Beauty Consumers Are Reclaiming Their Power and Redefining Diversity and Inclusion
Beauty combines qualities, such as shape, color, and form, that pleasure the senses—especially sight. Whether we recognize it or not, appearance shapes how we not only are treated in the world but subconsciously form our perceptions and choices in life. As a society, we are more likely to create a belief around what is considered beautiful based on what we see in media, propaganda, Film, and TV. Through these channels, we’ve internalized on a global scale that European features, petite and abled bodies, and traditional gender binary customs are the standards of beauty. And consequently, we have connected attractiveness to class, economic opportunity, and power.
For decades large beauty conglomerates have cashed in on the erasure of marginalized groups and with incredible success. Today, the pendulum is shifting. A fresh, inclusive market is peaking over the horizon, and powerful beauty brands are sweating. They’re frantically creating more products that appeal to darker skin tones, hair textures, and skincare. We’re also noticing a rise in more diverse casting for beauty campaigns and advertisements, but do we call these changes tolerance, brand intelligence, or tokenism? We must study the journey here to truly discern the intent of these brands.
A Closer Look at the History of Beauty
Historians can trace the use of beauty products back to 4000 BC. Ancient Egyptians would use Kohl—made with powered antimony, burnt almonds, black copper oxide, and brown ochre— to create exaggerated eye definition. These practices were primarily ritual and simulated the image of the sun god Re; this is the first time we witness culture replicating power, perhaps the origins of society associating beauty with superiority. Kohl was only the beginning. The use of natural ingredients traveled throughout time. Skin, hair care, and cosmetic regimes were made of berries, bugs, and charcoal to create colors and malleable textures for application.
The Elizabethan era presented a similar classist structure. Queen Elizabeth I applied ceruse to her face, a white foundation created from lead and vinegar to make her skin appear paler. A fair complexion symbolized wealth and nobility in this time. Sulphur, turpentine, and mercury were toxic ingredients used to bleach freckles and treat blemishes. Avoiding the risks, women emulated these ideas of beauty.
Cosmetics as a business began to boom in the late 19th and early 20th century—a homogenous standard of white skin, slender built, and straight hair was the desired look. It is no coincidence that most of the world’s nations had been colonized by Europeans at this point. This standard of beauty was perpetuated in the Roaring 20s, the 40s, and the 50s as TV and cinema thrived, and the world coveted the glamourous looks of movie stars in Western culture.
Beauty businesses grew more popular, with white women as their targeted customers. When companies finally began including women of color in advertisements, it was solely to market lightening cream—maintaining that lighter skin is more appealing. And to further propagate colorist and featurist biases, hair businesses began to produce relaxers that chemically straightened coarse hair.
As resistance to whitewashing, the black community continued the legacy of the late Madam CJ Walker and began creating cosmetics made for black women. In the 1970s, the Black is Beautiful movement inspired new black-owned business endeavors. In 1974 Eunice Johnson, wife to Ebony and Jet Magazine Publisher John H. Johnson created Fashion Fair Cosmetics. She noticed black models mixing their own pigments at shows and wanted to produce products, especially for the black community. Eunice approached Revlon and several other notable companies with her idea— they all turned her down. And in 2003, Fashion Fair Cosmetics became the largest black-owned make-up company grossing $56 million in sales. In the 1990s, IMAN Cosmetics and Black Opal (later acquired by Fashion Fair Cosmetics owners) followed suit. IMAN Cosmetics grossed $20 million in domestic sales in the first year and an additional $10 million in the United Kingdom.
It’s certainly not an accident that soon after, we see a wave of white-owned beauty brands adding darker shades to their make-up selections and hair companies launching natural hair care lines. But today, we’re in a consumer market, and their minor modifications are not aging very well.
Recognizing the Implicit Erasure of Black Consumers
Beauty has historically taught us to relentlessly pursue what we don’t have and what we can never attain. We see a pattern of society emulating figures who are superior by societal standards to fulfill that same sense of influence and desirability. Today’s market strategy has replicated this model. The psychology is for us to continue to buy products that enhance and transform our appearance so we, too, can be beautiful, sexy, and powerful, but who is positioned as the desired? Colonialism has shaped the Eurocentric standard, and influential beauty brands continue to enforce it.
Makeup companies have left out a diverse range of shades for deeper skin tones, and hair care lines have notoriously been marketed toward Caucasian people. Skincare companies exclude black women in commercials and advertising for their products. This omission and lack of representation send the message that black is not beautiful. In 2018, Tarte launched their highly anticipated Shape Tape Foundation and was immediately called out for its neglect of darker shades. Popular beauty blogger MakeupbyShayla took to her channel to express her disdain, “Essentially what Tarte is doing is prioritizing a lighter-skin tone and making people with deeper skin tone feel inadequate.”
