August 26, 2019

A complicated portrait of beauty

Oscar Yuan // WTF BEAUTY

“Real beauty is inner beauty, that’s true,” the Dalai Lama suprised many when he said in a recent BBC interview “But with human beings, I think the appearance is also important.”

He was talking about the potential for a female Dalai Lama and suggesting that to qualify for the role she needs to be attractive and “spend money on makeup.” It wasn’t the first time he’s made comments like those but it appears to be the first time he (sort of) apologized.

Regardless, his comments touch on a central tension in this issue of What the Future. On the one hand, many are pushing for an expanded idea of “beauty.” The world is an incredibly diverse place, so the notion of one idealized sense of beauty seems antiquated. That is especially true for younger generations, who are increasingly of mixed race, mixed culture and accepting of fluid genders, and see these things as non-issues. It’s just the olds who are having a hard time adapting.

At the same time, as the Dalai Lama inelegantly points out, and Ipsos research confirms, it takes time to move an antiquated standard. “Ideals” still very much exist across nations and cultures. The chart below is part of a new Ipsos Global Advisor survey on beauty standards, replicating the 2004 survey that inspired the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. As we further explore in our global beauty survey, it’s clear that beauty inclusivity still has ground to cover.

Beauty, of course, is big business. There is momentum toward inclusivity, but also sustainability, natural ingredients and the increasing use of technology in the retail process and environment. For big beauty companies long focused on simplicity and scale, this is a lot to consider and incorporate into marketing, product development and channel relationships.

Technology creates another key challenge. Artificial intelligence and other developments help customers craft new “looks” in the real world that they can portray in the virtual world. People can experiment faster, cheaper and easier using mobile or in-store apps to see how different shades, styles and even eye shapes will change their appearance.

Taking advantage of these changes are boutique grooming and cosmetics firms that are carving out niches and segmenting customers in ways that threaten the traditional players. Big beauty businesses,  in turn, are cherry-picking the startups and acquiring them, as Procter & Gamble has done with Walker and Co., and Estee Lauder has done with Glamglow and Smashbox.

The beauty behemoths are seeing that they, too, can do disruptive innovation

Oscar Yuan

Oscar Yuan is the president of Ipsos Strategy3.

He advises Fortune 500 clients about the future of their industries and how to plan accordingly in the present.


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The beauty behemoths are seeing that they, too, can do disruptive innovation. They are the ones with the research and development muscle to create and pivot at any scale they wish. It becomes a matter of reading the trends with enough agility to get in front of them. Likewise, these players must pay attention to micro-trends alongside the full-scale macro trends that traditionally drove profits.

Thankfully, trend watching is easier today than ever before—but even that creates a challenge. The big beauty brands used to define “beauty” in centralized ways—if one decided that a certain shade was the thing that year, it became the thing. Now, with the proliferation of social media, bloggers, vloggers and insta-influencers, the definitions of beauty trends become more personal and distributed. This diminished influence of the big players poses an existential challenge, but it’s offset by the incredibly powerful real-time window that companies have into the different consumer opinions out there. It’s just that real-time moves very quickly, and adjusting to it takes focus, effort and, of course, research.

Which leads us to our final tension, and one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. In a world where everyone can be beautiful, there’s a pressure for everyone to be beautiful. We see that tension measured in Instagram likes, but also in the rise of teenage suicides. We see that tension in the selfie-taking sense of virtual beauty but also in the rise of plastic surgery. We see that tension in the plethora of new shades of foundation but also in the filters that morph us all into the same wide-eyed, smooth-skinned cat-eared caricatures.

Where will all of these tensions net out? To get at those answers, we have to ask a lot of big questions. The implications of the answers will matter to humans everywhere and to the companies wishing to help them on their journey. The foundational question, of course, is: Will beauty continue to be in the eye of the beholder, or will beauty be something that we each get to define and own for ourselves?

What the Future is a quarterly deep dive into different aspects of consumer and social thought and behavior. Each edition features exclusive new data from world-leading research firm Ipsos. WTF explores how a single industry or behavior fits into the broader culture now and in the coming decades. Read Previous WTF Issues »

Ideal beauty is consistent, but still gendered

Men and women in 27 nations were asked to rate these attributes in terms of what makes a man or woman beautiful. This is how they ranked.

 How women
view men
How men
view men
Professional success99
Financial success1010
Facial appearance1112
Sense of style1214
Appearance of skin1416
Body weight and shape1511
Hair styling1617
Spirituality/religious faith1818
 How women
view women
How men
view women
Facial appearance910
Appearance of skin1013
Sense of style1112
Professional success1216
Body weight and shape1311
Hair styling1315
Financial success1617
Spirituality/religious faith1818

(Source: Ipsos Global Advisor survey conducted between April 19 and May 3, 2019 among 19,029 adults in 27 countries. For full datasets, please visit


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, President, Ipsos Strategy3

Oscar Yuan is the president of Ipsos Strategy3. He advises Fortune 500 clients about the future of their industries and how to plan accordingly in the present.

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