Rachel Winard On Why We Need To Queer The Beauty & Skin Care Industry
This week we spoke with Rachel Winard, the genderqueer mastermind behind the inclusive, vegan skin care line Soapwalla. Winard started making their own natural skin remedies in their own kitchen after being diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that makes for very sensitive skin. Since then, they've built a cult following around their gender-neutral soaps, balms, and oils—and their outspoken queer activism. Their goal? To make healthy skin care accessible to all types of people. We talk with Winard about being an outsider and a rebel in the beauty and skin care industries, the weird ways we try to gender skin, and why we need to be willing to bring diverse voices to the table if we really care about wellness for all.
How has your queer identity shaped how you've thought about and designed skin care products?
It's in every way, really, because it's the way I see the world. It's the way I sort of experienced walking through the conventional skin care and beauty world, which is that it never felt welcoming, and I never saw myself reflected in any advertisements or copy or really anything. It's becoming less so hyper, hyper-gendered, but we still have ways to go.
When I was making skin care just for myself for health reasons and out of necessity, I delved into all the different schools of thought that would help me formulate products that would be as effective as possible, and—this wasn't groundbreaking to me, but it was something I'd never really seen in the marketplace before—which is that skin is skin. It's not gendered. There's nothing inherently gendered about skin health. Skin health is a public health issue because your skin is your largest organ, and in order for your whole body to function at its best, your skin needs to be well taken care of and balanced and protected. So it was—I don't want to say it was a no-brainer—but it was like I didn't really envision any other way of making skin care except or for everybody. So that everyone would be able to use our products.
When you say the skin care aisle isn't welcoming to you, what do you mean by that?
Well, first, I would never set foot in a Sephora. It just did not feel welcoming at all to me. None of the marketing was for somebody who presented their gender the way that I do. I like to joke—and I don't mean it in a bad way because I like the way I look—but I look like a 12-year-old boy. So I'm not really the target audience for any of these places. Up until recently, it was like hyper, hyper, hyper, hyper-feminine or like manly, all-black, smells-like-Axe-body-spray or like a forest. There was nothing in between, and neither [of these types of products] appealed to me, made sense to me, or made me feel good. There was nothing in the middle really.
When you talk about making the health and the beauty space more inclusive and more queer, is that about more directly addressing the needs of LGBTQ people as far as their beauty and health and skin needs? Or are we talking about there's something fundamentally wrong with the way these industries are working?
The latest statistic I saw was that 97% of beauty brands and skin care brands are still run by men. There's still a very specific, myopic viewpoint from which these corporations that really shaped the way that we speak on a social level about ourselves, our identities, what beauty is—and now we can talk about what "clean" is and what healthy is and wellness—all of that; they're being dictated by a very small portion of the population, and so that needs to change. That is one of the paradigm shifts that we would like to see happen is that not one group of people gets to decide the definitions of these pretty large umbrella terms.
And I would say there are specific things that queer people want and need in their skin care. Like if you're transitioning, you're going to need a very specific set of skin care products that will help you transition with ease. If you are genderqueer, you're going to be drawn to a very different kind of skin care regimen than if you were otherwise not. And one of the best ways to figure out what all those nuances look like is to have people at the table with a voice who represent those communities.
Beauty itself is such a huge word that's so gendered. How do we reconceptualize the industry when the concept itself is so heteronormative?
That's probably why I always—I won't make a big deal about it, but generally in interviews when people say, "Oh, you're a beauty brand," I'll correct and say we're a skin care brand.
But yeah, beauty is very feminine, which is why oftentimes you'll see straight women and more and more gay men represented, but there are still large swathes of the population that don't get included in that pretty equally entrenched concept of what beautiful or beauty is and who gets to use it, what comes to mind when you say it. It's really tricky. These terms that have been used in one very specific way for a really long time can be hard to undo.
Hopefully queer-owned companies just existing is making this conversation move forward.
I sure hope so!
There are always these submarkets of people [being catered to by most companies] like "straight women from 35 to 37 and a half who live in this very specific part of the world are our target demographic." If you have skin, you are our demographic. And so one of the ways that we show that is that we don't show people very often at all on our social media. You'll never see anybody on our website. There are no people on our website, and we don't use gender terminology on our website. So that way you can envision yourself using our products, not us telling you "skinny white chick who is 24 is the person who's using our product." We don't want to create any image of what we think is our ideal client for the customer.
