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Sephora’s Online Community and the Myth of the Beauty Secret

On the Beauty Talk forums, women trade tricks, tips, and real connections.

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From row after row of brightly colored packages adorned with sickly sweet product names to its signature glossy striped shopping bags, Sephora is as close as most adults get to being kids in a candy store again. The stores smell of a thousand spritzes of perfume testers and smears of lightly scented skincare products while never succumbing to department store entryway levels of suffocation. There is a giddy, infectious energy in almost every Sephora that thrives between the clientele making beauty decisions, the staff helping them, and the benevolent strangers weighing in with reassuring compliments or personal testimonies on behalf of the products. It makes shopping for cosmetics feel as much — or more — like a communal ritual than a capitalistic compulsion.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the beauty superfans in Sephora’s online community, Beauty Talk, mirror a similar exuberance in their discussions on the platform. Beauty Talk is a network of mostly femme cosmetics enthusiasts who maintain a seemingly bottomless list of forum discussions on beauty, confidence, and self-image, along with stories and advice for navigating all three.

Beauty Talk is not especially easy to find on Sephora’s website — it is tucked away beneath layers of webpages featuring well-curated packages of cosmetics and beauty-care products for sale through the site. At first, it looks like a customer-service portal, which is how several of the members I spoke to found it in the first place.

On its surface, the community seems like the result of rigorous surveillance and peacekeeping by Sephora’s comment-moderating staff. Members and a few searches on LinkedIn confirm that such moderators do exist, but they appear rarely and, according to some members, only to quash anarchic activities like sharing contraband promo codes before their official release dates like a proper gaggle of beauty bandits.

Beauty Talk is home to over a million user posts and replies, ranging from tales of users’ eyeliner accomplishments to personal stories and entirely off-topic threads. But the post titles are often deceptively simple for what lies in the threaded comments below. “Wear To Work Make-Up” is ostensibly about what users wear to work, but is actually an extensive discourse on self-presentation in various sectors of the labor force and how gender ratios impact perceptions.

The thread “YOUR SKINCARE STORY” is, on the surface, for users to answer 10 questions about the path they took to their present skincare routine and what inspires them, but actually comprises an exhilarating journey through time and space, sorrow and joy, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit over environmental irritants and the cult of youth as users recount life stories dense with milestones that marked changes in their skincare needs. From witnessing magical and sometimes-confounding skin transformations during their pregnancies to escaping stress-acne-inducing jobs and climates, narratives unfold through the lens of skincare that reveal intimate details of what it means to navigate life experiences and harsh environments. The “Pet Paradise” thread is an exquisite gallery of users’ pets luxuriating in all of the no-nonsense glamour that comes with lacking self-awareness or opposable thumbs.

Other threads are particularly personal: self-conscious requests for frank advice on Botox, adult-acne woes, a thread about a woman’s experience with a major accident that inhibited her mobility and required major surgery. The respondents vary as much as the topics themselves, but nearly all are characterized by an emphasis on finding solutions and reassuring others of their worth.

The friendliness and generous information-sharing on Beauty Talk pushes up against the idea of “the beauty secret” as something a woman won’t reveal, lest others become similarly beautiful. “Every review is a beauty secret,” says Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. “That term is a way that we’ve branded the intimacy of beauty; it’s not that we’re actually keeping secret information.” While there are men and other masculine-spectrum members on Beauty Talk, the majority of the participants are femme-spectrum. Their celebration of products and looks and of each other — without focusing on using beauty for exclusively romantic and sexual ends — is a testament to beauty as a sacred communal ritual more than a mating one.

In a space that is so often categorized as the domain of the vapid, vain, and competitive, there is instead depth, decency, and camaraderie. The idea that women wear makeup exclusively to be attractive to men is heteronormative, sexist, and also plainly inaccurate — especially when so many men blather on about how they prefer “natural” looks. “I'd say the biggest (and most damaging) societal misconception about people who care about beauty products is that they are, simply, vain and shallow,” says Jessica, a 30-year-old Beauty Talk member who spent much of her teens and 20s resisting her love of makeup as she grappled with her relationship to and understanding of femininity. “I also very much believe that if makeup were a male hobby, it would be treated as maintenance and/or self-respect rather than a shallow fixation.” She refers to her makeup as “fiercely feminine armor.”

For some members, this not just a metaphor. “I'm navigating my way as a feminine, mostly straight young woman at the State Department: a sort of conservative, male-dominated institution that's about to get even more conservative and more male-dominated,” Olivia*, 24, told me in January, a few weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump. “Makeup to me is one medium through which to say, ‘I am a woman. I am graceful and diplomatic. Take me seriously.’”

This sentiment is echoed throughout the threads, where women talk through the fine line they must walk between expressing themselves through physical presentation and conforming to rigid standards of acceptability when it comes to appearance. I contacted several users through the private message feature on Beauty Talk to learn more about their use of the site and the function of beauty in their lives. “Clothing and makeup are my art,” says Tina, 32. “Like with many other forms of art, a makeup look relies on fundamental elements of color theory, balance, light/shadows, etc., and it's a form of personal expression that just happens to go on my face.”

“Beauty breeds this generosity that when we find a product that is good but isn’t good for us, then we think, ‘Maybe this will be someone else’s Holy Grail. Maybe this will be The One for someone else!’” says Whitefield-Madrano. “You almost feel responsible to share that product for the five people for whom it might be The One.’”

