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Diversity in Beauty has a Long Way to Go

By Orven Mallari | August 7, 2020

We at Grantas understand that it is not the most stable, precedented of times (oh, how we miss those precedented times). Our founder Lillian Childress posted a statement of intent on Instagram @grantascosmetics on July 27, stating:

We live in a strange, challenging time. Many Americans--including me--have lost family members and loved ones to a monstrous pandemic. Police continue to violently target innocent Black and Brown men and women, and a crooked criminal (in)justice system passes out biased, unfair sentences. Our atmosphere is heating up and our oceans are needlessly filled with plastic. Everything seems sort of bad--technology companies have engineered websites and devices to keep us constantly scrolling through ever-more-divisive news. Meanwhile, the foundation of our democratic systems is being chipped away, brick by brick. America--the idea of a free, just, inclusive, meritocratic world--feels more tenuous than ever.

You can read the rest of the letter here. At first glance, there might not be an obvious link between the beauty industry and systemic racism. However, by taking a closer look at how the beauty industry has operated in the past and present we can takeaway key tools and beacons in combatting racist systems of oppression.

While many ads that we see on TV today feature people of varying skin tones, these representations actually mask the problems that continue to plague the beauty industry. There is still an alarming lack of cosmetics products created for non-white people available for purchase. On top of that, women of color are also confronted by ignorant stereotypes on a a daily basis--take for example, this beauty blogger who considers calling minority women’s makeup look “gangster” as a compliment. These microaggressions build up and create a hostile environment for images and types of beauty that have not historically represented Western ideals of beauty. 
And the worst part is that despite this, most mainstream beauty brands have written off the lack of diverse representations of beauty as  no longer applicable or as unsolvable. There have been many excuses as to why the beauty industry continues to fail Black and Brown women:

“Makeup designed for deeper skin tones already exist.” - While yes, these sort of Black-centered brands have existed for a long time, the continued marginalization of them in large mainstream brands have an “Othering” effect among Black and Brown customers. In this sense, those that do not have pale skin always shown on advertisements and market shelves see themselves as unwelcome in the beauty world, driving diverse makeup to be even more niche and inaccessible.

“Making products for deep-skinned women, especially on the more expensive end, would be unprofitable.” - This is demonstrably false. Black women spend up to 9 times more on hair and beauty products as their non-Black counterparts. When this excuse is being said, it is more indicative that there is not much diversity in the boards of the mainstream cosmetic companies who decide to only have 2 or 3 shades deeper than beige but have 30 shades lighter than it.

“It’s simply harder to formulate products for deeper skin.” - While deeper-skinned people do have different needs from their products, classifying their formulations as “more difficult” is subject to scrutiny. For example, most foundations need only 4 ingredients to make almost every shade imaginable: titanium dioxide, iron oxide red, iron oxide yellow, and iron oxide black. Much like the question of profitability, this question of feasibility mostly rests on the fact that there is also an underlying lack of diversity in mainstream R&D departments as well; for example, 80% of American Chemical Society (ACS) members are white. 

“Twitter culture/cancel culture has made it so that any racist blunders are fatal to the brand.” - While many PoC have built spaces for themselves on social media as a way to vent on the microaggressions that they face in the beauty industry, there are doubts as to how effective “canceling” a brand actually is. There is still the tactic of specifically profiting off of the rage of Black and Brown makeup users. Like with the case of an Italian cosmetics company who were lambasted for nail polish names that contained the N-word, some are weary that their emotional health was being tested on purpose by companies to achieve more traffic for their brand. 

woman wearing makeup, blue motif

This is why having Black-owned companies is so important in the first place. When Fenty Beauty came out with its 40-shade foundation line in 2017, its insistence on inclusivity at the core of the brand made it possibly the most important moment in the beauty industry over the last decade. Its representation of those previously left out of the fun, such as deep-skinned and albino women, became so popular that the foundations sold out within days; Fenty Beauty made $100 million its first year.

White-owned beauty companies should learn from this, and while there are limits to how much they can participate in a counter-movement that they were somewhat complicit in, all beauty brands should contribute towards providing services that benefit a diverse set of people. However, spending millions of dollars on one advertisement featuring women of color is not going to magically solve the problem. People of color should be involved in more conversations so that mainstream brands don’t end up naming deeper shades “mocha” or “chocolate”. And certainly don’t whitewash Black celebrities to fit a mold of the “correct” woman of color. As Lillian’s Instagram letter continues,

The beauty industry has long had its own problems. Many companies perpetuate an airbrushed, unrealistic, non-inclusive version of beauty in their advertisements...Now is the time to say: I don’t accept this anymore.

If a team contains no women of color, it is up to them to foster a plan to include more voices. Black and Brown women cannot possibly educate everyone forever. Cosmetics can be utilized to provide positive feelings within communities that face constant microaggressions (and sometimes, macroaggressions). We must all work together to make sure that everyone that walks into a beauty shop will feel like they are welcomed and appreciated.

About the Author: Orven Mallari is currently a senior at Yale University. As an Environmental Engineering major, they are passionate about pursuing sustainable solutions to tackle global issues. When not reading up on environmental justice, they spend their time watching Premier League soccer, dreaming about visiting  every National Park across the U.S., and cooking pasta.

Tagged: diversity, natural beauty

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