Birth and beauty have a lot in common.
There are lots of ways to make money off of women, but the big ones are fairly straightforward: birth and beauty.
This is what struck me when I sat down to write what I thought would be a tongue-in-cheek report on the rise of birth worker beauty. And by "birth worker beauty," I mean the very niche trend of doulas founding natural beauty brands. There's an impressive number of them: C & The Moon from doula Carson Meyer; Roots Rose Radish from midwife Christian Toscano; Fertile Alchemy from fertility expert Bri Braggs; Sisters Body from the Zasloff sisters, one a midwife and another a postpartum care practitioner. I found it sort of silly. Meme-worthy. I mean, what's more earth-mama-millennial than facilitating a hot tub home birth and finishing with a custom cocoa butter belly rub?
I felt around for a through line, a reason all these doulas were starting skin-care companies, and when I found it, the whole thing seemed less silly. It made sense, actually.
The business of birth and the business of beauty are more alike than they may seem: They're run by men, they profit off women and they're worth billions. (Of course, women aren't the only humans who have babies and skin, but for the sake of clarity and consistency, "women" will be used throughout.) In the United States alone, 4 million births a year generate over $50 billion. The cosmetics and personal care market is worth almost twice that, around $94 billion.
Perhaps not coincidentally, both industries are experiencing something of a renaissance right now — or maybe a rebellion.
The U.S. is considered one of the most costly and deadly of the developed countries when it comes to giving birth. It has higher than average infant and maternal mortality rates, particularly for families of color. For all of its safety measures, hospital delivery has been described as "disempowering" and medical interventions — labor induction, vacuum extractions, C-sections — are reportedly enacted too early and too often, for the convenience of the doctor rather than the mother. In response, fewer women are getting pregnant and more pregnant women are choosing to employ a doula (a non-medical advocate for the mother before, during and after birth) or midwife (a licensed medical provider qualified to deliver a baby) in addition to, or instead of, an obstetrician. Doulas and midwives primarily assist in hospital births, but home births are slowly and steadily increasing.
Simultaenously, big beauty is facing a bit of a backlash. A recent study of more than 46,000 women found a correlation between the use of permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners and an increased risk of breast cancer, particularly for women of color. In 2019, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $37.2 million in damages after a jury found its talcum powder to be contaminated with cancer-causing asbestos. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals in cosmetics have been linked to irregular periods, fertility issues and birth defects. A face cream tainted with mercury put a California woman in a coma a few months ago. Cosmetic safety regulations in the U.S. have not been updated since 1938. In response, women are increasingly interested in "clean" options, and the natural and organic cosmetics market is expected to grow by nearly 10% over the next five years.
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"I think with women seeking out the support of doulas or seeking out natural skin care, there's an overall questioning of the greater systems that were put in place over hundreds of years," Toscano, a practicing midwife who creates all-natural fragrances for Root Rose Radish, tells Fashionista. "What I see is women questioning how that system supports them. The reason [these markets] have exploded is that women are saying, 'We don't want garbage on our bodies and in our environment. We don't want to be treated like cattle when we go into hospitals to have this sacred moment of human creation.'"
And thus, from the rise of the doula and the rise of the natural beauty brand, comes the rise of the doula-founded natural beauty brand.
"They kind of, no pun intended, were birthed around the same time," Meyer tells me of her two businesses: C & The Moon (a celebrity-loved body scrub) and a private doula practice (she takes on three clients a month). The founder was wary of the questionable chemicals in cosmetics from a young age — Meyer's mother, an environmentalist, once grounded her for painting her nails in an unventilated room — and started making her own products in high school. In college, Meyer saw the documentary "The Business of Being Born" and considered birth work as a career. "As I got further into my doula training, I saw how important every little thing we do is to our health and the health of future generations," she says, including the use of cosmetics.
"If you haven't considered [the safety of] your beauty regimen, pregnancy is generally the time when women go, 'Huh, what is this stuff?'" Toscano agrees. Suddenly, there's a long and confusing list of exceedingly common skin-care ingredients doctors tell you to avoid. This then begs the question: Are these ingredients you want inside your system outside of pregnancy?
One advantage of having a doula or midwife is the opportunity for in-depth discussion and understanding. (Toscano notes that the average American woman gets 10 minutes with an OB per appointment, whereas a session with a midwife can last an hour.) Conversations about chemicals in cosmetics are "nuanced," she says. The role of a midwife isn't to add stress to a soon-to-be mother's mental state; it's to allow her to make her own informed decisions about potential "toxin" exposure. "I try to remind my patients that our bodies are really good at protecting our babies," Jo Zasloff, midwife and co-founder of Sisters Body, tells Fashionista. Still, some statistics are eye-opening..
"We're all in jeopardy of environmental damage, but really, a breast-feeding baby is at the top of the food chain," Meyer explains. "It's babies who are accumulating toxins through their mothers' breast milk and cord blood." In that regard, she calls Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a 1962 book that exposed the effects of environmental toxins, "one of the greatest contributions to prenatal care." (The same book inspired the recent documentary Toxic Beauty, perhaps, again, not coincidentally.)