One thing I do is—even though I don't like being in front of the camera or having my photos taken or any of that—I will step out of my comfort zone and show up to particularly talks or presentations where I really stand out. Because I really want that visibility for someone else—like some young person who's in the Midwest who maybe doesn't see the same lovely, beautiful range of people that we do just by taking the subway in New York City everyday—to see that there's somebody who's in skin care who maybe looks a little more like them.
What has your experience been as a queer person running a business in a largely heteronormative industry?
Certainly there are things I just don't even get invited to. We just don't even show up on people's radars. I get dismissed a lot—and I think women, period, women business owners get dismissed. That's just a fact across the board. I do feel like because of my presentation, and I'm small, like small stature, like I will be overtly dismissed.
I'm OK with that. I mean—well, no, I'm not OK with that. I think it's rude and problematic, but at the same time, instead of us trying to figure out how to fit within the box, we've just gone completely out of the box. It certainly doesn't affect my feelings of self-worth or self-confidence. It means that we've gotten the unique gift of really being able to think about creating and maintaining and propelling a skin care company that doesn't have to follow any of the rules.
I think it's really lovely that I get to walk my walk every day because I don't have a boss or HR or anyone. I am the boss, and I am HR. The flip side is that I also have employees, so there are times when I'm ready to really let go full force—but I have people whose livelihoods I'm responsible for. So I do have to find that balance of (laughs) not burning the whole thing down—while still standing behind our principles. That's a deal-breaker. We will not take a step back from our ethos and our principles and the reasons why we started this company.
Activism is a pretty important part of your business. How do people respond to that?
We get a lot of the "shut up and sell me my skin care." Any time I post anything queer, I'll lose on average like 400 or 500 followers. Without fail. One hundred percent of the time. I get a decent amount of hate mail because I am so out.
That's wild! So why do you stick to being so public about your identity and political stances as a business?
Because bullying tactics should never work. We have a little bit of a platform. We don't have a huge platform, we're not a massive company, but we have a little bit. And I'm gonna use that to make sure that other people who don't have a platform can see themselves represented in ours. I'm such a little rebel at heart. When someone tells me no, I can't do something, that's exactly what I'm gonna do.
How did you come into your queer and lesbian identity?
Let me think about that…
I think when I was 12 years old, I announced to my parents—I think completely unprovoked, too—I just announced to them that every single person is bisexual. So I obviously had been sort of noodling on these concepts for a while. I knew definitely right around puberty, probably a little bit before puberty, that I definitely was not like all of my friends who were obsessed with the opposite sex. I felt pretty different from a pretty young age, and when I finally did come out to my parents at I think 17 or 18, my mom said she had known since I was 4. And I was like, well, you could've shared that with me! That could've helped!
At the beginning, I felt that I was bi because at that point, it was the early '90s, so Ellen hadn't come out. [That] really changed the landscape. I am forever thankful to Ellen DeGeneres for publicly coming out because she made life so much easier for queer kids around the world for doing that. But this was pre- her coming out, and I figured I was bi because I didn't think you couldn't not like boys. I hadn't heard the term "lesbian." I had heard the term "dyke," and I knew it was a bad word.
Now, I came out as bi, and…oh, I remember how. My high school physics teacher told a joke, which I will not repeat about blind lesbians and the fish market, and I will not repeat it because it was completely inappropriate. But I was like, wait a second…that's what I am. I'm a lesbian. So I told my boyfriend, and slowly I started testing the waters.
I went to Juilliard. I was a professional violinist before this, and Juilliard was a really weird place because they were super, super, super gay-friendly—but only gay males. Like, there was a dichotomy that gay men were in front of the curtain, and lesbians were behind the curtain. That was actually one of the most homophobic places I'd ever been, specifically anti-lesbian. So I went right from out of the closet, right back in for a little while. But my personality is such that, even when I didn't have the terminology, I was never really in the closet if that makes sense. And now I would say I use lesbian, genderqueer, queer all interchangeably.
How can people and businesses in this space be more welcoming and be more supportive of the LGBTQ community?
One thing is definitely, as I said before, talk to people and have them in real positions of power. Don't have them be like token people or just have them there to inform the powers that be or be there just to educate them. Have people who don't look like you, haven't had your life experiences in every possible way be in those positions so you can hear what they need.
The assumption that you're straight—don't assume. And also the ideal of wellness isn't necessarily like a long-haired, skinny white chick. So make sure that you show and talk about in real ways all the different "well" bodies that there are.
One last thing I'd like to say is if you're straight and you're an ally—or you're straight and you want to be an ally, and you don't know, and you don't want to mess up so you don't try. Just ask. Just ask. Ask any questions. That's the only way you'll ever get the opportunity to understand. And then listen. Listen to the answers.