Petro Essences, Pinkwashing, and the Cult of Body

By now hopefully you’ve seen the newest Story of Stuff video, in which Annie Leonard takes the cosmetic industry to task. If not, hit play below and then keep reading….

Each video is getting more effective as the Story of Stuff Project and Free Range Studios work proactively with organizations to ensure that the videos don’t just change individual behavior but help advance a larger campaign. The goal of The Story of Cosmetics isn’t simply to get viewers to stop using leaded lipstick and hormone-disrupting shampoos but to lobby the U.S. Congress to amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act so that toxic ingredients are extracted from the many products we slather on our bodies.

Of course, the $50 billion cosmetics industry doesn’t want to change, as that’ll cost money, which is exactly why this video is great—hopefully it’ll serve to mobilize a so-far inactive grassroots force of cosmetics users, parents, and others who suddenly realize how dangerous getting ready for work in the morning is.

I was also impressed with how the video directly confronts some egregious abuses, including the absurd marketing rhetoric of toxic products like “Herbal Essences” shampoo. As Annie Leonard notes, a more accurate description would be “Petro Essences,” considering all the petrochemicals in it. Even better is Ms. Leonard’s attack on “pinkwashing:

“Ooh, here’s Estee Lauder offering me a chance to help find a cure for breast cancer. That’s nice, but wait…they’re also using chemicals linked to cancer. Don’t you think the best way for Estee Lauder to fight cancer is to stop using those chemicals in the first place?”

I am always horrified to see the little pink ribbon on products that have a bunch of carcinogens or chemical additives in them. It’s shameful to trick people into thinking they’re helping when they’re actually perpetuating the problem. (Though we should also share a portion of that blame with the anti-cancer groups that claim to be fighting cancer. If they really wanted to make a difference they would be on the front lines advocating for safer cosmetics, healthier food, and more exercise rather than selling out and partnering with these peddlers of toxic products).

Finally, I was happy to see at least a brief mention of the fact that the cosmetic industry doesn’t just sell toxic products, but toxic messages “about what beauty is.” This is a key point, which could have been expanded significantly in the video. Billions are spent persuading us that our skin isn’t smooth enough, we smell bad, our hair is too curly or straight or not the right color, and that we’ll only be happy if we change our appearance (which is never free).

Ms. Leonard gives the example of hair relaxers and skin-whitening creams, which are some of the most toxic offenders. In the new documentary Good Hair, comedian Chris Rock goes into details about hair relaxer—the main ingredient of which is sodium hydroxide, which he shows at one point dissolving a soda can. This stuff is going on people’s heads, including children’s (Chris shows 3-year old girls getting relaxer treatments, and a product for sale called “Kiddie Perm”). Sigh.

Some countries, like Spain, are fortunately banning TV advertisements that reinforce “the cult of body,” which is an important step that will be essential in getting us to use fewer cosmetics (which, no matter how non-toxic, still have an ecological impact). Imagine if magazines weren’t filled with airbrushed models, and billboards and TV ads didn’t try to convince you that you weren’t physically inadequate, or that you’d attract more potential partners if you use certain body sprays. Perhaps then, the average woman wouldn’t use 12 products every day and men wouldn’t use six. Twelve products! All those toxic chemicals interact and make a toxic soup of women’s bodies—the same women who will eventually bear the next generation of humans. (Hence why even babies today are filled with toxic contaminants, though as Ms. Leonard notes, there are also toxic chemicals in baby shampoo, ugh.)

So, while it’s good to describe this and keep the focus on fixing the system, it would’ve added to the video to challenge viewers to cut that number down and make sure all of the products that viewers use are non-toxic. But since the video doesn’t offer that challenge, I will. Count how many products you use and halve that number, and then make sure those you do use are non-toxic. Me, personally, I’ve gotten down to what I consider the very minimum: three daily products, namely organic soap, natural toothpaste, and salt crystal deodorant (yes, basically a block of salt, which is not only cheap and lasts multiple years but is as non-toxic as a beauty product gets). I, of course, have short hair, so can get away with this number, but even getting down to 5 or 6—if they’re non-toxic—would be a fantastic leap forward, assuming of course, you’ve also sent a letter to your Senators and Representative advocating for the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010.

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