There is evidence that babies quite literally "inherit" their mothers' beauty routines, in one way or another. More than 200 chemicals, some from personal care products, have been found in umbilical cord blood, and environmental toxins have been found in breast milk. One study noted a correlation between a pregnant mother's exposure to phthalates, typically found in fragrance, and a child's future risk of developing breast cancer. Petroleum-based personal lubricants — including the petroleum jelly used in OB-GYN exams — have been shown to disrupt the vaginal microbiome, which could be a problem, since the health of a mother's vaginal microbiome has been linked to the health of her child's gut microbiome. That last one inspired holistic skin-care brand Flower & Bone Supply to release Constant Gardener earlier this month, a petroleum-free, botanical-based lube that can be used in-office at OB-GYN appointments to protect beneficial bacteria.
Considering all that, it's not surprising that the doulas and midwives mentioned (along with the birth workers behind Good Medicine, Lovinah and Mama Glow) felt called to launch "clean" beauty brands, free from the potentially hazardous chemicals they discuss with clients on a daily basis. Meyer and Toscano consider it a natural extension of birth work. "I don't see the business as separate, I see them as an infinity loop," the Roots Rose Radish founder says.
What is surprising is that most of the above aren't targeted toward pregnant women or new mothers at all, aside from the whole founded-by-a-doula thing. "Sisters is one business and my practice is another," Zasloff says. "But I think that it still is a part of the same story. I'm trying to teach people to think about what they're using and make educated decisions on every level." The products are luxe and effective (Sisters is Vogue-approved, C & The Moon's Malibu Made Body Scrub is available on industry-vetted platform Violet Grey). They just happen to be pregnancy-safe, too.
"When we hear about fertility, most of the time we think having a baby or not being able to. It's not necessarily seen as a way of life, a way of living," says Braggs, a former doula and founder of Fertile Alchemy. "I wanted to create a brand that inspired women — no matter if they want to have kids, no matter their sexual orientation — to live a more fertile life."
To Braggs, that means "being more in sync with your menstrual cycles, practicing self-care that nurtures us as women" and choosing personal care products that support hormonal balance, always. The founder is six months pregnant at the time of writing and hasn't had to change much of her makeup and skin-care regimen to accommodate. "I already had a pretty simple routine and I don't have a lot of exposure to [harmful] chemicals."
That, in essence, seems to be the ultimate goal of "birth worker beauty:" to offer women safer options, ones they want to use, pregnant or not.
Take Lovinah, for example, a beauty brand founded by Joy Ekhator. Judging by the sleek, black-and-gold bottles bearing names like Third Eye Serum and Goddess Glow Beauty Balm, you'd never know the line was informed by Ekhator's midwife grandmother and originally created for her children. "I have three kids and all three of them have terrible skin," Ekhator, a former project manager for J.P. Morgan, tells me. "They were going to put my youngest son on steroids, and a switch flipped inside of me. It took me back to my childhood."
Ekahtor spent her childhood in a traditional Nigerian home, sometimes assisting her grandmother, an alternative medicine healer and midwife, on house calls. "In Africa, they have home remedies for the skin, especially for cleaning the baby with herbal medicine," she says. Black soap is a go-to for eczema, desert seed oil is used in anointing ceremonies, black seed oil is prized for its antibacterial properties. These are the ingredients Ekahtor turned to to treat her son — and herself, since she struggled with post-pregnancy acne — and they worked.
"Lots of women experience skin issues or lose their hair after birth," adds Breighl Robbins, the founder of the just-launched brand Ebi, a line of postpartum products for mother and baby. (Ebi means "family" in Yoruba.) "Our systems are so incredibly sensitive, and new mothers have so much to worry about. They shouldn't have to worry about phenoxyethanol and questionable fillers." Instead, Ebi's offerings feature gentle, plant-based ingredients: sesame oil, marshmallow root, burdock, rose petals.
You'll notice a lot of plants in birth worker beauty, actually, which draws an interesting if incorporeal parallel: as Meyer says, "There's a reason we call Mother Earth 'Mother Earth.'" It only makes sense that doulas and midwives would want to empower the ultimate life-giver, too, with ingredients that honor the inherent wisdom of nature and packaging that doesn't harm the planet. (C & The Moon uses infinitely recyclable glass jars and aluminum lids; Sisters Body relies on post-consumer recycled plastic; Roots Rose Radish houses its solid perfumes in natural shells.)
"I definitely think there's a connection," Braggs says. "When you are a birth worker, you see where there is a void and you want to help."
In birth and beauty, there is one cavernous, can't-be-ignored void bigger than all the others, and that is the safety of women of color. Braggs incorporates what she calls "reproductive justice work" into her fertility practice to address "the racial disparities in healthcare," of which there are many.
Black women are almost four times more likely to encounter dangerous or life-threatening complications during childbirth, and Black and Indigenous women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Black babies die 3.8 times more frequently than white babies. One in 12 beauty products marketed to Black women contain "toxic" substances, some linked to reproductive damage. Less than 25% of products in the space are considered "low hazard," compared to 40% of products marketed to the general public. Hair dyes and chemical straighteners are associated with a 60% increase in breast cancer risk for Black women, as opposed to an 8% increase for white women.
These are systemic issues. They have no quick fix. More and more, women of color are turning to doulas of color to advocate for them in the delivery room, with positive outcomes. I know it seems like a stretch, but maybe it's not: Could doulas and midwives — already primed to empower women in a system stacked against them — assist in the birth of safer beauty, too? The under-the-radar success of birth worker beauty suggests they could.
"My business is thriving because women want it," Toscano says. "As people choose what they want, they're changing the industry." That's the other thing about the business of birth and the business of beauty: They only win out if women buy in.
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