For years it was commonplace, and still is to a certain extent, for Hollywood icons and music megastars to cash in on beauty contracts and promote everything from skincare serums, hair masks and mascaras. Now, however, the tide is finally turning. It’s no longer just the likes of Nike and Reebok signing up female athletes for endorsements, beauty brands are also getting in on the act.
Even just a few years ago and the idea of a statuesque female rugby player fronting a skincare campaign would have seemed inconceivable and yet this is exactly what beauty behemoth Clinique have done. Famed for redefining the beauty industry with its custom-fit skincare routines, previous partnerships have taken place with actress Emilia Clarke and singer Melissa Barrera. However, in a move that pivots away from the glitz and glam of celebrity, they’ve teamed up with England rugby player Holly Aitchison, naming her their Game Face Ambassador. According to the brand, the partnership is designed to ‘continue spreading optimism and inspire young women to feel resilient and positive to achieve their goals feeling confident in their skin.’
It’s a sentiment that has been reverberating amongst beauty brands for a while. Several well executed beauty campaigns such as L’Oreal’s "Gold, not old", and Doves “Real Curves” campaign have started important conversations and driven awareness about societal issues. And yet cynics might argue that when these brands are ultimately driven by profit, the messaging can become self-serving and simply pays lip service to female empowerment.
It's a narrative that Clinique are trying hard to steer away from. For them this partnership is not just about skincare and trying to shift products. ‘At the heart of this campaign is a sponsorship programme where grassroots girls rugby clubs can sign up to be with the chance of receiving 1 of 4 Clinique Support packages providing up to £10k worth of equipment, travel funding and education,’ says a brand spokesperson. ‘The impact of these packages will create a legacy of support and empowerment for young girls through rugby, and life outside sport, sparking a change in attitude beyond the current generation,’ she adds.
It’s a move that is much needed given that the Women in Sport 2022 survey found that 34% of teenage girls don’t like to participate in sports because they don’t want to be watched. A feeling that Aitchison knows all too well. As part of fronting Clinique’s #GameFace campaign, the athlete (who has represented England at the Olympic Games and in the Six Nations), has been open about her tricky relationship with her skin during her teenage years. ‘When I was younger, I really struggled with my skin, I had blemishes everywhere, it was quite red and sore, and this in turn had a massive hit on my confidence. As I got a bit older this still affected me, I wouldn’t take media interviews after games, I would never be seen without make-up.’
Aitchison also tells me that she thinks the trend of beauty brands sponsoring sports teams and collaborating with female sports stars is a force for good. ‘By partnering with sportswomen, brands like Clinique allow people to see us outside of the sporting world. I believe it makes us more human and relatable, especially to younger people who identify with us or see us as role models.’
She adds ‘the rise recognises that beauty isn’t one dimensional and that you can be sporty, covered in mud or sweat and still be considered beautiful and enjoy the beauty industry; these two things can coexist.’
Elsewhere and in a similar vein, the hugely popular make-up brand Il Makiage has recently announced that Arsenal Women’s Football team will be at the frontier of their ‘Game Face’ project to encourage more girls to try out sports. After the Lioness’ Euros win in 2022, women’s football has never been so centre stage, so it was only a matter of time before a beauty brand set their sights on a netting a win with a female team and their #FocusOnMyGameFace aims to place female athletes at the front of their celebration of bold beauty and address the gender inequality within sports.
Speaking to WH about the team up, Arsenal defender Steph Catley says that believes this is bigger than just a new direction for make-up brands – it is changing the nature of sponsorship for women’s sports and helping to smash negative stereotypes that plague female athletes.
‘I think it’s a huge opportunity for women’s game. If you look at football it’s always had a real focus on the men’s game with sponsorships just [focusing] on being an athlete or being a man,’ says Catley. ‘I think this shows a lot about where the women’s game’s going. As females we play football, but we also enjoy beauty products and that side of things away from football.’
Like Aitchson, Catley believes that when beauty brands support female athletes, they’re helping to dismantle the negative stereotypes associated with women in sport. ‘I suppose a lot of people look at female athletes and might use some unkind words or think that we don’t like to be girly, or we don’t like to do our make-up or care about our skin,’ Catley says. ‘I think the alignment of this partnership does smash that stereotype. We are different people away from the field and we do enjoy certain things other than playing football.’
The Arsenal team hope that collaborating with a brand that has such a strong presence on sites like TikTok will help them reach a new demographic of fans. With over 60% of young girls worried about being judged by their peers for being ‘too sporty’, placing female athletes as the face of these campaigns can help to break down stigmas.
‘Young girls seeing Il Makiage all over their TikTok who then maybe watch us playing on TV and then go onto make that connection. It helps us to reach out to a whole different bracket of people, young girls, who are obviously a target for us,’ adds Catley. ‘We want young girls looking at us and wanting to play football, so if that sort of target audience starts on TikTok or starts with the make-up industry then they find their way to football, I think that’s a win for us.’
While on the surface, these collaborations are a brilliant reminder that there are no rules when it comes to the “type” of girls who play sports, they also represent a huge mark in progress, whereby the women’s sporting industry is finally being tapped into commercially, which in turn helps to give it the recognition it deserves and helps to level the field.
While positive steps have been made in recent years, the difference in pay for men and women in many sports remains vast. Last year it was estimated that the average annual salary of a premier league footballer was £2,800,000. Comparatively, the average player’s salary in the UK’s highest tier of women’s football (the Women’s Super League), was thought to be £30,000 annually.
It’s this gender pay gap that prevents female sports from elevating. From our lens, and from every expert insider we’ve spoken to here at WH, the way for the gender pay gap to close is to get the same level of endorsement. Sponsorships provide funds for teams and tournaments, allowing them to buy essentials such as team kits, equipment and travel, and hire training facilities and grounds, in return for advertising. They’re integral in keeping the game going financially and without them, teams often struggle – which is the last thing that the women’s game needs. So why it may seem like this is a just story about make-up and skincare, it has a practical and tangible meaning and that’s makes it all the more beautiful.
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