This June, just a few days after publishing a story about the possible dangers of silicone breast implants, I got an email from a New York City plastic surgeon’s public relations team. No—it wasn’t pushback against the facts or framing of my piece. It was an offer of a “complimentary treatment.” On one of a couple upcoming “Private Media Days,” I could stop by the surgeon’s midtown office and “enjoy” a round of either Emsculpt Neo or Emsella, two methods of harnessing electromagnetic energy to eliminate body fat.
I never replied. The email was a misread of my work: I’m largely critical of cosmetic interventions. It also felt ethically dubious; while no journalist is truly beyond targeted influence, it’s important to at least try. (A common if flawed rule of thumb is that reporters should not accept gifts over $25 in value.) Yet the arrival of this invitation in my inbox felt like an intergalactic missive, a portal to another world. Free fat-melting procedures, canoodling with private practice plastic surgeons—who was accepting this stuff?
Turns out, freebies are a common—and routine—part of the cycle of cosmetics promotion. It works something like this: A brand decides to promote a given product or procedure and dedicates funds to do so. In the case of a product, a public relations representative will send the lipstick, shampoo, or face cream to beauty writers at their offices, their homes, or both. In the case of office procedures, things can get even wilder. While products range in value, comped procedures can easily be worth hundreds or, in the case of a single Emsculpt session, even a thousand dollars. And they aren’t just demonstrated at “private media days,” but also as part of larger all-expense-paid trips to white-sand beaches and other bucket-list destinations.
Whatever tactic a PR team takes, the mark of success for any promo cycle is when beauty writers feature a particular product or procedure in a column (usually framed as an experiment—“I tried X, and here’s what happened next!”), a roundup (“The 17 Best X”), or an annual “best in beauty” award. Even if the writer concludes that the results are a little underwhelming, the real message, whether implicit or explicit, is usually something like: This could be right for you, dear reader. “Even if your advice isn’t, ‘Try Product X,’ you’re a part of that machine,” says Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives.
While it may seem unethical to accept gratis treatments—particularly if the gift is the only reason you’re covering something in the first place—it’s hard for most outlets to say no. “These publications need to maintain good and friendly relationships with influential brands,” says beauty critic Jessica DeFino, who spent time writing for big beauty media herself before starting her own anti-product beauty newsletter, the Unpublishable. But it’s not just about the goodies. It’s also about getting access to “exclusives”: When news of a new product launch is shared in advance with only one magazine, it can drive bonkers traffic to the chosen site when the story you can’t get anywhere else goes live.
DeFino would know: While writing for the Zoe Report, she says she received more than $1,000 a week of free product, most of it shipped directly to her home. She also took luxurious trips paid for by the very companies she was reporting on. At one point, Allergan, the $16 billion pharmaceutical giant behind Botox, sent DeFino and other beauty writers to the Stagecoach music festival with VIP passes, comped meals, prepaid hotel rooms stocked with free product, and complimentary injections.
At the time, these purported perks seemed routine to DeFino. In fact, they were—and, in large part, remain—routine. Atoosa Rubenstein, the former editor of CosmoGirl and Seventeen, has written about her own (failed) attempts to navigate the porous boundaries between beauty media and beauty companies. In a cheeky April 2022 newsletter on her life as a “corporate call girl,” Rubenstein recalled boating with Unilever, flying to Iceland with Joe Boxer, and waltzing through Austria on Wolford’s dime. “One night we had dinner at a stunning restaurant with a view of Luxembourg, Switzerland and maybe Italy?? Germany?? I don’t remember,” Rubenstein writes. “I just remember me and my $35K a year salary would have never otherwise had that experience.”
The blast radius of this veritable pay-to-play scheme is bigger than any one promotional spot. It’s affected the way that beauty media insiders, and the millions of people who follow their work, think about the world. “The biggest bias that is created by these free press trips is not toward a particular brand,” says DeFino. It’s “toward products themselves. The idea that a product may not be what you need is not even on their radar.” This incentive structure helps to obscure important truths, like the fact that what “helps” with bothersome belly fat might not be a series of treatments to shrink it, but meditation, therapy, or … reading a good book (ideally, one free of any body shaming).
