Opinion

“Why I’m fighting to ditch the term ‘diversity’ – and how we can actually become more inclusive without it”

Influencer, creative consultant and writer Arooj Aftab is done with the term ‘diversity’ and is pushing for real change in the fashion and beauty industries – here’s why that shouldn’t include the term ‘diversity’…

Arooj Aftab loved fashion from a young age. Growing up in a Pakistani family in Bradford, she was fascinated by the nuances of the different clothing choices and trends she saw inside and outside her home. 

Later, she developed her own trademark style (an androgynous, oversized aesthetic) when she realised it was easier to manage her experience of neurofibromatosis – a genetic condition that causes tumours to grow along the nerves – by wearing loose-fitting clothes.

Her distinctive style propelled Arooj to influencer status in the fashion world, helped along by her appearance in a BBC documentary in 2018. But the more she was welcomed as an industry insider, the more exhausted she became by the limitations of the conversation around diversity.

Here, Arooj explains why she’s campaigning for us to drop the concept of diversity in favour of true inclusion and accessibility, and how we can all wield the power of our choices to do good…

Done with diversity  

“I was thrilled when big fashion and beauty brands first started reaching out to me about working together. Lots of them had seen me in the BBC documentary, and it was as though they’d thought: ‘Oh, wow, neurofibromatosis – here’s a disability we haven’t heard much about.’ Pakistani representation is low in the mainstream media too, so I guess I offered something they were interested in tapping into.

“Initially, I loved that my story was being told. But as time went on, I began to feel uncomfortable. The word ‘diversity’ was everywhere and I was being placed front and centre in photoshoots. Behind the scenes, though, I was often the only brown woman in the room.

“These experiences weren’t examples of the fashion industry becoming more diverse, I realised. 

“Inspired by these experiences, I created the hashtag #DoneWithDiversity in January 2020. I want to encourage fashion and beauty brands to reconsider the language they’re using. For example, I often have discussions with company representatives who say things like, ‘We care about diversity and inclusion – we will do more.’ But when I ask what ‘diversity and inclusion’ means to them, the answer boils down to: adding a few Black and brown faces to the room.

“The problem with this attitude is that it still centres whiteness. It says heterosexual, non-disabled, white men and women are the norm – anybody who doesn’t conform to those categories is ‘diverse’. But there’s nothing inherently diverse about my skin colour – it’s normal.”  

Shifting perspectives 

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“Thinking of diversity in these terms ignores the fact that true inclusion is about so much more than appearances. 

“It’s about recognising and celebrating the differences in culture and backgrounds, too. Take people of South Asian heritage, like me. We might be Pakistani, Indian, Afghan, Sri Lankan… Yet brands often think that by working with one brown person, they’ve ticked the box marked ‘all brown representation’.

“My thinking on this issue has evolved. 

“Five years ago, if someone had asked me what I wanted, I’d have said: ‘To see more people who look like me on TV and in magazines.’ Now, though, I also want to see more people who look like me behind the scenes. I want people from underrepresented groups to feel confident that our stories will be told properly – not stereotyped.

“I currently work as a consultant with fashion and beauty brands, encouraging them to focus less on diversity as a tick-box, appearance-based exercise, and more on true inclusivity and representation. 

“Companies need to be truly committed to this all year round, not just when it’s beneficial to them for marketing purposes. The LGBTQ+ community don’t only exist during Pride month, just like Muslim people aren’t only relevant during Ramadan.”  

Look good, feel good, do good

“Our fashion and beauty choices have power. 

“Understanding and mastering what works for me and my body – from the fabrics that make me feel comfortable to my make-up routine – have helped me feel confident. Every time I wear a blazer, for example, I feel like my best version of me. Every time I wear a foundation that doesn’t damage or hide my skin, I feel good.

“And when I feel good about myself, it keeps me motivated to keep working for others.

“I get a lot of young people reaching out to me, some of whom have similar backgrounds to myself. I can show them I’m in my chosen industry, breaking boundaries and trying to make space for others, and it feels as though people are listening to me.

“If you’re in a senior role, remember the importance of listening to feedback. Don’t block change. Think about what you’re really saying when you use the word ‘diversity’: are you truly trying to make your industry more accessible and inclusive, or are you tokenising people from underrepresented groups? And listen to the perspectives of lots of different people. 

“One person cannot be the voice of an entire community.

“If you’re entering an industry where you don’t see many people like you, my advice is – be yourself. 

“Don’t conform just to get your foot in the door, because ultimately the person who’ll get you through that door is you.”

 Small choices, big impacts 

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“We can all do good through the choices we make. 

“That can be as simple as choosing to shop with fashion and beauty brands whose values align with your own – it’s so important to be conscious of where your money’s going. 

“I love the Amsterdam-based label Daily Paper, who do incredible work with storytelling. Their clothes are inspired by the founders’ African heritage, and I choose to support fashion brands from underrepresented communities in fashion.

“In terms of make-up, I rely on brands like bareMinerals who are conscious of their impact. It’s still a struggle to find products that suit my skintone, but I get the best colour match with their mineral foundations (and they have the same number of deep-tan shades too). They’re also vegan and cruelty-free, and don’t contain any unnecessary parabens or additives. Conscious beauty drives everything they do, which means products that are healthy to skin, friendly to the environment, and contribute back to society - that’s why I often choose them.

“Ultimately, I believe the fashion and beauty worlds should be representative and accessible to all – and they should help us leave the world in a better place than we found it. 

“We’re not all there yet, but I’m excited to be part of the movement for change.”  

bareMinerals are the creators of clean beauty products that are skin-improving, Earth-conscious and cruelty-free – to help you look good, feel good and do good.

bareMinerals mineral foundations have something to suit everyone: with a wide range of true-to-you shades, buildable coverage levels, and finishes from matte to naturally radiant, you can choose a clean, skin-improving formula made for your unique skin tone and type.

All images featured in this piece are un-retouched.

Arooj Aftab makeup
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