“Virginity”, “Barely Legal”, and “X-Rated”: why is make-up still so sexualised?

Written by Morgan Fargo

Five women share how it makes them feel.

Let’s paint a picture: you’re at your local Boots or Superdrug, picking out a new lipstick, mascara or blusher. The shades and styles on offer are varied in range and formulas but on one thing they seem to all converge – overtly sexual names.

Now, beauty brands have known for decades that sex sells. From Nars’ Orgasm and Deep Throat shades to Too Faced’s Better Than Sex mascara, there’s a litany of excellent cult products with risqué names. 

The first time I stumbled across a lipgloss alluding to oral sex, I blushed. As a tween, how else could I feel? Now, I feel unmoved by it, even bored by the phenomenon. When everything is naughty, nothing is. 

Sometimes though, product names pass the pale and shake me from the pervasive sexual stupor. In 2017 it was Kylie Jenner’s (now re-named) Kylie Cosmetics blusher collection featuring the eye-watering titles: Barely Legal, X-Rated and Virginity. Largely marketed at teenagers, I found it galling. 

This year, performer Machine Gun Kelly released his debut nail polish range, UN/DN LAQR, with shades ranging from Slippery When Wet to Put Me On Top. The names, while eye-catching, aren’t especially demonstrative of any particular colours. 

Believe me, I’m not clutching any pearls. I don’t find discussing sex or buying sexual products embarrassing. What I do feel odd about is why beauty has been so inextricably linked to graphic innuendo. When did we decide this was the best, or only, way to do it? 

“I cringe thinking of reading the names to my mum”

“I remember the first time I ever bought make-up that seemed, to a 13-year-old me, risqué – Soap And Glory’s Sexy Mother Pucker lipgloss. I thought it so scandalous that I hid it from my mum, and my friends and I took it as an indication of how grown up we were to own such a product, something that seems utterly tame compared to some of the product names now. 

“I’m in no way a prude, but I do find it a little bit jarring that these ‘cult’ products, many of which found fame with the 2010s YouTube beauty bloggers and their legions of young tween fans, are so commonplace. It seems to make the uncomfortable connection that wearing make-up invites inherent sexualisation – of the product if not the wearer. 

“But overall, it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me what a product is called, I just cringe thinking of having to tell my mum that my mascara is named Better Than Sex.”

– Amy

“It feels cheap and fast”

“My overriding feeling is that brands often try too hard to connect to a younger generation who, admittedly, are freer and less coy than we were about sex. They do it because there is little appetite for advertising and the younger generation, especially, mute ads. Hence the sledgehammer approach to marketing products to grab attention, missing the point that while the younger generation might be more “out there,” they also appreciate nuance and subtlety.

“To be honest, it doesn’t feel empowering, but it does grab attention and then it’s gone. Much like fast food.”

– Melinda

“I buy make-up based on the shade, not the name”

“The use of overtly sexual marketing in the world of cosmetics makes me feel ‘yuck’. When it comes to make-up, be it a blusher, eyeshadow or lipstick, I’ll choose it based on the shade I love the most rather than the name. If I then spot that the name is very sexual, it puts me off rather than encouraging me to spend my money with that brand.

It’s not that it offends me as such, but it just makes the product feel cheap. I understand that brands need to cut through the noise of marketing, but I’d rather they do it in an empowering way, or by being honest, rather than in a sexual way.”

– Ellie

“It feels outdated”

“Once upon a time, giving make-up sexual names might have been considered subversive. But, in my opinion, that sell-by-date expired around 2008 and now the culture has moved on. These days, thankfully, there is far more dialogue around sex, particularly with regards to women’s agency and pleasure. But it doesn’t seem as though brands have moved with the times at all. 

“Whenever I see a lipstick or blusher named after a sex position, I find it woefully out-of-step with the times. Not only do I find it cheap and condescending that products marketed to women are so heavily gendered, but I also think that continuing to use sexual names in this wink-wink manner actually cements the idea that sex is dirty, shameful and embarrassing. 

“I’m sure that most brands only choose these names with the intention of conjuring some allure – but really, most women are going to buy a mascara because it matches their lashes, not because it’s named after a night of passion.”

– Chrissie

“I don’t find it empowering”

“The first time I noticed this phenomenon was with Nars’ Orgasm blush. I’ve always thought brands do this in a bid to seem provocative but it always seems overtly sexual but not in a way that is empowering. 

“After all, wearing a lip balm called “Deep Throat” doesn’t exactly instil me with a sense of power – despite make-up having that ability to embolden us to feel like our best selves. Instead, these innuendo-named products often feel like a cheap way to shock consumers that moves the focus from feeling good to feeling surprised by how racy it is.”

– Leah 

Main image: Getty

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