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Brands, Palm Oil and the Ugly Face of Beauty

After the recent piece regarding palm oil and the depredations its industrial cultivation rains on the heads of one of our most wonderful simian cousins, if there is anyone in the beauty industry or from one of its agencies that read it and didn’t end up feeling anything other than a creeping, yawing shame climb up their neck I would be staggered.

Sadly, whether they give enough of a flying arse to do or say anything about it has more to do with income, career, the unassailable truth of an utterly disinterested management structure and the luxury of distance.

The management of these corporations know that the desperate human psyche is obsessed in ever-increasing degrees it seems with looking like something they’re not. Or once were.

And the masters of those businesses keep a firm (serum-tightened) eye on supplying the relentless demand for sleights of hand in the human genetic condition department — primarily around the strands that:

a) make us look the way we do

b) make us smell the way we do

b) force us to age

The simple fact is, when it comes to holding the pedlars of the beauty myth to task, our vanities render us mute.

How could we say anything? We’re all still queuing up to slather umpteen variants on a palm oil theme over ourselves to the point of sociopathic self-obsession and distraction. Once we’ve lathered (palm oil), conditioned (palm oil), scrubbed (palm oil), primped (palm oil), buffed (palm oil), BB’d (palm oil), eyelined (palm oil) and glossed (palm oil), we’re hardly likely to suddenly have a lot to say about the relentless abuse, dislocation and death of a distant orange relative (the orangutan, that is — not the 23-year-old with the addiction to a high-street chain of tanning shops called the Electric Beach).

Curious given that we all get very upset in the UK about the ill treatment of animals — if you tried (I dare you) to replay the scenes set out in the article about the brutal treatment of oranguans by plantation farm hands on a more home grown creature in your local park, the retribution would indeed be swift and brutal.

If you were to pop down to a county market town somewhere on a blustery Saturday, identify a suitable creature — a classic Labrador bitch, perhaps, with a pup in tow — and then set about her with a club with such force that it killed her, at which point you are liberated to kidnap and sell the orphan pup for £6 down the pub — I think we all know what would happen.

It is doubtful that you would even get the clubstick over your head before an outraged brawling scrum of sturdy county women, art students, Chuggers, the vicar, a couple of bloodsports types, a Big Issue seller and the odd till lady from WH Smiths have hurled you to the floor and set about taking your clubstick and turning you into a lollypop.

“I simply didn’t realise! And the little orange people are all the way over there, aren’t they dear! And what could little old me do anyway?” And so slap, slap, slap, slap happy, we carry on regardless.

The measure of distance from or proximity to crimes against any species, human or otherwise, has always had a direct relation on the measure of both empathy and action against those crimes. Twas always thus. In the old days, empires happily wrought bloody havoc all over the globe but to the happy, buoyantly nationalistic and highly civilised folks at home, nothing. By the time the news arrived on their breakfast table, it had been boil-washed, scrubbed and swaddled in the white spotless shroud of po-piety and the moral high ground. But in our joined-up fibre-optic world, where the news arrives in nanoseconds in myriad formats and content forms across multiple channels, most of them served directly into the palm of our hand, that little excuse has worn a little thin; much like the veneer of respectability and humanity that exists in corporations large enough to do something about furry orange genocide.

So, all in all, if we have to put anything under some brutal scrutiny, the modern concept of beauty and the manner in which we ‘ape’ the myth we’re presented with by the movies and magazines, is worthy of a little more rigour.

The toxic nature of the pursuit of it as played out on the world stage by stretch-faced harridans (both male & female — lets hear it for Christopher Guest!) who have lost the ability to express any emotion in their faces (how surgery reveals the inner soul perhaps?) and their effect on the young mainly women bullied into low self-esteem, eating disorders and galloping dysmorphia, toxic and sometimes fatal tanning, relentless plucking and, on a lighter note, an approach to the sexual mores of bodily hair that owes more to porno and paedophillia than it does to any pure aesthetic perceptions of the physical sexual potency of mature adults with all the incumbent accessories — like normal pubic hair!

In the end, I suppose one has to decide what one finds beautiful regardless of whether one’s focus is particularly on the human face or form or some other derivative shade of what constitutes a canvass for the beautiful and sublime.

We also have to decide what price we or anyone else for that matter might pay for the pursuit, attainment and maintenance of that beauty — pursuit of this unsustainable illusion, others loudly and visibly. Some will destroy those immediately around them, their loved ones and friends; some will simply bankrupt themselves in the process either through a bathroom full of age-defying cremes with science-defying benefits and means-defying price tags or through the insidiously addictive and ultimately disfiguring process of plastic surgery.

But all of us, as a collective, as a global nation of beauty chasers, destroy things far afield every time we pick up a beauty product that relies on palm oil to deliver itself to the world. And that’s not pretty.

This is not to say there are not other myriad reasons for the sheer scale and dizzying growth in the palm oil trade. Its classing as a biofuel allows some of the more destructive or venal farmers to alleviate their conscience while they alleviate the primates of their habitat.

But the beauty industry needs to become beautiful on the inside as well as the outside — and it has a world of ugliness to attend to to do it; because our orange cousins deserve more from us as a relative and we deserve more for our money from the brands that serve us.

This post first appeared on the Thin Air Factory blog on December 20, 2013.

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