How Beauty Brands Turned Desserts Into A Marketing Tactic

Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick

The sweet smell of success

My makeup bag reads like a dessert menu. There’s a concealer called Tiramisu. A deep red lip gloss named Chocolat et Pommes. I contour with Mocha and Espresso. I highlight with “Sinnamon” and Rum.

Global beauty brands have been using food names, food scents, and food imagery to sell cosmetics to women for decades. Lip Smackers famously flavored its colorful balms with fruits, candies, and colas. Too Faced’s eyeshadow palettes range from Peanut Butter and Jelly to Chocolate Bonbons and White Chocolate Bar. Beauty Bakerie, which brands itself almost entirely through sweet treats, sells highlighter in an ice cream pint. M.A.C’s new Oh, Sweetie collection comes in colors like Raspberry Pavlova, Funfetti Cake, and Keylime Trifle. K-Beauty brand Skinfood sells a black sugar mask and tells you that “healthy skin starts with food.”

It’s not hard to see the pattern. Beauty brands aren’t just using any kind of food to sell cosmetics to women—they’re using sugary ones. Names, smells, colors, and packaging are frequently used to evoke sensory familiarity to recall life’s sweeter moments, but the rush to use food for targeted advertising is often based on unfounded stereotypes. Women have been portrayed as the ultimate cravers of desserts and candy, and there’s an endless list of food and drinks gendered as woman-centric—rosé, macarons, cupcakes, ice cream for bad days and breakups, chocolates for anniversaries and apologies, to start—because they’re perceived as sweet, dainty, and, oftentimes, they're even pink. When beauty brands take advantage of that, they aren’t just selling makeup anymore. They’re selling the smell of cookies fresh from the oven, the indulgence of a piece of chocolate, the perfect frosted cupcake, and a skewed perception of femininity in each sweet bite.  

“When it comes to food and women, and the use of gender to sell products, it’s never simple,” said cultural historian Marilyn Morgan, whose work explores the use of gender constructs and food in advertising.

Food is inherently gender-neutral, so what is it that turns meat and beer into a man’s food, and salads and Cosmopolitans into a woman’s? Advertisers have been targeting women as consumers of chocolate and candy since the early-19th century, and would often show women in their ads, Morgan said. Confectionary companies in the 1930s sold the seductive idea of a decadent upper-class lifestyle to women through just one small piece of chocolate. “There’s something about daintiness that gets equated to wealth,” said Morgan. “It gets translated to luxury.”

Though women are associated with sweets, they’re also made to fear overindulgence. Turning the simple act of enjoying a piece of candy into a guilty pleasure did not escape beauty brands. Case in point, Models Own came out with a “Cheat Day” eyeshadow palette with “creamy mattes, sugary shimmers, and glazed glitters” that were designed to look like a box of doughnuts. “I was like, really, we’re still doing this?” said Hillary Belzer, founder of the Makeup Museum, a blog that researches the history of cosmetics. 

Today, an attention to packaging details (not to mention Instagram’s influencer-friendly “unboxing” videos) has added a new dimension to the foodie trend. The launch of M.A.C’s Oh Sweetie lip colors collection came with an array of frosted doughnuts. Kim Kardashian West’s latest fragrance featured peach-inspired bottles nestled in a box of pink gummies. Kylie Jenner’s new summer collection rattled with hard candies shaped like bananas.    

Beauty’s dependence on sweets made headlines this past summer when Twitter user @sabinaexy pointed out that darker shades of foundation are almost always named after food and flavors. The foundation line she was referring to included names like caramel, maple, hazelnut, cocoa, truffle, and ganache. 

“That marketing strategy is getting old. There are many names they can use to describe darker shades besides food,” said beauty blogger Raye Boyce. 

Part of the reason brands fall back on these tried-and-tested names is that black women have been both fetishized and denigrated for their skin tone for generations, said Ijeoma Oluo, a writer and speaker on race and feminism. “I have been told that I have milk chocolate skin by [catcallers],” she said. “No one likes being thought of as a food.”  

A Mintel study found that black and Hispanic women are driving growth in the beauty industry forward, and brands like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty are striving for inclusivity. As consumers push for brands to capture the nuances of darker tones through foundation, it’s likely we’ll see those food names fade away.

“Chocolate actually isn’t a good descriptor of skin tone,” Oluo said. “If the beauty industry actually dedicates itself to diversity, we’re going to run out of food names very quickly,” 

Still, from a brand’s perspective, there’s something fun and gimmicky about using food to market beauty that just works. Beauty PR agent Jessica McCafferty has found that products with a physical resemblance to food have a distinct advantage over other traditional packaging. You’re seeing more dessert-themed makeup marketed toward teens and younger girls, and there’s also the basic fact that they smell good, though some consumers balk at scented products because of artificial additives. “It sells,” Belzer said. “It’s a very easy mark in product design and marketing.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with chocolates and cupcakes, and perhaps beauty brands are simply using a delicious treat to get more women to buy makeup. But the relationship women have with sugar has its own set of rules. Be sweet, but not too sweet. Take a bite, but not another. Eat to be seductive, but not to satiate. The beauty industry’s explicit use of women-centric food doesn’t get us anywhere. “It’s less about the name itself and the power we attach to the name,” Oluo said. It’s a small cog toward the treatment of women—and “their” foods—as equals. So maybe one day, when we look at a cupcake, we won’t see something cute or feminine or girly. We’ll just see a cupcake. 

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.