Do you worship at the altar of Pat McGrath? Pray to the acne gods? Practice a sacred ritual over the sink each morning and night? Is beauty… your religion? It sounds like a ridiculous, obviously hyperbolic question, except that it maybe isn’t. Not anymore. As formal religious practice steadily declined over the last decade with no sign of an impending rebound (religious “nones” increased 9-percent and 40-percent of millennials are not affiliated with any religion), so-called wellness community evangelists rose. You know the ones. A Harvard study concluded that SoulCycle and Crossfit functioned a lot like religion. Another study at FIT found 69-percent of consumers find value in purchases that make them feel like a part of a community, noting that “we entrust brands to create a sense of inclusiveness once found through religion and social community groups.” In turn, beauty brands have begun to borrow some of the concepts and language native to religion, perhaps not even consciously—and consumers, hungry for connection, are eager to participate.
“Religion is ritual, mostly,” Cassie, 26 and an ex-Mormon, tells me over the phone. We like rituals, such as always applying moisturizer after serum, and using cleanser before both, because they make us feel like our actions are doing something. It works a lot like faith—we feel in control. This emotional connection makes us more likely to do the action again, and also strengthens our coping skills when things don’t quite go to plan. (Say, you get a zit anyway.) And the response your brain has can be amplified by really carving out space for that ritual to feel special. To do this, brands are tapping into the phenomenon of loaded language. Loaded terms carry significance and emotional weight, meant to elicit a strong positive or negative response—the way these words make you feel is the whole reason why they’re so compelling.
“You don’t see results when you do it once. There’s no miraculous cure for any issue you may have—we say rituals, not miracles. We’re looking at the idea of forgiveness. I take it seriously when you give me 69 dollars for a serum, and I don’t want to lead you astray.” Charlotte Palermino laughs while peeling apart a croissant on the picnic bench across from me, “See how much religious language I’m using unintentionally?” I reached out to Palermino to discuss exactly this: the shared language between beauty and religion, my first clue that something funny might be happening between the two. One third of the new skincare line Dieux, meaning “gods” in French, Palermino grew up steeped in religion—her dad was an Italian Renaissance professor, and she attended Catholic school. Its vernacular comes naturally to her.
Now, consider the fact that Cosmopolitan editors give their most beloved products a “Holy Grail Beauty Award.” You can shop at Cult Beauty (based in the UK) or Mecca (based in Australia), go to a gym called TMPL, buy candles called Monk and Virgin. Direct to consumer brand Crown Affair purports “haircare rooted in ritual.” A Westworld-esque campaign video sent to editors from relaunched Make Beauty leads a guided meditation before asking if you’re ready to “meet your maker.” Dieux’s newest product? A serum called Deliverance. “We just found ourselves using a lot of language that just happened to be very aligned with religion, or even cults,” says Palermino. And Dieux is building up a cult of its own: Deliverance has a 15,000-person wait list.
On top of running Dieux, Palermino is also constantly putting out her own content. A lot of Dieux’s traffic is likely directed from her platforms (she boasts 167k followers on Instagram, over four times the amount the brand has), which are dedicated to providing meaning for her followers. Not the meaning of life, of course—the meaning behind complicated language used in the beauty industry and on your product labels. On her profile, you’ll find videos decoding double cleansing, sunscreen moisturizers, the non-toxic craze, and face oils.
Has any new religion succeeded without a charismatic founder at the helm? These days, brand founders are influencers and, on the flip side of that, influencers are using their platforms to become founders. Aside from the products they produce, we care about what these founder-influencers wear, how they eat, where they travel, the causes they donate to—their choices make our choices easier. And the founder-influencer functions as a living, breathing embodiment of their brand’s values. (Writer Arabelle Sicardi’s “On God and Conscious Capitalism”: “If you think there is some sort of barrier between a person and the company they run and own outright, you can live with the distinction… But we’re taught every day that we are what we produce, that we are defined by our work.”) Anecdotally, I notice that the more inspired by a founder’s ethos a shopper is, the more loyal they’ll be to the brand. And a lot of that inspiration comes from their origin story: what brought them to start a beauty line in the first place?
