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'Beauty Bloggers' and the Exploited Women of Juarez: An Outcry

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"Mad Men's" Don Draper may have had hangovers and hotties at his '60s-era ad firm, but one headache he did not have was bloggers.

Over the past few weeks, an army of beauty bloggers sunk their glossy nails into a collaboration between cosmetics giant MAC and fashion company Rodarte that made light of the perilous situation of women living in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (The business of promoting beauty products has changed profoundly since the days when real life Don Draper advertising executives convened focus groups to learn whether women used face cream to feel beautiful, or to catch a man.)

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the designers behind the Rodarte label, claim they were influenced by the "colors and culture of Mexico" in their new line of MAC makeup, which features chalky lipsticks like "Ghost Town," an eye shadow called "Sleepwalker" (which appears to have streaks of blood running through it), and frosty nail polish in shades called "Juarez" and "Factory." The Mulleavys said they drew inspiration from the women of Juarez who commute to their factory jobs in pitch-black darkness. Ads for the collection featured deathly-white faces and bloodshot eyes, together with lacy, shroud-like garments that make the models look like corpses.

But the realities of life in Ciudad Juarez lend an unintended gravitas to the make-up palette. The city has the grim distinction of being known as one of the most dangerous places in the world. Located across the border from El Paso, Texas, Juarez has long been a depot for drug trafficking, and is infamous for its nearly 6,000 unsolved rapes and murders, many of them involving young women commuting to and from maquiladoras. Nearly 80 percent of the workforce in Juarez is employed by the region's 339 maquiladoras, notoriously exploitative, foreign-owned factories that produce electronics, automotive parts, packaging, medical devices, plastics and other products sold in the United States and elsewhere.

In 2008, Juarez recorded 1,600 murders, more than three times the rate of the deadliest city in the United States. Amnesty International and some families of Juarez victims have been involved in a long-running campaign to bring about justice for the deceased, but little progress has been made and evidence suggests that state officials might be negligent in the investigations.

Given this social context, beauty bloggers who were given advance press kits and samples for the fashion line lashed out at MAC/Rodarte for romanticizing the lives of women fraught with violence and poverty.

Jessica Wakeman of The Frisky called the collection "tasteless" and asked, "What's next, a lipstick called Bergen-Belsen?" A blogger at BeautyMouth wrote, "This is about as sensitive as Toys R Us releasing a line of toy guns and calling them 'Columbine' and 'Dunblane.' "

The story quickly zinged around the pretti-nets. Liloo Grunewald of Le Petit Jardin de Liloo compiled a list of more than 100 blogs that had expressed outrage at MAC/Rodarte's insensitivity; many promised to boycott the collection.

In short order, MAC/Rodarte issued apologies, promised to change the offensive names of their products, and vowed to donate $100,000 to a non-profit with a "proven, successful track-record helping women in need" in Juarez.

But the bloggers were not about to let MAC/Rodarte off the hook. Newly politicized, beauty and fashion writers began calling for the two companies to donate the entirety of their profits from the collection to women and girls in Juarez. A blogger at Vex in the City wrote, "I cannot help . . . feeling disappointed still. MAC has pledged to make a donation of $100,000, but this is totally disproportionate to the amount of money they could give."

A petition started by Healing Beauty sought advice from the head of Women on the Border Inc., an advocacy group, regarding which local nonprofits MAC/Rodarte should support in order to best serve families of the victims of femicide. The petition was signed by 1,500 people.

On July 29, just two weeks after the first public outcry, Temptalia reported that MAC had conceded, agreeing to turn over its global profits from the sale of the MAC/Rodarte collection to a new initiative that will provide grants to local and international organizations that raise awareness and provide resources for women and girls in Juarez.

Wow.

Many of the beauty writers who raised a fuss over the Juarez make-up are not professional journalists. Most are not associated with national publications, or even paid for their work. But they are smart women who care about the products they use, the social messages that are attached to these products, and how those social messages reflect on us as human beings. They were unwilling to buy and wear make-up that trivialized the lives of women struggling in another nation, under conditions largely perpetuated by a global system that benefits Americans at the expense of others.

They are everyday people who cared enough to raise their voices. We need more of them.

Meanwhile, the MAC/Rodarte PR machines must be breathing a sigh of relief and wiping their foreheads that the fuss has died down with their newfound sensitivity. The companies are sure to generate positive publicity from this action, but the beauty bloggers are the ones who should be lauded. They demonstrated how quickly and effectively they could get a company to respond to intense public pressure. Using Twitter, e-mail chains, and personal entreaties, these bloggers managed in mere days to post 100 articles on well-trafficked sites about the Juarez collection, and results followed.

They reminded me how much control we can (and should) have over corporate interests. We let companies pull at our heartstrings and our purse strings, but this shouldn't keep us from being vocal advocates for our needs. We need to shed our passive purchasing role, and instead start from the position that we can change the types of products we are sold and the methods used to sell them. This case is a victory for activism, if there ever was one, but it shouldn't disappear with the next news cycle.

A giant company changed some insensitive names. How will this translate into better outcomes for the women of Juarez? We need to follow-up with MAC/Rodarte to ensure that the collection profits go to organizations that are doing fiscally responsible, socially appropriate work on the ground. We often hear that a company is donating to charities, particularly after a public relations blunder, but we rarely investigate what that means. I hope the successful bloggers continue to use their leverage to demand transparency from MAC/Rodarte. The MAC website -- or the sites of organizations benefiting from their newfound generosity -- could post results of their corporate gifts.

Ideally, the beauty bloggers who have made this their issue will continue to write passionately and thoughtfully about the injustices and unsafe conditions in Juarez. They could connect with women there to learn more about local needs and how MAC/Rodarte's new efforts are improving life on the ground. At a minimum, the bloggers already have MAC's ear. They only need to bend it again to affect change.

The collection hits stores on Sept. 15. Bloggers, uncap your lipsticks.
Filed Under: Woman Up, International

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Ruth

Some may condemn bloggers for various reasons. But bloggers are a force. And an effective one at that. No matter what anyone says about bloggers, all are a necessary weapon in the internet world where information is fast and furious and so many "seemingly" non events are as important as the raging politics of the day. Kudos to these beauty bloggers who understand the importance of thousands of unsolved rapes and murders in Juarez. Besides the quest for profits by this company, the insensitivity of promoting these products, in a city where women must live in fear each day on the way to work, is mind boggling. What's even more distressing is that I am assuming numerous people thought this was a good idea. Keep up that great work beauty bloggers! As a consumer, I applaud you and your successful efforts.

August 18 2010 at 12:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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