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Youth undisguised

Self-perception and Self-esteem of Adolescents And Young Adults With Special Focus on Hygiene, Personal Care and Cosmetics Products

How Generation Z develops a feeling of self-esteem – from loss of control to adaptation.
An in-depth psychological-representative study from rheingold salon compiled for NCV – Nederlandse Cosmetica Vereniging

There are many studies that examine the values, preferences or media use of adolescents and young adults. However, the actual transition to adulthood is often neglected. What are the concerns and hardships involved in becoming a man or a woman? How do young people deal with the typical mood swings during puberty or as a result of burgeoning sexuality? How do they develop self-esteem and confidence in terms of how they are perceived by others?

The development of self-esteem in these turbulent times is the focus of this in-depth psychological representative study including the role of cosmetics with adolescents and young adults between 14 and 21 years of age, which rheingold salon conducted. The study builds on a German youth study, which is the basis for the results. rheingold salon conducted a specific part for the Netherlands with an emphasis on differences and similarities.
We were not only interested in the values of young people, but also in the underlying reasons: Why and how did these values come about? Furthermore, we wanted to find out what role the body and/or physical appearance play in the minds of this target group. What influence does taking care of their appearance have on their self-esteem? Can cosmetics and beauty products support young people in their phase of self-discovery?
The results of the in-depth psychological study show youth undisguised – including aspects that young people usually prefer to hide.

1. Loss of trust – Loss of Control on All Levels

It is important to all of the respondents to keep up a facade, to not lose control and to have a grip on themselves. In the Netherlands and in Germany young people want to avoid immersion and conflicts. Emotional immersion is difficult for them; they simply want to be “social” (NL) or “nice” (NL, GER).
The reason for this is that young people feel a loss of control on at least three levels: on the physical, the family, and the social level. There is hardly a child who does not know at least one family that has been torn apart, if she does not live in one herself. There is rarely a youth that was not confronted with the word “crisis” in society early on, be it the financial or the refugee crisis. And there is hardly an adolescent who does not find his bodily changes extremely embarrassing and who does not go to great lengths to try to “hide” these developments. Viewed psychologically, all of this is closely intertwined and leads to a loss of basic trust.

  1. Physical loss of control:
    Growing up is hard and always has been. Like all generations before them, today’s youth battle with pimples, greasy hair, and unpleasant body odours. They all find these things disgusting and embarrassing because they are signs of hormonal changes and burgeoning sexuality. The youth feel this connection and hide it as best they can. The ultra-experienced“ porno generation” (many young people have been familiar with pornographic content since elementary school) find their own sexuality particularly embarrassing. For simple hugs and holding hands, the first kisses and being in love, stand in contrast to what is shown on various media channels. The instability of puberty, the hormonal mood swings, and the bodily changes found “disgusting” by most are especially unnerving today. They are out of the person’s control and just a part of an uncontrollable overall structure in the family and society.

    Almost all youth aim to keep the loss of control on a bodily level as invisible as possible and to be as well-groomed as possible. They therefore invest in their outer appearance more than any generation before them. It is most important to them to regain control – and the physical level is the best option for this. Cosmetics are therefore existential for Dutch Youth: 50% use cosmetics to feel more secure – so they do not smell bad or have only a few pimples (top 2 boxes), and 78% generally say that cosmetics give them a more secure feeling.
  2. Societal loss of control:
    The adolescent feeling of a loss of control is heightened by young people’s current social situation, e.g. by the political situation around immigration, the financial crisis, and climate change.
    “Environmental problems and so on – I try not to think about it because it upsets me too much.”
    “A shortage of flats, problems with flats, that exists – and we have to deal with it. You can’t find anything here; there are many people from all those countries who are entitled to them.” “What if a family from Somalia takes away my best friend’s flat?” (A lot of fear is apparent. They are not openly right wing, but it is in the air.)

    Yet the “insecure” basic feeling of the youth is also influenced by their parents’ generation: Nothing is certain, everything is relative – and families are dissolving increasingly.
  3. Loss of control in the family
    The young people frankly talk about difficult family situations and their fates. Only a few of the boys and none of the girls said that they live in protected circumstances Even if it seemed so at first glance – after a short while of questioning the facade broke down. A good part of the 16 to 21 year olds in the Netherlands come from quite “fragile circumstances.” They know separations, patchwork, new partners of parents, new siblings and schools, moves, and not seldom also neglect. As opposed to the experience of former generations, familial situations are not very stable from the young adults’ point of view.
    This is an amplifying factor, which leads to uncertainty – and to a perceived loss of control. Experiencing extreme situations in their families is common for the interviewees. Many girls and boys reveal that the family is a place where they feel alone, ignored, and/or emotionally hurt. Lots of them especially miss their father. In 31% of the households the father is absent. And in general, 1/3 of the girls and 1/4 of the boys have difficulty spending time with their father.

