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What’s in a (Beauty) Name?

What does it mean when a product name skirts the line of good taste?

This morning I have orgasm face and it’s not because I’m getting laid with any regularity. I am, like probably a billion others at this point, the owner of Nars Illuminator in Orgasm and it is mixed into my sunscreen like I am a sexy, sun-averse discoball. The name compels, repulses, seduces in equal measure, but in beauty industry years it’s actually so commonplace that the name isn’t even scandalous anymore. Regardless of puritanical reactions you may or may not get when you share what’s on your face, the product sells. Maybe in part because of the name.


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Orgasm is just one of the product names that can jump start the conversation on beauty, humor, and buying power. Does a bad beauty name make or break a product? Would you buy something just because the name? Contrarily, would you boycott?

MAC/Rodarte's Bordertown. Photo: MAC/Rodarte

Boycotting beauty products for the names they have isn’t uncommon: you might recall the PR fiasco that ensued when MAC’s Rodarte collaboration went south in 2010. Really south, as in their inspiration was the border city Juarez, Mexico. All might have gone well and good — brands take inspiration from travel all the time, Rodarte as much as anyone else, but they thought it prudent to name products things like Ghost Town, Factory, and a mineralized eyeshadow called Bordertown that looked a lot like blood running through cement.

Placed in the context of the violence that afflicted Juarez in 2010 — a year in which they were known as the murder capital of the world, with an average of 8.5 murders a day — the collection rang tasteless and crude to beauty bloggers and the general public. It never went live, and in fact, Rodarte and MAC worked together to donate to local Juarez charities and activist groups as mea culpa. They are many hundreds of collaborations beyond this gaffe now, of course, but some bloggers are still boycotting them.

Another brand that isn’t a stranger to strident conversation about naming is Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. When their lip tars flooded the beauty blogosphere a few years ago, it felt like everyone wore NSFW or Harlot or RX or Electric Grandma. They were arguably one of the first beauty brands ever to actively engage their queer customers explicitly: dedicating colors to queer culture with names like Butch, Femme, and doing collaborations with Drag Race winners and contestants like Detox and Vicky Vox. They even held fundraisers for their trans sales associate January Hunt’s gender-confirmation surgery and named a lip tar in her honor (the shade January) to raise funds. But Rikki, a makeup lover, feminist historian and personal friend, refuses to buy from the brand because of its name — she once remarked that it felt insensitive to those with actual obsessive compulsive disorder. She’s not the only one to do so — they’ve been criticized roundly by The Atlantic and other parties, so I asked the founder if the name ever gave him pause.

Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics Lip Tar in Hoochie. Photo: Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics

"I actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder," founder David Klasfield told me over the phone, "And it’s a big issue in my life. The name was actually a nod to other people who have OCD, but framed playfully. I don’t want this disorder to be anything to stop people from achieving what they want to do. In fact, it was crucial to our brand's development."

Shade names have also had pushback: shades like Harlot, Strumpet, and Hoochie have compelled angry customers to come up to the brand at events like DragCon to complain. "We named them these shades to take back these words — they came from a collection that was all about taking back from a time when lipstick was a sign of anything but empowerment. We wanted to throw away the conventional idea that wearing lipstick could turn you into these words."

If you didn’t know the context of reclamation behind shades like Harlot, or the brand OCC itself, you would (and still could now) have every reason to think they’re a touch tasteless. Calling a lipstick something — from Colourpop’s Feminist to OCC’s Harlot to Tom Ford’s Drake — won’t make you, the wearer, anything close to who or what they signify, but the conversation is worth taking more seriously than it has been before. Most brands shade names come directly from the owners, and so embody the brand's philosophies as purely as the colors they represent. Kat von D names every shade herself (including Lolita, named after a friend’s daughter — not Nabokov as you may have thought), as does Nars’s Francois Nars and many others. For some brands, naming shades is a community gathering, a meeting of minds to create something bigger than themselves.

Lipstick names are by nature meant to be quippy, memorable, and off the cuff. So when we reference damaging stereotypes and stigmas, what are we saying about those conversations? That we don’t care about them enough to hold a conversation about them, but that we are down to make fun of them — and you know, make money off them, too? Or are we trying to have a conversation without seeming too alarmed? Is nodding to them referentially enough to seem woke?

Revlon ColorStay Foundation in Mocha. Photo: Revlon

It’s not always lipstick shades that are questionable, of course. There is the whole spectrum of food-or-foundation colors, whose context changes as the shades get darker and darker. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Ivory or Nude, human shades mutate into edibles. "When you think about dark skin foundations, you’re often playing into the idea of women being consumable objects, heightening female objectification even more. Like, ‘I’m mocha, like you’re chocolate?’ No. People should work harder, actually," says Autumn Whitefield-Madrono, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives.

Names are political, even for an industry commonly-construed to be utterly material. When we’re off the cuff about cruelty to the extent that we would joke and profit off people’s suffering, we’re desensitizing ourselves to the fact these things bring people harm.

And when you honor cruelty with profitable creations, there’s more to answer for. When you name a lipstick Abused, for example, you shouldn’t be surprised when a domestic violence victim — statistically, 1 in 4 women, a demographic you are presumably trying to sell to — decides to buy from someone else. It's probably worth noting Abused creator Jeffree Star’s Snapchat handle is "Jeffree Dahmer," a reference to the serial killer who raped and murdered 17 men and boys. Star has been a controversial figure in the beauty world and has been asked to answer for his words and actions time and again. This includes explaining (but not necessarily apologizing for) his video collaboration where he jokingly suggested black women bleach their skin. Just yesterday he was accused of not paying artists he works with, causing longtime friend Kat Von D to cut ties with the makeup artist. These are just some of many reasons his views on beauty and women might be considered more closely. Star’s brand is, of course, not the only one that seems to be drawn to trouble. After all, when brands approach riots and violence with bath salts in their honor: maybe beauty is too close to the fear it seeks to release you from.

Jeffree Star Velour Liquid Lipstick in Abused. Photo: Jeffree Star

Bringing up these concerns isn’t going to compel anyone away from buying these products, not really. Plenty of people will say it’s just not that serious. Having the conversation with a group of makeup artists, most of them just shrugged: they care more about the quality of a product or if it is vegan than what it might be called, which is understandable. They serve their client’s material happiness, not necessarily their moral quandaries. But having a conversation on what names mean, and why we choose them, what they represent — it matters because the everyday conversations we have that negotiate identities matter, and few things are as concise about how we perceive love, class, beauty, and bodies like the things we place upon them.

In her theoretical analysis of lipstick names using Roland Barthes’ semiotic model (lipstick theory in it’s truest, nerdiest form) Professor Debra Merskin says as much, too: "Understanding how meaning is constructed through lipstick naming is an important step towards apprehending the role of cosmetics in conflating femininity, self-esteem, and body image with the goals of patriarchal hegemony." Big academic catch phrases to say: words are connected to things that really matter, you know.

Revlon’s Fire & Ice was a smash success when it premiered in the 1950’s because it presented women with the real, attainable fantasy of multiplicity: you could be anything, fire and ice, in a time where women were just coming out of war restrictions after WWII and wanted to be as glamorous as silver screen starlets. Names like Abused, Cheap Whore, Gold-digger, Iris I Was Thinner, and Geishalicious fail because they do the exact opposite. Rather than saving us from the racist, sexist, classist garbage in our lives, beauty sometimes expects us to make light of it, to have some humor about it, to paint ourselves with it, to move right along. So yeah. To answer my own question: would a name make me boycott a beauty product? Let my manicured Tom Ford nails in "Bitter Bitch" spell it out for you: of course.


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