What’s interesting about women’s media more generally is that its pro-product perspective was by no means inevitable. For much of American history, altering the face in the name of fashion was totally taboo. While many European courts of the 18th century relished wigs, powders, and rouges, in a “republican society, manly citizens and virtuous women were expected to reject costly beauty preparations and other signs of aristocratic style,” historian Kathy Peiss wrote in her 1998 book, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. In this period, beauty writing (insofar as it existed) was mostly focused on talking people out of “painting” their faces—an act long associated with sex work.
The beauty standards we know today only became possible after the advent of photography, which forced millions of people who had only seen themselves in low-quality mirrors to suddenly confront their faces. They didn’t always like what they saw. Many people began “making up” before sitting for their portrait, Peiss writes. For women, the pressures of seeing and being seen only continued to accelerate as they made major strides in the public sphere. By the late 1920s, some amount of cosmetic enhancement was fairly standard—though what cold creams or lipsticks were considered appropriate was specific to one’s region, class, race or ethnicity, age, and even the time of day.
By this point, cosmetics companies knew that in order to grow, they not only needed to get their products in women’s hands, but actually instruct them in their use. People accustomed to a soap and water regimen were intimidated by thick moisturizers and multicolored eyeshadow palates. So brands relied on salespeople, public demonstrations, and advertising in women’s magazines and the women’s sections of newspapers to ”educate” the general public. Behind the scenes, cosmetics companies also courted editorial staff with comped lunches and free products as early as the 1930s, Peiss writes. The result was subtle but clear: With a bit of schmoozing, an ad for Revlon’s “Fire and Ice” might appear next to an advice column on how to draw the perfect lip.
Today, in addition to mirrors and studio photography, we have front-facing phone cameras, filters, and endless cloud storage with which to document every minor change in our flesh. No change goes unnoticed. Brands still use reporters and influencers to “teach” people how to freeze their face before it even starts to wrinkle. And while the power of traditional beauty outlets may be shrinking—Allure, for example, recently stopped its print run—free products and procedures still make their way into the hands of influencers and the merely influential. Many of these social media boosters are free agents who make their living on transparently labeled #sponsored content, but others are current or former beauty editors who post ostensibly organic product recommendations and, when their followings grow large enough, paid partnerships of their own.
The digital age has brought about one other major shift, as Whitefield-Madrano wrote in 2016: Criticism of the beauty industry routinely appears in the pages (and TikToks and Tweets) of even the most pro-product outlets. Whether in Vogue, Glamour, or R29, these critiques address everything from the racism inherent in so much of the beauty industry to the environmental consequences of beauty. Yet even as different outlets and influencers cultivate a modicum of skepticism, many media empires remain driven by access to products, procedures, and the power associated with them. As a result, the core message still boils down to: You should use products, just “better”—less racist, less polluting, less obvious—ones.
For my part, I’m doing my best to opt out, personally and professionally. After a summer reporting on the wild world of cosmetic procedures for Slate, it’s clear to me that a “free” Emsculpt Neo treatment is never really free. Accepting it would have meant compromising some of my values as a journalist. But more than that, it would have meant compromising a modicum of my well-being. Just reading up on the procedure was emotionally challenging; a person can only look at so many “before” and “after” videos before self-loathing for their own body starts to creep in. And when Emsculpt’s results inevitably faded after a few weeks, I’d face a new problem: either pay out of pocket to keep them up, or accept my “before” body’s return.
Some of this is old news: I mostly knew that cosmetic procedures weren’t for me before I started reporting on them. But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered about beauty that I’ll never forget, it’s that each individual product is beside the point. The real hard thing these companies are selling is the idea that beauty work is ongoing and obligatory and that no matter how much you pay out or get for “free,” you’ll always feel like you’re falling behind.