Shayla is not alone in her sentiments. According to the Mintel Reports, 48% of consumers say a wide range of shades makes a beauty brand inclusive. Positive representation is essential for inclusion and perception. Media and influence dictate how we show up in everyday life. When we see our race, size, age, ability, and gender expression reflected in media and advertisements, we feel included in society, reinforcing positive self-esteem. The Mintel report highlights that our views of inclusivity may vary by generation. 55% of Baby Boomers say meeting age-related needs in their products is considered inclusive, and 40% of Gen Zs believe that brands that offer gender-neutral products are inclusive compared to 25% of Baby Boomers.
#PullUpOrShutUp Movement Shakes the Industry
Tarte is only one example of a makeup brand using tokenism to cover subliminal racist practices. Sharon Chuter, the founder of Uoma, issued the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign in June 2020. She challenged beauty companies to publish how many of their employees are black and how many of those black employees are in positions of leadership. Companies like Kylie Cosmetics, Ulta Beauty, L’Oréal, Deva Curl, Beauty Blender, and more published their diversity stats on Instagram. Newer companies like Glossier—popular with Millennials and Gen Zs, stated in their report, “At Glossier we have 250 corporate employees, and with 82% choosing to participate, 43% of these employees identify as people of color, 9% identify as black.” They also detailed their leadership team, “We have 15 people on our team with a VP title or higher, 37% identify as people of color. We don’t have any black colleagues in leadership positions.”
#PullUporShutUp exposed an industry problem that black consumers have declared for decades. It demonstrated a complete and utter disregard for the black voice, which is precisely why Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty was a game-changer in the industry. In 2017, the megastar released Fenty Beauty—featuring a whopping 40 shades of foundations. The deeper skin tones were sold out in stores and online within days. The launch was groundbreaking and displayed how easy it is to create the shades and the demand there was for these products. Al-Nisa, Owner, and President of Cosmetic Science Innovations affirms that “The only difference between a lighter shade and a darker shade is the ration of pigment, and all foundations contain the same four pigments.” Beauty brands have simply chosen not to produce them, and perhaps we’re grateful they did—the perfect opportunity for independent black-owned companies to fill the gaps.
The Future of Beauty is Independent-Owned
The truth is that tokenism is pervasive in the beauty industry. Companies built on centuries of oppression cannot keep up. Tiffany Gill, Associate Professor of History and Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, points out, “Many brands are unwilling to cater to [black women] in fears it will damage their brand. It will make their brands less beautiful if it’s attached to black women.” But it’s only to their detriment; black women spend nine times more than our non-black counterparts on hair and beauty products which is a collective $1.1 billion a year.
We are in the most critical time in the beauty industry. The market is changing right in front of our eyes. The next generation is less concerned about transforming to be desired but wants to feel beautiful just as they are. This means featuring models with acne, textured skin, disabilities, more gender-inclusive products, plus size women, people of color, and dark skin black women. A college student at Liberty University has a message for beauty companies, “We all need beauty brands that give us confidence and enhance our individuality. We are all beautiful people in our [own] way.”
With over 100 years to get it correct, cosmetic companies have intentionally chosen not to participate in diversity and inclusion. Their small tokenistic efforts will only lead to their demise. So, whether they’re cash-grabbing or genuinely open to change, it’s likely a little too late. Neglecting an entire group for decades is a major fumble that black-owned beauty brands are happy to carry.
How We Challenge the Current Beauty Standards
Here at Bellavana Beauty, we believe in challenging the current norms and standards of the beauty industry. Our founder, Aaliyah Bella Rose, created this brand in an effort to stand out from mainstream products and brands that were simply following mandated policies with empty promises of inclusion. Most large corporations cater to the ideology that you must change and conform using their products to fit into what society deems as beautiful or "normal".
We disagree, strongly, and that's why our mission is to simply provide you with the tools you need to make yourself a priority in your life everyday, and we encourage you to embrace yourself at every stage of life. We believe that beauty is something that is defined by you, for you, and it starts from within, not by the color of your skin or the size of your body. As a brand in the industry our goal is to challenge toxic, outdated standards and rules, and instead, advocate for your freedom of expression and inclusion. Always remember - you are worthy and you are beautiful.
Keywords: Diversity and inclusion in beauty, tokenism in beauty, pull up or shut up
Photos: 1st photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 2nd photo courtesy of World History 3rd photo courtesy of Pop Sugar