    And even young people who grow up in intact circumstances see things crumbling all around them. They have friends and schoolmates whose mothers (or fathers) are single parents or live in (ever-new) patchwork families. Even as small children, when their parents quarrel they wonder: “Are they going to separate now?” Separations have become so common that they are taken for granted, are seen as an uncontrollable part of life and at the same time feared. “My parents have been constantly quarrelling since last year. It got really bad starting in June. We told them it upsets us, but that didn’t help.” Therefore, 50% have been disappointed and mainly trust themselves.

    “My parents have been constantly quarrelling since last year. It got really bad starting in June. We told them it upsets us, but that didn’t help” Therefore, 50% have been disappointed and mainly trust themselves.

    Everyone, no matter whether they come from fragile or intact circumstances, hope for a stable life. 83% want to make their life stable und 79% of the youth questioned are mainly looking for stability and safety.

2. How to regain control? – Strategies of Dutch Youth

Young people have developed a few strategies to regain control. Most important of course is to control themselves – their emotions, body and hormones.

  1. Adaptation is the new rebellion
    Instead of rebelling most Young Dutch people accept and deal with these situations and fragile circumstances – for the sole purpose of regaining control. They try not to worry too much – and pretend that their family situation is okay – even if they don’t see their parents. Moreover, they hardly ever blame their parents, as if it is their duty to understand everything. “I do not blame my parents, I believe they love me – but all the foster children seem to be more important sometimes, because they have major problems which I do not have – so I just accept.”
    Some of them have a kind of arrangement with their siblings – they count on them and feel rather safe as long as they are not completely alone.
    Young Dutch people can and want to come to terms with almost everything – this is a major, unique strength of the youth in the Netherlands. Mutual acceptance is important. No matter whether it is about a peculiar, autistic friend, being vegan, the absence of the father or hair on their legs. Overall 66% want to adapt to what the environment expects. 53% do not want to stand out negatively. But they pay a price for conforming.
  2. Sacrificing dreams for stability
    For 78%, a normal and safe life is their biggest dream. Young Dutch people often do not have high demands and expectations for their lives. Many dream of a normal and rather structured life. In doing so, they sacrifice their dreams or do not even develop a vision or dreams: “Something you really like to do? Don’t you have that?” Answer: “Not really. I like not having a dream.”

    Adapting to everyone and everything leads to more indifference overall. Or in psychological terms: to a loss of dreams and life plans. On the surface, they don’t seem to care what they become – the most important thing is to be social, inconspicuous, and to earn a living.
  3. Being social versus earning a lot of money – to gain security
    Most of the girls have a vague plan rather than really being passionate about something. Their hope is generally to be satisfied and that things will continue smoothly somehow. And above all: They want to be social and nice. 62% of the girls regard themselves mainly as social beings. “Yes, that you are simply a social, nice person with whom people want to spend time.” “

    The young men in particular, say they want to earn a lot of money – earning money is of primary importance – the “how” is secondary. Here, too, they largely avoid dealing with what they want their life to be like. Security is their top priority. 60% of the males will do almost anything to earn money.“I want to have everything under control by my 30th birthday and have a good job. To be a specialist in something. I have to earn some dough. Between 2,000 and 3,000.”
  4. Cosmetics: optimization of the surface is existential
    In the young people’s view, loss of control in society and in the family is beyond their sphere of influence – even though they adapt where and whenever they can. When it comes to their own body, however, they try to regain control. They can get rid of disgusting, nasty, foul-smelling and crumbly aspects. Young people want to regain control of their inner life via their exterior – care, makeup, as well as haircuts and styles all help them a little. These are not the only possibilities of course. But these products are closer to the body than, say, clothing and thus closer to that which the youth find particularly unpleasant. 85% of the girls and 71% of the boys use cosmetics to feel more secure. For 73%, beauty care is very important in life.

    56% believe that you can tell from a well-groomed appearance what kind of person someone is. They decide based on a tidy appearance whether and to what extent others have the same desire for control as themselves. Parents who, for example, interpret their daughters’ nail polish as being superficial – and today’s young girls have boxes full of nail polish – would do well to understand that what seems on the surface to be about appearance is really an existential issue today. When young people talk about eyelashes, hair gel, and visits to the hairdresser they reveal deeper issues. They talk about how they are trying to order their inner life and get a grip on their life. In doing so, they develop part of their feeling of self-esteem. Brittle fingernails, by contrast, disconcert them and reflect inner chaos.

