Diversity in beauty: “How a lack of products for Black women has affected my relationship with make-up and my hair”

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Navigating the beauty industry can be particularly difficult as a Black woman, with many products having a history of being solution-based. Here, writer and blogger Kelle Salle discusses how it has impacted her relationship with beauty.

In recent years, the lack of diversity in the beauty industry has become a much-talked about topic. But women of colour have been excluded from the hair and beauty industries for decades.

I started wearing make-up when I was in my late teens. Going to my local beauty store was something I never even thought about because I knew that most make-up brands that were around at the time didn’t cater to Black women. So, I experimented with my mother’s make-up instead. The first foundation I ever wore was from Fashion Fair [a cosmetics brand that catered specifically to Black women]. I remember that foundation vividly: it was a reddish-brown that was far from a match for my medium-dark skin and yellow undertone, but nonetheless I wore it on most days and took it with me everywhere I went.

Back then, magazines also played a part when it came to the lack of representation. As a little girl, whenever I looked at a magazine cover or turned through each page, I never saw a single person that looked like me. As I got older, I longed to see more Black women in magazines. The free gifts were also questionable: from the hair clips that could hardly contain my 4C hair to the tinted lip gloss that was invisible when applied. I needed publications that shared tips for afro-hair or opinion pieces from Black women making their mark in society. Diversity deserves to be celebrated, not alienated.

Fast-forward a few years and the hunt for the perfect foundation was still a struggle. I got used to my foundation being either too light or too warm for me. Looking for the perfect foundation was one of the most awkward experiences I had in my formative years. Shade matching incited major feelings of uncertainty within myself. The process usually consisted of a make-up artist looking at my face, then looking at the product offering in store and then proceeding to find any foundation that bore somewhat of a resemblance to my skin tone. Whenever I expressed any concerns, which were usually along the lines of ‘this shade looks a little yellow’, I was told to buy an additional powder to help me achieve more of a match.

Thankfully, times have now changed and women of colour don’t always have to go through the fear-inducing foundation search anymore. We know a lot more about make-up and how it should look, so we don’t hesitate to go where we are celebrated. Brands such as Juvia’s Place and Uoma Beauty have created foundation ranges with a variation of undertones in mind. These brands – along with many others – should receive more praise for also being more descriptive about undertones. It makes a big difference – Black skin doesn’t come in one or two shades. But now, many mainstream brands, such as Fenty Beauty, Lancome, Estee Lauder and Pat McGrath, are beginning to provide more information in-store and online so customers can make informed choices. 

When Fenty Beauty launched in 2017, its 40-shade foundation range sent the industry into a spin. Other make-up brands took note, acknowledged that they needed to do better and started adding more shades to their foundation and concealer ranges, too. However, it’s impossible not to credit the amazing originators that catered to women of colour first, such as IMAN Cosmetics, Doris Michaels, Fashion Fair and Black Opal. They laid the foundation of the path and while progress is being made, I can only hope that inclusive make-up ranges continue to fill shelves in many years to come.

One of the reasons why I think women of colour haven’t been acknowledged by the beauty industry in the past is because of the systemic exclusion which has been around for decades. Advertising campaigns aimed at Black women have a history of being solution-based. If you can’t manage your ‘unruly’ hair, straighten or relax it. If you don’t like your complexion, bleach your skin. Telling a Black woman to be anyone other than herself is incredibly harmful.

The beauty industry has to work harder and validate the experiences of women of colour. Education isn’t just about research; brands need to start talking to us and finding out what we love and hate about make-up, especially foundations and concealers. We shouldn’t have to settle for the orange, red or yellow look. Foundation should enhance beauty, not disguise it.

Women of colour should be kept in mind throughout the entire formulation process and not as an afterthought. There’s also the outdated assumption that Black women don’t spend money on beauty and skincare products. In light of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Black spending power in the UK was revealed to be valued at £100 billion, while the BAME community in the UK represents a collective spending power of £300 billion a year.

Swatches of UOMA's Say What?! Foundation.

An experience I had searching for a powder made me realise the importance of speaking up. After countless visits to flagship stores across central London and weekly searches online, I eventually found the powder I was looking for in my shade at a department store that was about 45 minutes away from where I live. After sharing my frustration with a friend, she encouraged me to email the customer services department at the brand, and I’m glad I did.

I received a response thanking me for getting in touch, apologising and assuring me that they will listen to customer feedback. They added that this type of feedback plays a big part in any changes or improvements they make, which I hope come to fruition soon. Silence should never be an option and from that moment on, I vowed that if I ever thought a brand could do better, I would tell them.

Inclusion isn’t a form of tokenism. As a make-up fan, it’s exciting to see the beauty industry becoming more diverse because the need for change was overdue. It isn’t enough for brands to conceptualise inclusion, they need to embody it. It needs to be at the heart of every decision they make. It’s the only way the beauty industry can continue to move forward. Beauty as a whole is centred on celebrating our differences, after all.

I hope that brands and public figures continue to push for change, because although significant progress has been made, we still have a long way to go.

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Main image: Kelle Salle/Stylist

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