“Beauty doesn't just come in shade pale”: why is representation still a problem in the beauty industry?

Posted by
Stylist Team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o now front campaigns and brands are launching more shades than ever, but how far has the beauty world really come in representing ethnicity? Stylist investigates…

Words: Reni Eddo-Lodge

There is a scene in Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel Noughts And Crosses that still sticks with me 15 years after I first read it. The book chronicles a forbidden love story in an inverse reality in which black people occupy almost all positions of influence, politics and power, while white people are concentrated in the working class, doing menial jobs and struggling for legal rights. A white child cuts herself and reaches for a plaster. As she applies it, she notices that all plasters are universally brown and stand out against her skin. It’s a hugely powerful metaphor detailing the everyday pervasiveness of discrimination – and a metaphor my pre-teen mind couldn’t quite comprehend.

As I grew older, being a young British girl with Nigerian heritage, I found that reality could be just as painful as fiction. While my friends trooped to the high street to buy their first foundations and concealers, I was saving my pennies to buy department store products three times the price – the only place where I could find shades that suited me. Even in my bedroom, I couldn’t escape a sense of otherness; black and brown models were in magazines, but they were always exoticised and marked out as other, the subject of an ‘out of Africa’ themed photo shoot. Or I’d tear out little sachets of foundation given away in teen magazines only to feel downcast: they were far too light, smearing like chalk on my skin. A universality had been assumed, and my skin was not included.

Over a decade later and it seems much has changed. Just weeks ago, Rihanna was announced as the face of Dior’s Secret Garden Campaign and in that moment made history, becoming the first-ever woman of colour to front the luxury brand since it was established in 1946. This monumental event was the latest in what seemed like a catalogue of steps towards real representation in the beauty industry. In early 2014, Lupita Nyong’o fever spread like wildfire and the actress was quickly signed as an ambassador for global beauty giant Lancôme. “Lupita is versatile,” says Irene Shelley, editor of Black Beauty & Hair magazine, who has over 20 years of experience with black women’s press. Shelley considers Lupita a turning point. “She’s got a look that black women love and white women love – short natural hair, very dark skin and incredibly beautiful. Somehow, she doesn’t polarise opinion.”

And yet, despite this progress among the women we see in beauty advertising, Afro- Caribbean, mixed race, Latina, Indian and Asian women are still poorly catered to as beauty consumers, often having to turn to high-end brands just to buy the basics. For reasons that still remain unclear, too many high street stores sell foundations in which the darkest colour offered is some form of beige. How is this fair? I could likely buy a car for what I’ve spent on ‘specialist’ cosmetics over the years. And while the fact that brands such as Bobbi Brown and Lancôme have broadened their shade ranges in recent years to offer upwards of 20 tones is encouraging, diversity remains a largely luxury proposition. “We’ve always had to spend more money on our cosmetics,” says Shelley. “In the old days, when women couldn’t find those cosmetics they’d buy stuff from America. There were no entry products for girls who wanted to play around with cosmetics.”

When I was first getting into make-up, I visited a big-name beauty counter and asked for some complexion advice. I was given a makeover with a glittery pink-toned illuminator and pale pink blusher. The end result looked like someone had splattered talcum powder on my face. Both the sales assistant and I knew that I looked like an ashy clown but, dutifully commission-focused, she engaged in a wilful denial, insisting that I should buy the products anyway. I refused, and now outright boycott brands that don’t make base products for black and brown skin. You’ve got to vote with your feet, after all.

Still, even when I find a shade that fits my skin like a glove, the language of beauty reveals a passively hostile terrain. Shades are lazily referred to as ‘deep sand’ or ‘tanned’, speaking almost exclusively to the white woman. “The make-up aisle is an analogy for British society,” says Natalie Clue, a marketing consultant and beauty blogger at Beauty Pulse London. “It’s just basic marketing. If you see yourself in an image or a name, you’ll know it’s for you. Imagine you are a customer and someone’s telling you that you don’t exist!”

In beauty services and treatments, too, whiteness is still considered the default, with women of colour finding themselves paying more for services. Friends with thick, south Asian or afro hair have recounted stories of being charged more for styling services in the salon – apparently due to it taking longer or requiring more ‘experienced’ staff. Why is racial diversity still a specialist subject in the beauty world? Laser hair removal provides another example of racial disparity. Although it’s been around since the Nineties, the technology focused on isolating pigmentation meant the machines couldn’t differentiate between hair and skin on darker-skinned clients. It’s only more recently that laser technologies have caught up with the realities of the population, although the machines that can deal with darker skins are more costly. It’s become a broken record that plays again and again.

None of this makes sense when you survey the demographics of the world we live in. Over the past 10 years, Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME) population has doubled. Black Africans and Bangladeshis are the fastest growing ethnic groups, while South Asian and Afro-Caribbean people dominate the BME category. We are loving and living with each other more than ever before. The 2011 census reveals that Britain’s mixed race population grew from 9% in 2001 to 14% – now standing at eight million people. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) predicts that by 2051 all of England and Wales will be as diverse as London is currently.