3. Grooming for convenience

Taking care of oneself is a central part of the Dutch culture of convenience. This gives young people security and they feel more valuable. They adapt – and neutralize their appearance. They control their feelings and hope to remedy fragile circumstances with this.

Unsurprisingly, usage of cosmetics on a daily basis or several times a day is relatively high. Young people invest much more in their appearance than in the past. (See for more details the infographic ‘Frequency of product usage’)

And when it comes to gender specific usage: 69% of females use mascara, and 62% use makeup/foundation at least 1-2x a week – even though they pretend in the interviews that these products are not very important to them.

Products have relevance for winning back control on the one hand and strengthening self-esteem on the other. In addition, concrete usage of lots of products every day or week has importance for the personality.

71% of the male respondents consider hair styling products as important for their personality, whereas 68% of the female respondents find body-shaving products important and 67% see mascara as the most relevant decorative product.

The products must prove that they deliver the promised effect: for 86% this is most relevant. The smell of the products and how one feels is almost as important to more than 80%. However, the products themselves must be as visually appealing as the people who use them: for 65% the product must look good, for 56% the package must look good too – in order to represent the values that young people have.

4. “Self-esteem in a Bottle”?

For young people, cosmetic products are self-chosen companions in the development of their self-esteem. Products that help them deal with the imponderable and uncontrollable are particularly relevant for their self-esteem. The respective products, however, differ in their relevance for bringing about control and enhancing self-esteem. On the one hand, there are products, which, particularly at a younger age, help them hide everything that is embarrassing. They include deodorants, shampoo, hairstyling products or concealers for acne. And then there are products that support the development of their own image of what being a man or woman is all about: perfume, lipsticks, beard care and face care.

Some examples:

Deodorant to fight mobbing
Deodorants are among the most important products for young people when it comes to protecting and supporting their self-esteem. 84% use deodorants on a daily basis or several times a day and 89% consider them to be particularly important for strengthening their self-esteem and personality. With the beginning of puberty, one literally gets “hot”. Sudden bouts of heat occur in all possible situations.
The smell of perspiration, triggered by pheromones, is perceived as disturbing and embarrassing – a new, so far unknown odour. Young people who do not use a deodorant face rejection or even mobbing.
Behind all of this is a whole other story – the deodorant is used to cover up one’s emerging sexuality. And this part is also often hidden from their parents. Deodorant is not often used in the parents’ home, but frequently only once the adolescents leave the house. “When I wanted to have my first deodorant, my mother said: “My mother asked me to use a deodorant, since then I‘ve used it.” “I do not want to stink.” “It is most embarrassing if you stand out because you do not use deodorant.”

Keeping hair in place with hairstyling products
Hair care plays an important role for all of the young people interviewed, but in particular, for boys and young men. 58% use hair care products daily or several times a day. A lot of effort is put into hairstyles. Styled hair is considered as perfection and shows that one is trying to make a good and neat impression.
Unkempt hair is a sign of unstable, fragile circumstances and uncontrollable sexuality.
Moreover, hairstyling products have special relevance for men: they give the impression that everything is in place and stable, including when they take their first steps as a man. “I prefer to have a well-groomed person next to me than a crazy person who just got out of bed with greasy hair. 50% feel they can strengthen their personality via hairstyling products.

Body and beauty care play a central role in the lives of today’s adolescents and young adults. At a time when they are dealing with uncertainties and loss of control, an appealing and neat appearance is important support in the transition to adulthood. The feeling of looking good strengthens them within their peer group as well as with other social contacts. It gives them a positive value orientation in an increasingly untransparent world outside and offers protection against devaluating feelings resulting from physical changes during puberty. Young people use cosmetics and beauty care products deliberately and confidently in order to achieve the effects they want – often as part of a daily routine.
Young Dutch people are very skilful in adapting themselves to beauty ideals, life stages and family situations. They generally search for a stable and secure life. Cosmetics of course are one little helper in the whole context of feeling unsecure, uncontrolled and instable.
Youth undisguised
Facts about the study:
The findings on the topic of “adolescents, young adults and cosmetics” were obtained through unaided, product-independent surveys. They were not influenced by product questions and do not serve product-related market research. Within the framework of the qualitative study, focus groups and individual in-depth interviews were conducted in the Netherlands, Amersfoort, and in Germany in Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden and Munich. Altogether 16 boys and girls in the Netherlands and 56 boys and girls in Germany between 14 and 21 years of age participated.
For the representative quantitative survey more than 2,000 people were questioned in an online panel – more than 1,000 in each country.