In the Land of the Unmarked Case

Cosmetics and beauty retailer, Ulta, is promoting a sweepstakes for which the grand prize is a $1,000 Ulta shopping spree.  Okay.  That’s fine.  But the tagline for this promotion is “The world of beauty is evolving.”  Okay.  That’s fine … or is it?  The tagline sounds so inclusive, so multicultural, so accepting of multiple conceptions of beauty.  In theory, at least.

But, in practice, not so much. 

The main promotional feature is a brief retrospective on styles from the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (obviously, ain’t nothing chic about the Great Depression), complemented by contemporary photographs of models with their hair and makeup styled to represent each decade.  I’d like to share them with you.

This first decade highlights what I find reprehensible about the entire layout: the assumption that white looks were and are the most important, and that women of color (be they African American or any other nationality, ethnicity, or race other than white American) mattered only as second thoughts and only during rare periods.  “Ghostly pale skin” not only does not work as a description for women of color, but it also excludes immigrant and second generation women of the period — from places such as Eastern and Southern Europe and the Far East.

“Skin was powdered and pink”?!  Whose skin was powdered and pink?  Does this look a pink woman to you?

Once, again, the assertion of pale skin as the marker of a decade’s beauty ideal excludes the most women.

Well, in any decade, I love my bronze skin.  Maybe that’s what they mean … right?  Nah.

I wasn’t blond in the 1990s.  And it wasn’t just because I was in my teens. 

So, apparently we are finally allowed to accept our face shapes, skin tones, and hair textures.  Thank goodness for progress, for this magnificent evolution of beauty. 

And thank you, Ulta, for once again proving that white privilege is deeply and horribly engrained in the American social landscape.



  1. Deb said,

    March 12, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Over react much? I MIGHT understand if it was history website on fashion/cosmetic history, but this is a makeup website. They are just giving breif glimpses into the /most popular looks/ then, not a full essay on each race’s makeup styles. And is it Ultra’s fault for telling it like it was? No, its not. Just because it says women dyed their hair blonde and you didn’t you don’t like it? How does the article show “White privilege”? The website is not putting down other races, its just showing the most popular makeup styles from the past centuries. I find it hard to beleive that someone would find the webiste even remotley racist/demeaning. I think you are just over reacting.

  2. academicdrone said,

    March 12, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    I have not overreacted. I have analyzed. I’m not sure if you noticed the title of my post, “In the Land of the Unmarked Case” (or, for that matter, the title of my blog, The Academic Drone). I believe you have misunderstood this, along with my thesis — that the layout assumes white women’s beauty practices were universal. Every discussion of race is not about overt racism. This post is not accusing Ulta of overt racism. I am highlighting the ways in which their site’s promotion reflected centuries of white privilege in the United States.

    By white privilege, I mean the practice of privileging white experiences over those of anyone else. Just because some white women were doing a certain thing during a decade does not make that practice THE look of the decade. (Just in case you were unfamiliar with the unmarked and marked case: These concepts are derived from linguistics. The unmarked case is the default. Therefore, when we talk about the unmarked case in terms of race in the United States, we talk about whites because, throughout the history of our nation, it has been generally assumed that Americanness is best embodied by white Americans and that all other Americans must be identified by some modifier — African American, Asian American, Native American, etc. Therefore, these other Americans are the marked case.)

    The point is this: Why shouldn’t a beauty website — which, by the way, sells to non-white women — promote the beauty of non-whites?

    Thank you for dropping by my blog.

  3. nightwriter said,

    April 26, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I think the point that the person who responded to your blog entry was making is exactly the point that you are making – that the ideal of beauty for many decades was that of white people, who defined mainstream culture in this country for many decades. The earlier part of the 20th century was a fairly racist, white-dominated time. As the century progressed, awareness and acceptance of other races became reflected in popular culture – and this is acknowledged in the Ulta spread that you are referring to. (and let’s face it – women of all sorts of colors were going blond a few years ago and still are.) They end their time-line on beauty by suggesting that the styles today allow women to be who they are, naturally (from what I recall from beauty articles from the ’70’s, ’80’s and ’90’s, this has generally been the perception of how fashion is evolving in the moment). I wouldn’t count on a cosmetic company to go anywhere more than skin-deep on issues of race. It was a fun look at past trends and a hopeful and rather politically-correct nod to the future. Nothing more than that.

  4. Stephanie said,

    May 5, 2008 at 7:14 pm


    It’s so cool that I found this blog because I have spent THREE HOURS trying to find photos of women of color in the 1940s. OK? I have over ten sources for a report on women’s fashion in WWII. You were not overreacting.
    LUCKILY, there are a few icons from the era that I can use for my presentation, including Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, and “Ruby” from Raisin in the Sun. Not to say that there is not a huge list of amazing African American women in history…
    The only Latina faces I have available for my presentation are those who were involved in the Sleepy Lagoon trial, pachucas.

    The points you bring up about skin color are very good points. In one of my 1940s makeup books, the only indication that colored women existed was in the cosmetic ingredients section, and the cosmetic was what? Skin lightener!!! [Which may still be available in China, despite the harmful (maybe deadly?)effects of it.]

    There is no doubt that women of color are excluded from the world of mainstream fashion.


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