How The Beauty Industry Is STILL Failing Black Women.

I was out with my partner at the time and went to Farmers in search of a foundation. Normally I stick with MAC as it's the only brand that consistently stocks my shade but this time I wanted to try something different. Estee Lauder had come out with a foundation with over 42 shades. Perfect right? In fact, I'd spent weeks trawling through hours of reviews and videos trying to learn everything I possibly could about Estee Lauder's Double Wear Stay in Place Foundation. (It's a mouthful, I know.) I'd seen there was a big range of darker shades so I wanted to get matched in store. (Can you see where this is going yet?) However, as I strolled into Farmers and walked up to the Estee Lauder counter, my eyes began searching for something that wasn't there. They scanned over shades ranging from paper white to kind of white, to slightly peachy to kind of yellowy peachy to tan. The darkest shade they had was not even remotely close to anything I could ever hope to put on my skin without looking like Casper The Ghost. I wasn't dissuaded. This was a pretty typical experience. Usually, they put the darker shades out back.

The sales assistant saw my rather techy looking face and asked if I needed any help. I asked him if they had any darker shades in stock that weren't on display. The sales assistant hesitated before saying,

"I'm sorry but no stores in New Zealand will stock your shade," with a try hard corner splitting smile to ease the knife he'd just lodged in my throat. Cue the anime style gasp. I thanked him and left the store.

My partner looked at me. I could see the surprise in his expression but also something closer to pity. He was shocked. He hadn't believed me earlier when I'd told him I often found trouble finding my shade. What I was feeling, however, wasn't shock. More than anything I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed at the situation and embarrassed that I actually thought I lived in a world where a black woman could go to a store and expect to find a foundation that matched her shade.

I decided to go back another day and have a look around to see whether any of their other brands had foundation in my colour. I went to the Nyx counter, nothing, Maybelline, nothing, Clinique, Max Factor, in fact, I don't believe there was one foundation brand in farmers that had anything remotely close to my colour. I was excited to try this brand. I'd heard so many good things about it. I'd memorized all the features and benefits of it. But I was not going to be able to buy it like any other woman because I was too dark. I went online and thought a couple dark shades magically appeared, the options looked like the picture to your right. I'm sick of seeing 50 shades of beige then one or two dark shades plonked at the end that are expected to magically cater to all black women.

Over the years I've seen countless headlines about how the beauty industry is diversifying and beginning to realise that black women actually exist and that some of them even wear make-up too.
For years black women have been struggling to be seen in a beauty market where the default setting is white and anything else is an afterthought or a PR angle. No amount of heated blog posts, anecdotal horror stories or progressive headlines have been enough to ensure that the needs of black women are being met. Go to any pharmacy or supermarket and you'll find the same 6-8 similar shades that cut off right before they start getting close to anything a black person could comfortably put on their skin.

I'll start at the beginning. When I was younger I remembered my (white) friends swapping foundations and picking them up with pocket change at supermarkets and drugstores while I had to beg and plead my mother or save money I was supposed to be using for my school lunch to buy foundation more than four times the price. I also remember the amused gasps and giggles I heard when they marveled at how dark my foundation was as they swatched it on their skin. (I don't know what they were expecting?)

My friend was telling me about how she could never spend more than $10 on a foundation. I remembered how she scrunched up her nose as she told me she could never spend as much as I did on foundation. She didn't realise that I didn't have a choice. That I didn't have the luxury of being able to walk into any department store (never mind any supermarket) knowing that I would find something that carted to my skin tone. Often when brands say they cater to all skin types they mean, pale, olive skinned and tan.

It wasn't only that either. Every day I watched films with white leads, watched Kardashians applauded for surgically enhanced features that I was ridiculed for and flicked through page after page of magazines before I saw someone that looked like me. When I did they were always clad in leopard print, exoticized and fetishized often with words like 'jungle" and 'safari'. And that was if I was lucky, it was usually light skinned mixed race black women with European features that made it onto glossy magazine pages. Foundation samples never came in my colour. I saw Iman described as a perfect because she was a "white woman dipped in chocolate." Every day I struggled against white beauty ideals, encountered media that reinforced white standards of beauty that told me beauty wasn't made for girls who looked like me. Beauty came in only one colour, white.

Black People Don't Buy Foundation

The main argument I heard by sales assistants when I talked about the lack of darker shades in stores was that there simply wasn't the demand for darker shades. There apparently weren't enough black people to make it worthwhile. I recall watching a video in which a French sales assistant said her brand sold foundation for French women, and French women were not black. Never mind the huge black population in France. The world, however, is changing. Brands like Fenty beauty, whose darker shades are constantly selling out, show that we shouldn't devalue the black dollar. There's good money in formulating a good range and quality of darker shades.
Brands like Fenty Beauty have had a butterfly effect on the beauty industry with more and more beauty brands extending their shade ranges and embracing women of all skin tones. They've opened doors for not only black women but East Asian women, Indian and Middle Eastern women (and men). They've been able to start a culture of accountability, where brands that fall short in catering to people of all skin tones are held to account. For example, Tarte released their Shape Tape Foundation that had a shockingly weak shade range and then the 3 darker shades they did have were grey and ashy. The beauty community banded together to let them know this wasn't acceptable. Beauty influencers of all colours came together to speak out and we finally saw some accountability. This signified an important shift in the beauty industry. Beauty brands can no longer settle for 6-8 shades of beige and call it a day.

So is the beauty industry finally embracing diversity? 

The short answer is no.

Yes, a lot more brands are catering to darker skin tones like mine, however, what I started to realise after that trip to Farmers was that didn't mean stores would actually stock them. There's no point in having a 42 colour shade range when you don't put them all on the shelves. Now we've finally got the shades we have to deal with yet another problem. Racist store managers that won't order them in and put them out. But we have Fenty Beauty now! Everything's fine.  Not everyone can afford Fenty beauty.

Lupita Nyongo is the face of LancĂ´me, yet still, I can't find a shade in stores that match mine. Estee Lauder has 42 shades in their Double Wear Stay In Place range yet New Zealand still doesn't supply my shade. Beauty brands can't hide behind targeted marketing. It's not enough to plonk Lupita on your campaign, you've got to come through with the stock.

What's wrong with going without some foundation?

Black women are used to being invisible. To not being represented in film, in literature, in magazines, you name it! And when they are they usually play drug addicts, prostitutes or slaves. Not being able to see ourselves catered to in the beauty industry tells dark girls that we don't matter. That we don't exist and that we're not worth catering to. This only contributes the toxic culture of skin bleaching and self-hatred in black communities. It forces us to hold ourselves to beauty ideals that weren't created for us and that are not possible for us to achieve. This has almost been successful in completely decimating the self-worth of black women around the world.

So what do we do? 

Boycotting is out of the question. Not everyone can afford to stop buying affordable drugstore makeup and go to stores like Mecca, Sephora or luxury department stores. Even boycotting brands with owners and spokespeople who are publically racist (I'm looking at you Jeffree Star) is difficult as it doesn't leave many affordable alternatives. This has been enough to drive black women to support black-owned beauty brands. Instead of begging for inclusion, why not create our own? Trouble is, that's easier said than done in New Zealand. While a lot of fantastic black-owned beauty brands exist, good luck finding one in New Zealand, or even one that ships here for anything less than $30.

So what can we do then? You know that thing that everyone has? A voice! That's it. Use it. It's your most powerful weapon. Speak no evil and hear no evil. If beauty brands truly want to embrace diversity they need to not only talk the talk but walk it too and if we don't hold them to account, they won't change.

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