Colorism is plaguing the cosmetic industry


Photo By Hodda Alazani

Hodda Alazani, Staff Writer

With almost every new makeup release or launch, one of the first things cosmetic consumers, press outlets and social media circles will respond to is the shade range that brand offers in their complexion products. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how racial inequity is reflected or perpetuated in the marketplace, and more than willing to support or boycott products accordingly.

Especially after the launch of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line in September of 2017, which released an unprecedented forty shades of foundation, the lack of deeper cosmetic shades and target market diversity in other cosmetic lines fell under harsher scrutiny. As a consumer, I find it important to be aware of any brand’s failure to be racially inclusive as this behavior enforces racist ideals of beauty and keeps us from moving forward into a modern world which could, and should celebrate diversity. Make-up may seem like a trivial area of civil rights advancement, but, the way society categorizes people as “beautiful” or “ugly” has a long history of signifying how any culture truly feels about any given cultural group. Excluding a group completely from cosmetics lines by creating make-up which cannot be realistically used by people with darker skin tones sends the message that they simply don’t figure into a society’s ideal of beauty.

Throughout history, makeup has often only catered towards a lighter demographic. It wasn’t until recently that mainstream brands have been trying to include more diverse product options. At first, many companies ridiculously claimed that it wouldn’t be financially beneficial for them to include deeper skin tones because women with darker skin do not shop for makeup as frequently as lighter complected women. With the launch of Fenty Beauty, this has been debunked as the deeper shades of foundation sold out the quickest. There have also been claims that creating deeper shades is more difficult or more expensive, but, Al-Nisa Ward, owner and President of Cosmetic Science Innovations says, “Actually, it’s not very difficult to make deeper shades. The only difference between a lighter shade and a darker shade is the ratio of pigment. All foundations contain the same 4 pigments; titanium dioxide, iron oxide red, iron oxide yellow, iron oxide black.”

This leads to the question, are racist biases steering brands to exclude deeper shades? Tiffany Gill, an associate professor of history and black American studies at the University of Delaware, claimed that “… even if there are a wider range of women who are demanding products, a wider range of consumers who want to see themselves reflected and are willing to pay money to get these products, many brands are unwilling to cater to them in fears that it will damage their brand. In fear that it will make their brand less glamorous, less beautiful if it’s attached to black women, if it’s attached to darker skinned women.”

To put it bluntly, beauty standards have favored light skin for generations, but even worse, there have been extensive product campaigns geared towards lightening dark skin. Even now, in 2018, skin bleaching products are both acceptable and profitable in many areas of the world. This mentality increases colorism, a type of discrimination in which lighter skinned people are treated better than those with darker skin. It’s hard to believe that the idea of ‘the lighter the skin the prettier’ still exists in this modern era, however, it’s important to acknowledge the problem in order to fix it. This is not a point that takes much evidence. You only need to flip through any fashion magazine to ascertain both the editorial material and the ads still reflect a light-skinned ideal of beauty.

The colorism exhibited by beauty brands sends messages to deeper skin toned girls that they aren’t as beautiful or important as someone with a lighter shade of skin. By creating that gap in their products, they fail to promote racial inclusiveness and acceptance. Some may argue and say that there are darker shades available for people in many cosmetic lines, but it’s clear to see that there are few and they are treated as an afterthought in terms of selection. There are ‘fifty shades of beige’ and three dark colors tacked on at the end like some sort of condescending consolation prize. Again, deep research is not necessary. Simply peruse cosmetic counters at any local department store, look at foundation, powder and concealer colors and ask yourself, how many women could wear it? Typically tones are too light or pink in tone for most consumers.

If you’re still not convinced the cosmetics industry primarily caters to lighter complexions, just take a look at some of the missteps that have gotten numerous companies in trouble. Certain brands have been rightfully called out for embarrassing product launches after they finally introduced a line which they claimed would suit consumers of any race or skin tone. This includes, but is not limited to It Cosmetics Bye Bye Foundation (3 out of 12 shades actually suited darker skin tones), Tarte Shape Tape Matte and Hydrating Foundations (3 of 15), YSL All Hours Foundation (3 of 22) and most astoundingly Beautyblender Bounce Liquid Whip Long Wear Foundation ( 7 out of 32).

One way to combat this is as simple as protesting online. When Beautyblender and Tarte foundations shade ranges were posted on social media there was an immediate social media backlash. Companies watch online responses carefully to gauge product reception. You can also contact companies directly to complain or ask for better options. Yes, you’re just one consumer, but a timely request can push buttons for companies that are already realizing they’ve fallen short. However, the most effective way to show these brands that when we say we want inclusiveness we mean it is to buy products from companies who do it right or have been specifically founded on that basis.  A few of these brands include:

  • Iman: founded by Somali-American model Iman. Launched in 1994 and branded as the “first cosmetics and skincare collection designed for all women of skin of color.”
  • Mented: founded by KJ Miller and Amanda E. Johnson. Created because they saw that there were no good nude lip colors on the market for deep tones.
  • Omolewa: Sells products that are pigmented enough to really show up on dark skin and has a tagline of “committed to inclusion.”
  • Black Opal: Created in 1994 to celebrate black skin and represent beauty in every color – also offered at an affordable price.
  • Koyvoca:  The creation of Courtney Coates. Her goal for her brand is that people of deeper skin tones can always find something for them.
  • Beauty Bakerie: Black-owned beauty brand with an excellent shade range and the bonus of cute packaging.

While makeup and fashion practices or perceptions may not appear to be the most important issues of the day, this is a billion dollar industry with millions of consumers. It influences the way our society perceives human beauty, privilege, purpose, and worth. Most of us acknowledge the significance of equality in television and film. Inclusivity matters here too. Whatever the method, when we call out companies who are marginalizing entire groups of people, we defy the unrealistic industry ideal of the pallid, languid, European model. Instead, we encourage respect for human beings from varied backgrounds who are smart, strong, diverse and yes, beautiful.