Beauty in Truth: Walking Your Talk with Values

I always, always, always notice the way She looks. The model in the beauty product ads that I come across in magazines and on billboards. Mostly, I notice how she looks, half laying in the water in her impossible swimsuit, striding down a city street in her oh-so-chic-capris, or adding mascara to her already flawless visage, in comparison to how I feel I look, and it sucks.  First I notice Her and my heart goes thump as  it hits me, “wow someone who looks that  good must really have it all together” and then I notice Me and the waistband of my pants which feel too tight,  the lines around my eyes that like the Sahara desert close up, and the way I slouch instead of stride sometimes on the way to work. And yes, then I feel inadequate at best and self-loathing at worst.

 That beautiful ad calls me in, seduces me, and then dumps me in the sewer of comparative shaming and internalized perfectionism. Companies produce those ads with strategy and plans designed to move product off their shelves and to do just that:  convince me that if I buy that thing, I may get closer to looking like Her.

 I never do.

 In the work that I do with companies, I frequently have the opportunity to help them craft, unify, define, and refine their written and shared values statements as part of their strategy. In my recent book, Bravespace Workplace, I explore the key role of consistency between what a company professes to believe, and what they actually do. Brene’ Brown (whose curriculum, Dare to Lead™ is my standard bearer for helping leaders to enact their leadership courage practice) describes this process of values centering as choosing courage over comfort.

 So, what does this mean practically?

I was intrigued recently when I came upon a story in Fast Company of how Norman de Greve, CMO of CVS Health, is working to walk his company’s talk in the mega beauty business. Most of us know of the wildly unrealistic standards of beauty that women face in advertising and social media that tell us what is beautiful (thin, flawless, etc.) De Greve, who leads marketing for the country’s 2nd largest beauty retailer decided to take a look at CVS’s actual portrayal of beauty. The result is their creation of a “Beauty Unaltered” watermark to images they use to sell stuff that are not retouched and a “Digitally Altered” label to those that are altered—helping consumers quickly assess “is this a real image or a retouched unreal one.” De Greve’s efforts required CVS to work closely with every brand they represent to achieve the goal of labeling 100% of their stores by 2020.

The result is an elevation of transparency in what is real, which connects to the internalized beliefs women have about themselves. My friend and colleague, National Women’s Hall of Fame activist, speaker, and writer Jean Kilbourne powerfully showcases the impact of media on women in her ground breaking film, Killing Us Softly. Research shows that women often feel worse about themselves when they see beauty ads, and digital enhancement deepens the pain. De Greve’s efforts and his company’s leadership and influence in the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry puts in play a new frame for how companies who sell products to enhance how women look ought to portray authentic and real women, not the fake and altered perfection so long curated in this sphere. This is walking the talk of values.

De Greve reports that the company has gained profit but also market share, a delightful example of the dynamic I explore often with clients. It is not that profit doesn’t matter to an organization’s health, it does. But it need not always be the only North Star. There are other things that matter to how a company rolls that support and activate profit, while also responsibly modeling the real values the company professes.

As a woman who has been navigating the complex shame cycle that happens every time I see an ad for a beauty product with a beautiful woman in it, I appreciate this effort by de Greve and CVS to get real. It signals to me that they get it—I am a real human and by my very nature, imperfect. I want to buy products that enliven my essence and make me better, not products that seek to feed an endless pursuit of an unrealistic standard and make me feel like crap. Business unequivocally has a role in both making a profit and making an impact. Knowing what they value (in the case of CVS, integrity and accountability) and acting in synch with those values makes all the difference. Well done!

Jim Morris