A new platform

When the industry pretends you don’t exist, you have to look harder – and spend more – to find what you need. At university, I felt buoyed by the explosion in beauty blogging. A greater democratisation of beauty influencers meant more diversity, and finally there were women talking about beauty who looked like me, recommending products for my skintone. Ronke Adeyemi edits Brown Beauty Talk, an online magazine for British women of colour. “There wasn’t a website out there covering this from a UK perspective,” she says. “We just want to be treated like your average consumer. We have money to spend, we’re hardworking women and we want to look nice. But we still don’t feel like anyone’s hearing us.”

This problem isn’t new, or exclusively British, by any means. The first brand to spot and capitalise on the problem was US company, Fashion Fair. In 1958, founder Eunice Johnson was heading up an annual fashion event for black Americans called the Ebony Travelling Fashion Fair. She noticed the models there struggling to find foundations to match their complexions. Eunice and her husband intervened, first creating cosmetics for the models in their shows before launching Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973. To date, it is the world’s largest black-owned beauty brand.

The recent casting of models such as Lineisy Montero (who was widely credited with bringing afro hair back to the catwalk for Prada this season) and Neelam Gill – a Burberry campaign star – proves that beauty doesn’t just come in shade pale. So far, so promising. But scratch beneath the surface and things are not quite what they seem. Out of the total 9,538 model bookings across New York, London, Milan and Paris for a/w 2015 Fashion Week, only 20% of these were non-white models – up 3% on the previous season.

It’s a depressing state of affairs that’s echoed in women’s media. A 2014 report by Fashion Spot showed that out of 611 covers from 44 leading fashion magazines around the world, only 119 featured people of colour. Magazines and catwalk shows are all cogs in the wheel of the bigger issue. And the ubiquity of whiteness in beauty marketing is a problem, with the IPA’s research revealing that 77% of British Asians surveyed felt that mainstream advertising wasn’t relevant to them. When the faces we see in magazines and on billboards are more reflective of modern society, beauty products will follow suit and we’ll get closer to equal representation. So why does it still seem so far off? Stylist is one magazine vowing to do more (see below), and that’s a positive thing. But tangible – and widespread – progress feels like wading through treacle.

Victoria Buchanan from trend forecasting agency Future Labs believes things can only improve. “Inclusive beauty will impact the beauty landscape. Brands are catering to an increasingly multicultural marketplace. When they’re reading magazines and looking at blogs, people want to see a reflection of the world around them.” Isn’t it time other beauty brands, salons and publications did the same? These companies need to know what you want on pages and on shelves.

One brand that has catered consistently on the high street is Sleek MakeUp. Now in its 25th year, the brand initially focused on make-up for Afro-Caribbean and Asian skintones, stocked exclusively at independent afro hair and beauty shops before teaming up with Superdrug in 2005. In 2012, they started working with Boots. Their collection now caters to all skintones. “We want to reach as many customers as we can”, said Anastasia Saillard, brand manager at Sleek MakeUp. “We have an understanding of undertones – yellow or red – and a lot of brands don’t really do that.” Following Sleek’s lead, other brands catering to women of colour have emerged. Hybrd, founded in 2010, sells skincare and make-up developed specifically for mixed-race skin, while Mixed Chicks – set up by two friends of mixed-race origin – offers hair products to meet the specific needs of mixed hair.

Progress seems to be moving in a slow but steady flow. What will you do to help push things forward? Will you vote with your feet? As a consumer, you have the power. Women of colour are big spenders on beauty; black women invest over £4.8billion on products and services each year worldwide and spend twice as much as other consumers on skincare. The IPA’s research also found that black British women spend a massive six times more on hair products than their white counterparts.

Don’t buy into brands that don’t cater for you. Don’t squeeze your skintone into a shade that isn’t quite right. Seek out the make-up, hair stylists and salons that meet your needs and make you feel good about yourself – and not like a minority. Let’s all work together to push things forward: brands, bloggers, magazines and make-up counters. Only a cohesive and cooperative effort will shift this mountain and make beauty an open playground for all. Let’s continue the conversation. It’s time to make your voice heard.

A daily beauty battle

Four Stylist readers share their frustratingly common gripes with the beauty world

"It costs me £10 extra to get a blow-dry"

Loretta de Feo: “High street salons just don’t seem to have the capacity to cope with afro hair. The problem isn’t my hair – it’s just that very few stylists are trained to blow-dry black hair, yet I’m the one who gets penalised by having to pay extra.”

"Make-up artists don't know how to work with my eyes"

Joanna Leung: “Most make-up artists fail to realise that with Asian eye shapes the lids become somewhat ‘invisible’ and the product disappears once the eyes are open. I think there’s a genuine lack of application knowledge from counter staff.”

"My skin isn't 'tanned', it's brown"

Roshni Radia: “Brands are so confusing when it comes to shade names. If it’s not deep, medium deep or very deep (how deep can you go?), they relate to food products like espresso or almond. It’s a massive cliché and feels patronising. Companies need to go back to basics and label products brown, light brown, dark brown.”

"I have to pay twice as much for make-up that matches my skin"

Stephanie Yeboah: “High street brands just don’t have the shade range I need which means I end up spending more money on premium brands. When they launch an amazing new foundation, the darker tones are always a follow-up shade extension. I’m sick of being an afterthought.”

Share this article


Stylist Team