Sometimes, a brand is born out of expertise and perspective. In her Top Shelf five years ago, Bobbi Brown told ITG that before she launched her eponymous no-makeup makeup line, “no one had done a great collection of edited, natural-looking makeup. Lipstick that just looked like lips didn’t exist.” But with the market flooded, missions became loftier and founders started using their brands to offer another aspect of religion: purpose.
In one particularly dramatic account, Beautycounter founder Gregg Renfrew (who is probably the polar opposite of Palermino, philosophy-wise) said that she started looking into the safety of personal care products after “Our nanny was diagnosed with cancer and died in my arms a few months later.” The company she built messages safety first, but more than that, comes with an implication: if you care about your loved ones, you need to make sure their beauty products aren’t going to hurt them. A call to action like this is crucial to the direct sales model Beautycounter uses, where consumers can sign up to be brand representatives and sell the products (and ethos) independently. Not only are they motivated by a bottom line, they’re also emotionally inspired to spread the word. Talking to a “clean beauty” evangelist kind of feels like being “saved.”
For many, especially those in towns where you might not be able to pop into your neighborhood Credo or shop Clean At Sephora, interacting with a friend-of-a-friend who’s a Beautycounter rep might be your first introduction to “clean” beauty. In another interview, this time with Vogue, Renfrew emphasizes that “Most [consumers] don’t even know what they don’t know because no one is telling them—the entire beauty industry has been built on secrets.” It’s kind of part of the schtick for a religion’s founder to claim a miraculous revelation or exclusive access to special information. Renfrew does both for beauty, and it’s undeniably effective: Beautycounter shoppers are fervently loyal. But beyond that, they also feel charged with purpose to push the message forward. At the end of last year, the company counted 74,472 consultants in their direct sales program.
Remember Cassie, from earlier? She tells me that be-your-own-boss beauty brands like Beautycounter (and multilevel marketing models like Young Living and Lipsense) are huge amongst Mormon women—she even participated in one, for a minute. “I think it has to do with Mormon women’s interest in beauty, and that they can do something work-wise while still being home,” Cassie reveals. “But we’re also trained from a young age to proselytize, and look for missionary opportunities.” For Mormons, beauty is baked into their practice: in 1847 Brigham Young instructed followers that if they wanted to be happy and prosperous, to “Beautify your gardens, your houses, your farms; beautify the city.” There are more plastic surgeons per capita in Salt Lake than LA, and in the opening episode of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” attaining perfection is referred to as “a Mormon pastime.” If you follow the show, you’d know that Housewife Heather Gay’s Salt Lake-based medical aesthetics practice is valued at $20 million. Which is to say: in Mormon America, beauty is big business. Faith and facials somehow fit together naturally, like lost socks you’re finally able to re-pair. They echo each other.
Although Cassie has left her church, she admits that she misses certain elements of faith. “I’m a believer, so for me, I kind of had to replace it with something.” After a pause, she adds, “For some people, the structure, the doctrine, and the community of any faith just makes them better people.” When I ask Palermino if she thinks there’s an upside to beauty’s religion-like tendencies she takes a moment before responding. “At the end of the day, churches can bring people together. They do great things for the community.” I think about how, over the past year, even teeny beauty brands rallied around social causes, setting aside donations, setting up mentorship programs. I think about the work of diversity and inclusion in marketing—so many more people can see themselves in beauty advertising now, see that even if they don’t belong anywhere else, they belong here. I think about lasting friendships that have been built across continents around beauty. And I know that she’s right.
Sure, it’s impossible to ignore the implications of a “religion” based on capitalism, and participating in beauty can feel a lot like buying indulgences. ($36 for a paste that’ll erase evidence of regretful acne picking and give me a new, clean slate? Someone in the early 1500s would’ve had a problem with that!) But other times, paying my tithe to be part of the community feels worth it. I have trouble making friends, and beauty lubricates those experiences so I can feel part of a group. (With shallow cultural and religious roots, and no leanings towards spirituality or even fitness, that’s a new feeling for me.) The storytelling aspect of beauty, the fact that it can act as a connecting joint to people of all different backgrounds, is why this website was founded in the first place. And in that sense, the church of beauty isn’t sinister—it’s interesting, at least. At best? Effervescent.
Photo via ITG