This is confirmed by thread after thread of members asking about finding the right moisturizer, foundation, lip color, and so on. On others, you’ll find users troubleshooting with someone to figure out their coloring, navigate their workplace rules of dress and presentation, and determine what makes them feel confident. Members don’t simply gush over a product and promise its universal merits; they explain its pros and cons and suggest alternatives if it doesn’t work. “It’s a myth that women use beauty as a mode of jealousy or competition,” says Whitefield-Madrano. “It really shines through here that beauty is usually a cooperative experience.”

Cultivating such a community is a remarkable feat on the internet. The forum format, social-media platforms, product-reviews sections, and comments sections have long been overrun by negative, sometimes threatening, often asinine, and usually misspelled and off-topic contributions. Amazon figured out how to commit espionage on its users with the Alexa before it could figure out how to rein in rogue reviewers on the mega-retailer site. And publications that run material that is even remotely feminist-leaning are regularly overrun with the most vile misogyny the web has to offer. Good-faith respondents can rarely keep pace combating their vitriol. But amid all the digital detritus, Beauty Talk stands out for its ability to both quash trolls and maintain a remarkable level of positivity and mutual encouragement.

The community does have rules, but the Beauty Talk Guidelines are buried at the bottom of a list of topics under the “Welcome/Getting Started” section, which is itself the last topic listed on a small side menu on the front page of the portal. Which is funny, because everyone still seems to be following them. The first rule? “Be nice.” The best and worst practices are labeled not as dos and don’ts, but under the labels “We Love” and “We Don’t Love.”

Sephora is also aware that its most effective weapon against abuse is its own members. As the guidelines on the forum put it: “The participants themselves do the best monitoring of a community. If you see any offensive, abusive, or otherwise inappropriate content (including posts, pictures and videos), please click on the ‘Report Abuse to a Moderator’ link that is attached to the message.” Users do this, of course, but they occasionally take things into their own hands, too. “We recently had a troll posting awful things on several threads,” Tina says. “On one of them, we successfully drowned out the troll and buried the troll's posts by posting picture after picture of adorable llamas.” Rather than fruitlessly attempting to engage them or ignoring them and letting their comments remain prominent, they simply flooded the thread with cuddly camelids in all their fiber-bearing glory. It was just one example of Beauty Talk’s adventures in creative self-moderation.

Levels of engagement vary. Of the roughly 40,000 to 70,000 people logged in at any one time, only a fraction are active on Beauty Talk. “To be honest, Beauty Talk has become somewhat of a daily ritual for me. I check it at least once a day (if not double-digit times a day, let’s be real),” says Willa, 36, who posted her first product review in 2009 on Sephora’s site but only became active on Beauty Talk in 2015.

Olivia mostly reads reviews and threads, but to call her a lurker would be a disservice to her level of engagement (albeit silent) and trust in the community. “I take the reviews very seriously and I believe them 100 percent,” she says. “I just bought blush online without trying it because the Ladies of Sephora told me it was good. It actually wasn't a good blush for me, but I don't blame them for that.” This lack of resentment over product reviews is characteristic of the guiding ethos of much of the review culture on Beauty Talk: Members have enough perspective to know that just because a product doesn’t work for them, that doesn’t mean that the product doesn’t work.

Gushing too much about the merits of Beauty Talk would run the risk of exalting a corporate-operated social-media network designed to promote the sale of beauty products to its users. Included in a mostly boilerplate-language email statement I received through Sephora’s PR representative on behalf of its vice president of digital marketing, Bindu Shah, was this line: “We are thrilled that our clients have been so passionate about the community, and have used it to engage positively with one another, ultimately to help us all, Beauty Together.” Those last two words are capitalized presumably because they are a reconstitution of the “Let’s Beauty Together” campaign that Sephora launched in 2015. Even an informal email request for comment is an opportunity to repeat some brand copy to reinforce the Sephora identity.

It is not my intention to identify the network as a bastion of cooperative feminism and a site of resistance to patriarchal norms. But that I feel compelled to mention this caveat illustrates the knee-jerk reaction to preemptively defend the celebration of an overtly feminine pastime.

Facebook and LinkedIn are far more insidious social-media platforms that gather data, and the derision of members who use these sites to find and share political and personal meaning is mostly scoffed at as out of touch. Fantasy sports league sites and Genius are locations for escape and community that skew masculine in their demographics, but their members don’t bend over backwards to communicate that their forums for discussion aren’t super meaningful but still have meaning. With as many users as it has, Beauty Talk defies categorizations that definitively root it in identities, the politics of beauty, or both. Sometimes, an exuberant place is just an exuberant place.

But because this article already went ahead and acknowledged the patriarchy and the hostility of the State Department under Trump, I might as well go all in on the buzzwords that alleged enemies of political correctness despise. Beauty Talk is, in short, a safe space.

While self-appointed freedom fighters, who see “safe space” and immediately assume censorship, are quick to dismiss the cultivation of such destinations as coddling that stifles free speech, the reality is that they create opportunities for freer, more collaborative dialogue. The community’s commitment to ensuring that hostility and thoughtless negativity are not welcome on Beauty Talk gives users who might otherwise fear online vitriol a reassurance that they have a support network behind them to combat it. That members fight so-called trolls with tactics like being relentlessly positive or replacing negativity with animal photos reflects the duality found in larger discussions of beauty in society: the notion that we can use frivolity and superficial means to achieve substantial, socially relevant ends.

Eliminating trolls in this fashion has become a matter of course: a sometimes un-fun but still necessary task, likely similar to how performing beauty regimens can feel like repeating a rote consumer chore. But those inclined to share generously in the economy of the beauty secret have elevated both to works of art.


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