Jessica Cruel is editor in chief of Allure, where she leads development of editorial content for print, digital, and video platforms. Cruel was previously Allure’s content director, spearheading The Melanin Edit, a new platform exploring all things relating to Black beauty, skincare, and wellness. She moderated two sessions at the 2022 Aspen Ideas Festival: Democratizing Beauty and A Wrinkle and Time: On Beauty and Aging.
How has the field of beauty journalism changed over the course of your career? Where would you like to see it go?
There are a lot of things that have changed. When I first started, we were all trying to look like the perfect person. The beauty standard was based on long blonde hair, fair skin, perfectly proportioned bodies, almond eyes, and beautiful brows. It was just an impossible standard to live up to. Also at that time, the media industry — along with fashion designers and the beauty and fashion industry at large — was at the top of the funnel, dictating what the trends were.
Now, I think we are much more in a state of listening. We listen to our readers and we respond to what they need, to what they want to see, and that's made possible through the conversations we are having with them on social media. But because those platforms move so quickly, the fashion and beauty industry isn't determining the trends as much. We're seeing things happen and respond to that. And I think that has made our industry much more egalitarian. It's made it so that people like me — curvy, natural hair, brown skin — are also considered beautiful, because I'm not looking for anyone to tell me I fit into a mold. So in general, we've expanded what is considered beautiful, which has really made us a more inclusive industry and opened up our field to much more diversity.
One thing that has not changed in beauty journalism is at the end of the day, it's my job to serve, to make sure that we are providing information to the average consumer that is accurate and scientifically sound. And that's one place Allure will always belong. I think that what we will see in the future is the beauty, personal care, and wellness industries merging more with technology to provide personalized experiences to all the diverse consumers we serve.
In the past few years, Allure has launched The Melanin Edit and The Beauty of Accessibility. You’ve said that it’s not enough for beauty magazines to show a diversity of appearances; they must also show a diversity of experiences. Can you elaborate on this? How can mainstream beauty publications work to democratize beauty?
Launching The Melanin Edit was more about me wanting to have an honest conversation. One thing you'll hear from a lot of Black and brown writers is that when they write for mainstream publications, they get watered down — some of the colloquialisms are cut because we are serving the "mainstream" audience. And in The Melanin Edit, I wanted to create a place where we could have real conversations and see the issues we care about held to the same high esteem as other topics. So, part of that was giving it the resources it deserves, and it was also about expanding our audience to people who are highly melanated across the globe. I'll just be honest: when I first started at Allure, none of my friends read Allure. Now I think that's different because they see it is a publication that serves them.
The Beauty of Accessibility was really a call to action for the beauty industry. When we talk about diversity, it's not just skin color or hair type. There are many different ways that people who are differently-abled experience the world, and that affects how they interact with beauty products. When we started to talk to writers in this community, it pushed us to tell the beauty industry, "Hey, there are people out there who find it really hard to use the products you're creating, and if we are saying that this is an industry for everyone, then you need to be talking to them."
So I think diversity of experiences is the future of what we are now calling “Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion” (DEI). It's not just about skin color, skin tone, ethnicity — it's "I do drag, and I prefer my beauty this way. I am a gamer, and I do my beauty this way. I am differently-abled, and I do my beauty this way." What we find is, similar to how Black and brown people tend to congregate around each other, these groups also congregate around each other in online forums and hashtags. Tapping into those communities is something that can help democratize beauty in a better way.
Allure does that by listening and giving a platform to the influencers and change-makers within those groups. It's about us speaking with the people who are already leading in their communities and asking them, "Hey, what do you want to say in Allure? What do you think the world should know about the people who experience beauty similarly to you?"
Big IdeaMy entire mission is for beauty to go beyond what some people think is a vanity practice, and really help people understand that at its root, beauty is the underlying background beat to how a person lives their life and how they express themselves.Jessica Cruel
Allure’s banned words include “anti-aging” and “recyclable.” What is the process like for phasing out certain buzzwords? How do you see the vernacular at Allure continuing to evolve, and, more broadly, what is the role of language in beauty?
As a writer and a journalist, I'm going to say language is very important. That's how I make my living. When we go about banning words like “anti-aging” and “recyclable,” that's another part of us listening to our audience. When anti-aging was banned (which was in the leadership prior to mine) it was really a response to marketing. Words like anti-aging send the message that aging, a natural process none of us can avoid, is bad and avoidable. That is just not accurate. No matter how much Botox you get — and I do get Botox and fillers — you're not going to halt the naturally occurring process of aging. Shouldn't we encourage our community, our readership, to embrace that and find beauty in aging?
Something I often say is, “Every wrinkle has a story, and is a mark of a life lived.” I think when we ban things like anti-aging, we're encouraging a different sentiment. Similar to recyclable, it was about the facts, and the fact is, less than 10 percent of plastic is actually recycled. No matter what your packaging says, most plastic is not recyclable. For us, it's about cutting through the marketing BS that companies at large are trying to feed the consumer, and standing in that gap to be a source of education for consumers. When we put asterisks on terms like recyclable and biodegradable and refillable, we are coming in as the journalists and fulfilling our responsibility, which is saying, "People will say this is recyclable, but we've done the research and in fact it's not." That's how Allure has built authority and trust with our readers. They know they can trust us to make that call. We fully understand that words like “green” and “natural” are marketing. There's nothing out there regulating those terms, and so we don't want to be a part of that.
Every year, we continue to evolve. There are new buzzwords out there in the beauty ecosystem, and we assess them. We research them. We talk to people in our industry, as well as scientists, dermatologists, and marketing folks. With our Allure Sustainability Pledge, we went outside of our field and talked to recycling and environmental experts. We are always ideating about what we do next and what our responsibility is to our reader. If more things need to be banned or asterisked, we will do so.
What have you learned about beauty from working in the industry? Has its meaning changed for you over the years?
I used to think that working in beauty was all about the product. When I was starting out as a young editor, it seemed like the product was the most important part. And now, as we enter this new generation, I see that it's more about self-care and wellness and culture. The stories I love the most are the ones about culture, community, and the way people practice beauty. And I use the word “practice” very purposefully because it is a practice, just like yoga is a practice.
The way we interact with beauty is personal. It's a way we express ourselves. And so it's gotten deep for me over the years. I think I've taken on this responsibility to bring that to Allure and get beyond just, “This is the product you should try. This is the tip from the dermatologist,” and really talk about how beauty interacts with our culture and how it contributes to who we are and how we see ourselves. My entire mission is for beauty to go beyond what some people think is a vanity practice and really help people understand that at its root, beauty is the underlying background beat to how a person lives their life and how they express themselves.
The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas