As a woman of colour who finds great joy in wearing lipstick, I’ve long understood that that some make up products were off limits to my skin colour. Foundation and concealer samples provided free with women’s magazines would smear, chalk-like on my skin. There was a universal skin colour aimed at consumers, and I wasn’t it. But there were other products- mascara, lip gloss, nail polish- that I could buy without a feeling of unease.
Still now, women of colour have to consider paying three times as much as our white counterparts for makeup products that match the colour of our skin. What’s stocked in lower end shops such as Boots and Superdrug does not cater to us. So, if we’re into make-up, we head to the brands that cater to professional make up artists who work with all kinds of faces- MAC, Nars, and Bobbi Brown, to name a few.
We’re consistently reminded that our attributes are not the ‘norm’ – the norm being white, of course. This attitude is endemic. Turning up to take part in television interview recently, I was sent to hair and makeup before appearing live on air. There was no concealer available for the colour of my skin, and no comb for the texture of my afro hair.
So it wasn’t a surprise that some of the UK’s most well-known beauty brands ignored the existence of women of colour attending the Afro Hair and Beauty Show on May’s bank holiday weekend. Instead, the show was chock full of not just hair companies, but smaller, independent brands too. There are products from high street companies that women of colour buy from regularly, yet for some reason, our interests are considered niche. It doesn’t seem to make business sense ignoring a large concentration of women in the same venue all weekend, all of whom would have been more than likely to buy products if the brands were exhibiting.
The Afro Hair and Beauty Show isn’t anything new, and there aren’t many reasons to ignore the show, beyond ignorance and marginalisation. 2014 was the show’s 33rd year in business. I can understand the reasons behind its existence – mainstream brands were not, and still aren’t acknowledging women of colour. Whilst it’s important for women of colour to organise separately until we have adequate representation, it’s no longer acceptable for those who dominate the industry to tune out black women’s efforts.
Afua Adom, a journalist working at Pride Magazine, summarised the problems succinctly in an interview with trade website Features Exec. ‘It’s sad to say, but some companies (namely Topshop) and PRs still aren’t keen to send us images or clothes for shoots because they are just, to say it simply, racist. Just because we are a magazine for black women doesn’t mean we don’t reach a huge number of people. It’s silly and makes them look really small and petty.’
And so magazines like Black Hair, Pride, and Black Beauty continue to exist. Black media isn’t just about politics; it’s about creating the representation that’s denied to us. Black women beauty bloggers are organising separately from the mainstream movement and the parallels to the historical splits in feminism are undeniable.
Ever resourceful, it’s up to women of colour to organise and kick up enough of a fuss until we are heard. With the explosion of successful beauty bloggers online in recent years, it was black women on twitter who came up with the idea of a weekly beauty discussion on Sunday evenings. Scroll through the hashtag #brownbeauty at the right time of day and you’ll enter into discussion on co-washing, hair texture, or hand creams. It has recently evolved into a website, Brown Beauty Talk, edited by marketing guru Ronke Adeyemi.
Ronke explains to me why she set up Brown Beauty Talk. ‘ We saw a gap in the market for a platform, a dialogue for women of colour to discuss beauty – topics like choosing the right shade of foundation, or transitioning hair from relaxed to natural… We also try and do a bit of lobbying with mainstream brands.’
With consumer influence transferring from traditional beauty editors in the press to bloggers and vloggers reviewing products online, the insulated, echoing whiteness of the PR industry reveals itself. It is public relations professionals who work on behalf of beauty brands to try and gain as much coverage as possible. Just 2% of people working in the PR industry identify as black or Asian.
Echoing Afua Adom’s comments on Topshop, Ronke says ‘There’s a massive disconnect between us and the decision makers… black bloggers still aren’t being invited to PR outreach events. We have a long way to go. Just look at Stylist Magazine – it doesn’t reflect the multicultural city it’s distributed in. We actually approached Stylist a while ago, and we asked ‘where are the women of colour?’ They were astounded. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.’
At the root of the problem is the question of who gets to participate in constructions of femininity. Whilst I can get behind feminist critiques of the restrictiveness of femininity, it’s important to examine who gets to access it in the first place. There’s no denying the beauty industry is institutionally racist. Brands that do not cater to black skins in the West sell skin lightening creams in other, blacker parts of the world. When femininity is still considered the arbiter of womanhood, we have to hark back to abolitionist activist Sojourner Truth who, in 1851, asked ‘ain’t I a woman, too?’
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