The Beauty Industry: A Hostile Foreign Place for Black Women?

  • Siham Ali

The beauty industry is going through a metamorphosis – a change evidently visible in our millennial age. But how far has it truly progressed? Is the industry simply appearing to be going through a stage of growth? For a long time, black women were seen as a downmarket demographic, or else not seen at all. The rise of social media platforms like Twitter has given a voice to those who have difficulty being heard. It has allowed us to make the industry see black women as active consumers, rather than idle spectators. The subject of inclusivity within the cosmetic industry has always been a part of an important wider conversation of racial politics. Although many reputable beauty brands have attempted to cater for Women of Colour (WoC), it is only in recent years that WoC have started to spearhead the industry, pushing their way to the front. For a long time now, WoC have found it extremely difficult to find affordable drugstore products that cater to our skin type. It has always been a struggle to find a high-street brand that takes into consideration our different undertones, textures, and hues, and that stocks more than one variation of Caramel. In addition to base makeup such as foundation and concealer, it is equally important that WoC are able to easily access lipsticks and blushes that are designed for each individual undertone and complexion. We have no other choice but to turn to upmarket brands such as MAC or NARS who effortlessly promote inclusivity and a focus on quality, but with a much higher price tag. With the launch and rise of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, black women are refusing to be seen as an add-on, but rather a collective part of the beauty industry. By introducing 40 shades of foundation, Fenty has provided ‘beauty for all’. Rihanna’s choice to create products that include women on both ends of the colour spectrum is how she has successfully ‘push[ed] the boundaries of this industry.’ Fenty’s acknowledgement and celebration of diversity is an appreciation that is rarely seen in the beauty industry and has forced other brands to admit their failure to adequately represent WoC. The notion that darker shades are unprofitable has proven to be a false claim made by an inherently racist industry. With the help of black beauty bloggers and influencers, we are now offered a (reluctant) seat at the table. Ultimately beauty bloggers provide digital marketing for brands, and consequently, WoC are now necessary to gain economical capital. Although Fenty, Glossier and IMAN Cosmetics encompass real inclusivity, it is feigned in much of the remaining industry. It seems that only when those who reign supreme decide black is beautiful or in this case ‘popular’ and ‘topical’, does it receive the recognition that it should have had over a century ago. It is estimated that African-American women spend $7.5 billion annually on beauty products. This unrequited love for the industry demonstrates that no matter how much commitment and support WoC exhibit, the industry just refuses to show it back. The unwillingness displayed by brands like Rimmel suggests that there is a fear of challenging the Eurocentric notion of beauty. The exclusion of darker skin tones augments the status of the black woman as ‘Other.’ It wrongfully reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude, thus barring WoC from a market that they loyally invest in. Desiree Reid, Vice President of IMAN Cosmetics states ‘[black women] are not categories, they’re customers that are looking for the same thing every woman’s looking for when she walks down that beauty aisle.’ On the other hand, Fenty proves that it is not enough to be inclusive with your products and marketing, rather you must come through with the right products for darker shades. Care and attention needs to be the prime focus, as opposed to the commercial value it could provide for your brand. Vox espouses that once the industry takes the time to understand deeper skin tones, by employing WoC to help create the products, that’s when real change will ensue. According to Vox, in 2015, BAME women made up 16.3% of workers in The Personal Care Products Industry. Helping to change the industry from the inside proved successful when Issa Rae was named as the cosmetic brand CoverGirl’s new ambassador back in September 2017. Rae is an African-American actress, web series creator and an all-round talented producer, director and writer of her critically acclaimed series Insecure. CoverGirl believe that ‘Issa truly embodies the CoverGirl spirit of inclusive self-expression.’ With figures like Issa as the face of CoverGirl, it is spreading the message that it is time to take ownership of how we want to look, to see all colours as beautiful and see them represented, and to ignore the ideology that beige reigns.