Is “Gender-Neutral” Just A Beauty Buzzword — Or Something Greater?
What makes a lipstick for women different than a lipstick for everyone? Nothing — and everything.
Back in the day, a beauty brand would launch with a very specific vision of who it thought its customers would be. She — and it was always a she — was 18 to 36 years old, had a household income of £50-100K, and controlled the purchasing decisions of her husband (and it was always a husband). To catch her attention, the brand cast solely women in its campaigns and commercials. All the models on its website and, earlier, its catalogs and print ads were women. It offered lipstick shades with names like “You go, girl.” It used gendered slogans. Women — and women alone — were the people these brands wanted to attract.
That was the norm up until a few months ago, when several new makeup and beauty brands emerged with a broader idea of who their customers could be. While powerful brands like CoverGirl and Anastasia Beverly Hills released campaigns featuring cis men starting back in 2016, these new brands have now built upon this idea that makeup exists for more than just one demographic. In an increasingly inclusive beauty industry, new gender-neutral beauty brands like Jecca Makeup, Fluide, and Panacea are finding success by signalling to the world — through the individuals they use as spokespeople and smart marketing — that everyone, including cis women, cis men, and transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and gender-fluid individuals, can be their customers and use their products.
In reality, of course, every makeup and beauty product can be used — and has been used — by anyone regardless of their gender expression. It’s not like an eyeshadow would vanish when used on a man, or a shiny lip gloss would appear matte on a genderqueer person’s lips. But in a world where transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people can feel understandably uneasy going up to something as public as a department store counter for makeup advice, this new corner of the industry matters.
"The desire to have gender-neutral spaces is not frivolous; it is emblematic of a deeper, more fundamental desire to belong in the world and to feel safe," genderqueer activist and author Jacob Tobia says. "Forget growing up, shopping for historically feminine products still intimidates the hell out of me. I have to give myself a little pep talk anytime I want to go to a Sephora to buy lipstick."
Jessica Blacker, who founded Jecca Makeup, saw a gap in the market while working as a makeup artist for TV and film in London. One day in 2015, Blackler received a message on Instagram from a person who was transitioning from male to female, and then started to receive similar messages from others on her website as well. "They wanted someone that was accepting of the community, and they couldn’t find this at beauty counters in the local shopping centre," Blackler says. "If you were to walk into the department store, the people who help you are beautiful young women or handsome men and they feel like they didn’t fit in."
Blackler started offering lessons to people who were transitioning in London, teaching them how to shape their face with makeup and cover beard stubble. After gaining 200 clients in just eight months, she opened her own makeup studio, which served as a safe space for her clients. When she moved to Cardiff, Wales, not only did the studio come with her, but a few unlikely customers found her, too — specifically, inmates at a local men's prison who were looking to transition.
“I was in the local newspaper and a prisoner found my article in the newsroom in prison,” Blackler says. “The prisoner put it underneath one of the officer’s doors and I was then contacted to do makeup lessons. After the first session was successful, I then started to visit more regularly.”
With insight into the transgender community and its needs thanks to her customers, Jecca launched her makeup line for everyone, no matter their gender. "If I was just to focus on the trans community, then I wouldn’t really be inclusive of everyone," says Blackler. Her first product was a versatile Correct & Conceal Palette, which banishes blue tones from beard shadow and also covers under-eye darkness and blemishes.
But Jecca's ability to market itself as gender neutral goes way beyond its products, which serve a variety of needs unique to her client base. There's also the imagery and language used by the Jecca brand on its website and social media. The models and people promoted by the brand aren't all cis women, and the messages sent out by the brand don't address just one gender.
For the founder of Fluide, the vegan, cruelty-free, gender-neutral brand that launched in January, this mission to acknowledge every possible customer was personal. "I was coming from a perspective as a queer person wanting to see myself represented in the beauty space and not feeling like brands showed makeup in a way that I wanted to wear makeup," Isabella Giancarlo, Fluide's co-founder with Laura Kraber, says.
Similarly to Jecca, Fluide tapped Tobia and gender non-conforming actress Freckle as ambassadors, and it celebrates a variety of other gender non-conforming and gender-fluid individuals on its social media.
Although the products themselves aren't specifically formulated in a way to cater to people of various gender expressions like Jecca's, the names of the products have special significance. Each is named after a famous queer space, whether it's a red liquid lipstick named Rosemont after the historic gay bar in Brooklyn, or a sunny yellow nail polish named Riis Beach, after the popular queer-friendly beach in New York City. Fluide also donates a percentage of all profits to organisations that support the LGBTQ community, and uses inclusive language.
"Our aim with Fluide is to create this really diverse and expansive constellation of role models for people to see parts of themselves reflected in," Giancarlo says. "Coming to terms with my queerness would have been easier if I had more role models."
In reality, brands that open themselves up to beauty consumers who aren't cis women is far from new. As Geoffrey Jones, a professor of business history at Harvard Business School and the author of Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, told Refinery29, people beyond cis women have been using makeup for thousands of years.
"We know historically that the man's use of cosmetics was pretty much the same as female use through the 19th century," Jones says. "Before the 19th century, this kind of very binary divide between men and women wasn’t really found in many societies. Then in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, we got stuck with really different, sharp divisions between how women and men behaved. Now we’re reverting to where human beings have been for a very long time, [including] the usage of cosmetics."
Jones also notes that marketing to people across the gender spectrum has long been a wise business move, as it opens companies up to entirely new audiences and demographics that maybe wouldn't have heard about them. If companies are willing to put in the work of casting a wider array of models and using language that isn't exclusionary, they can build a passionate online fanbase. And, if these indie brands thrive and are a financial success, it would be revolutionary proof to the beauty industry that marketing products in a more inclusive, non-gendered way isn't just good for society — it's also good for business.
"An industry that’s doomed is one that gets most of its use from only 50% of the population."
"It’s a huge cause for potential optimism," Jones says. "An industry that’s doomed is one that gets most of its use from only 50% of the population."
That was the thinking for the founders of Panacea, a skin-care brand that didn't even intend to enter this market, but simply considered it obvious that it would want to cater to more people. "We don’t explicitly communicate that we are gender neutral," Terry Lee, the founder of Panacea, which officially launched in May, says. "The press has associated us with gender neutrality, which I think is cool, because of our campaigns and imagery."
Like Fluide and Jecca, Panacea uses inclusive language and features people of various genders across its website, social media accounts, and the pamphlets sent straight to customers. At every part of development, from products and formulas to packaging and copy, Panacea sought out the perspectives of people beyond cis women.
"I think being a gender-neutral brand is first about authenticity," Lee says. "If I'm shouting at the top of my lungs, 'Hey, we want to be gender neutral!' then it's totally forced. Authenticity shows up in consistency and just trying to make sure you’re not confusing it or perceiving it as self-serving to the brand."
By simply existing, these brands can have a huge effect on how members of LGBTQ communities feel about themselves.
"I think [these brands] are saving the world, and I don't say that lightly," Freckle says. "How we identify and how we see ourselves reflected back to us is so important in how we feel secure. How we feel secure is the beginning of how we have strong relationships with friends and family and how we can better connect to society and humanity. That is how we will make progress in this country and the world moving forward, knowing that we are all one and all connected."