms” rather than of “capital-intensive, mass marketing and mass production industries” (Jones 2010,15). It would become a mass-industry and increasingly globalized only by the 1920s and 1930s, a trend that intensified massively after World War II (Black 2004, 20-26). Currently, in the 21st century, the beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, with consumers having each spent on average more than 330 dollars on cosmetics around the world in 2008 (Jones 2010, 1).

The gendered division of labor in capitalism is of at least twofold significance when it comes to the beauty industry. First, in many industrializing countries, a gendered division of labor started to unfold in the White bourgeoisie in the late 18th century (e.g., Sieder 1987) and generalized to the White (e.g., Rendall 1993) and only partly to people of color and black working classes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., Collins 2000, 53f.). This division of labor assigned the wife to reproductive labor in the private sphere of the home and the husband to productive labor in the public sphere. Reproductive labor includes all activities that are needed in order to reproduce the workers’ ability to work, e.g., cleaning, cooking, having and raising children, and many other chores. For the middle-class wife of bourgeois societies in particular, domestic duties increasingly went along with representational as well as consumption responsibilities since the second half of the 19th century (Penz 2010, 14). The woman then became and has, to some extent, remained “the index of [the husband’s] economic situation, the prestige-object of a household, who is ceaselessly occupied in the task of creating fine distinctions” (Vinken 2005, 5), while the husbands’ attire grew more and more homogenized and plain. Beautification practices, in turn, became more and more inextricably linked with femininity.

Second, services and products of the beauty industry, as well as a considerable amount of beauty labor carried out by employees, are increasingly required by a continuously expanding service sector. Furthering discussions about the significance of ‘emotional labor’, especially in the care work occupations, Witz, Warhurst, and Nickson (2003) have examined the rising importance of aesthetics in contemporary organizations as ‘aesthetic labor’. Bourdieu (1984) already hinted at the fact that this form of labor is both fundamentally classed and gendered when he pointed out that it was mainly women of the petit-bourgeoisie who “devote such great investments, of self-denial and especially of time, to improving their appearance and are such unconditional believers in all forms of cosmetic voluntarism” (ibid., 206). What is more, he differentiated between professions with traditionally male representational functions (e.g., diplomacy) and rather new “representational and ‘hosting’ functions” (ibid., 152) which rely on traditional notions of femininity and had led to a market for certain physical attributes where “beauty thus acquires a value on the labour market” (ibid., 153). Following this train of thought, Black (2004) has hinted at the necessity of situating aesthetic labor within a gendered and classed analysis of changes in late capitalist labor markets. Especially for the working classes, traditionally masculine skills valued in the manufacturing sector are becoming increasingly obsolete while the service sector, which relies on skills and features that are traditionally coded as feminine, is ever-expanding. In this sense, Lovell considers femininity as – albeit limited – embodied cultural capital that “may begin to have a competitive market advantage compared with the attributes of traditional working-class masculinity” (Lovell 2000, 25). However, Black (2004, 126) points to the hidden aesthetic labor behind supposedly natural femininity as it requires considerable skills which need to be learned as well as continuous extensive labor, both of which “remain unrecognised when they are viewed as an immanent characteristic of femininity”. Thus, in a sense, aesthetic labor is a form of reproductive labor required in the service sector.


Black, Paula. 2004. The Beauty Industry. Gender, Culture, Pleasure. London/New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Boston: Routledge.

Collins, Patricia H. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the
Politics of Empowerment. Revised tenth anniversary edition. New York: Routledge.

Jones, Geoffrey. 2010. Beauty Imagined. A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford: Oxford Uni-versity Press.

Lovell, Terry. 2000. “Thinking Feminism With and Against Bourdieu.” Feminist Theory 1 (1): 11–32.

Rendall, Jane. 1993. Women in an Industrializing Society. England 1750-1880. Oxford UK and Cam-bridge USA: Blackwell.

Penz, Otto. 2010. Schönheit als Praxis. Über klassen- und geschlechtsspezifische Körperlichkeit. Frankfurt am Main: Campus.

Sieder, Reinhard. 1987. Sozialgeschichte der Familie. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Vinken, Barbara. 2005. Fashion Zeitgeist. Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System. Translated by Mark Hewson. Oxford and New York: Berg

Witz, Anna, Chris Warhurst, and Dennis Nickson. 2003. “The Labour of Aesthetics and the Aesthet-ics of Organization.” Organization 10 (1): 33–54.


Nora Ruck

Nora Ruck is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Sigmund Freud Private University Vienna, where she co-coordinates the master program “Social Psychology and Psychosocial Practice”. She has lived, studied, and conducted research in Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.S., and Canada. Both her research and teaching focus on the relations between psychology and social inequalities and social movements, relating both to the ways in which social movements have altered our understanding of human experience and agency, and to the mechanisms through which psychology itself has contributed to social inequalities and oppression. Email: