Shades Of Beauty: A Deep Dive Into Diversity In The Industry

In a talk during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Ava Duvernay spoke about her aversion to the word “diversity.” She stated, “I feel it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue. It’s emotional for people of color to have less value placed on our worldview.” She suggests words like “inclusion” and “belonging” in its stead. Duvernay isn’t steeped in the worlds of fashion and beauty—though no one would argue that she’s constantly one of the most stylish and stunning women on the red carpet. But it’s both fascinating and shocking to consider just how much her statement applies to those industries in just the same way. The “belonging problem” she attributes to film and Hollywood is identical to that in beauty. There were so many amazing strides made when it comes to representation over the past year in the arena, but there’s still much work to be done.

When it comes to the wins over the past year, we saw Lupita Nyong’o snagging a Lancôme contract and gracing the cover of a slew of high-fashion magazines all over the globe—all while doing it with a T.W.A. (teeny weeny afro) and a slew of other natural hairstyles. Women like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner shifted the idea of what it means to be transgender and beautiful in society, while Jessica Lange showed that aging gracefully and naturally will always be something to celebrate in Marc Jacobs’ beauty campaign. CoverGirl embraced young Hollywood starlets of color, including Becky G and Zendaya Coleman, and 21-year-old Winnie Harlow brought awareness to vitiligo while defying stereotypes.


Lupita N’yongo for Lancôme.

Desiree Verdejo opened her beauty boutique, Vivrant Beauty, last year. She’s seen an outpouring of support and enthusiasm for both the brick-and-mortar store and online shop, as there’s a prominent void of premium beauty retailers that cater to the needs of women of color. Though it’s quite early in the year to predict how things on the diversity front will go, she thinks that magazines are moving in the right direction. “Teen Vogue kicked the year off right with an intriguing interview of Amandla Stenberg by Solange Knowles. It’s empowering to see and hear the perspectives of women of all backgrounds in major magazines.” She continues, “I’ve also been closely following the development of Hannah Magazine. Based on their conversations and branding thus far, I can tell that it will speak to Black beauty and issues more broadly from a unique perspective.”

“The definition of beauty that we’re being shown is not just narrow, but dishonest. We’re really not seeing the full story of beauty.”

Worldwide portrayals of beauty are the main focus of Antonia Opiah’s work with her documentary series, Pretty. She believes the gap is still quite wide between what we’re being shown in the media and what exists in real life, as well as the fact that beauty is immeasurably heterogeneous all across the globe. “We’re not seeing that Italian beauty is no longer simply a spirited curvy brunette woman; it includes those who emigrated there from former Italian colonies in Africa, or elsewhere.” She goes on, “Israeli beauty is not only a Middle Eastern woman, but is also a Western European woman and an East African woman. The definition of beauty that we’re being shown is not just narrow, but dishonest. We’re really not seeing the full story of beauty.”


Amandla Stenberg for ‘Teen Vogue.’

But even with all this positivity, there are expected missteps. Cultural appropriation was served up on a monthly basis: cornrows and Bantu knots not being credited as hairstyles of African origin, the deliberate use of blackface, a mainstream push for fuller lips, and backsides as a “trend.” For many, it’s a difficult conversation. So much of the world is now globally connected and inspired by so many different cultures through social media, and millennials and Generation Z are growing up with so many combined customs, and no knowledge of how they originally came into being.

“There has to be more respect and reverence given to the cultures from which we borrow.”

Sir John—makeup artist to stars including Beyoncé, Karlie Kloss, and Lady Gaga—believes the media and magazines do a disservice to us all by branding cultures as trends and fads. “Every year we see instances of the Native American experience being picked up in beauty and fashion without any mention of their influence on American society as a whole, as well as their struggles. There has to be more respect and reverence given to the cultures from which we borrow.” He also thinks that brands should do a better job of correcting their mistakes once they become aware of any error on their part, no matter the intention.

Barnett brought up Saartjie Baartman and her influence and struggles in the 1860s as an early historical example of how appropriation leads to impact and clout. “She was ridiculed and put on display for her posterior and physique. In turn, it became all the rage and she caused such a ruckus in America that the bustle was created—literally made to mimic a large posterior. This is a perfect example of a creation being born in society because of the natural beauty of a woman of color. And you can now see history repeating itself. African-Americans seem to be the most copied people on the planet.”

Satire of the Hottentot Venus (Saartjie Baartman).  Martinet, Aaron (1762-1841), Charon, Louis FranÁois (1783-1831). September 1815

Saartjie Baartman, aka the Hottentot Venus, was displayed across Europe.

Opiah disagrees; she doesn’t believe that anyone can own culture, and that attempting to police the flow of all of its various and varied aspects is an exercise in futility: we’re all sponges in a sense, and we can’t help but consume and soak up what we’re exposed to. With that being said, she does believe there’s a right and wrong way to borrow from a culture. “The beauty industry and people in general can benefit from acknowledging their explicit and implicit biases, and should have a genuine interest in learning about experiences other than their own.”

“It’s unbelievable that in 2016 the majority of makeup lines don’t have colors deeper than tan.”

Products that cater to a full range of complexions were also at the forefront of the beauty discussion this year. Verdejo is surprised that so many brands still fail to offer up a diverse spectrum of shades with their initial launches. “Women of color spend billions of dollars on beauty products from affordable and luxury brands alike and yet there are only a few major makeup lines that cater to deep brown skin tones from the onset. It’s unbelievable that in 2016 the majority of makeup lines don’t have colors deeper than tan.”

Opiah has seen a few power players step up to the plate, but thinks the lack of inclusion is due to a mix of prejudice and complacency. “L’Oréal Group, for example, who basically owns every beauty brand out there, has made huge moves in Sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s safe to say they’re aware of the business potential.” She adds, “I think it is simply that beauty brand managers and their media buying agencies don’t want to make the effort and can’t see how to fit multicultural marketing into their media plans. Each year they literally do the same thing with a few tweaks, which is simply illogical.”


Makeup for lighter shades of pale.

When it comes to behind-the-scenes players who will ultimately influence diversity as a whole and put more varied images out into the industry, Verdejo believes the change needs to be approached from a holistic perspective. “Having diverse leadership begins at the bottom of the corporate pyramid. Consciously attempting to hire diverse talents at the more junior level is a great start.” And though the issue is still pervasive, she doesn’t believe that it’s always intentional from a top-down perspective. “Unfortunately, it is very common for even the most intelligent and well-meaning people to socially gravitate towards and groom those that look and sound familiar to themselves, often to the detriment of workers of color (and women in male-dominated arenas).”

Her suggestion for leaders? “Mandatory organization-wide mentoring programs are a great addition to companies in many respects, but especially as it relates to contributing to the grooming of a diverse leadership.”

Opiah believes there is a lack of awareness about the professional opportunities that exist within the beauty and fashion industries as a whole for people of color. She has started a column on her site, “Working Girl,” that profiles successful women of color, and she looks to organizations like AdColor, which help POC in their careers. “It’s giving people of color the tools they need and often even exposing them to scholarships. I think creating more organizations like this can be a big help, as well as something as simple yet impactful as mentoring someone when you’re an established professional.”


Desiree Verdejo of Vivrant Beauty.

Barnett believes a broader eye is needed to give the beauty industry more dimension. “I work in a business where I’m usually the only person of color on set at times, and I’m on set all over the world. A melting pot and mosaic of ideas floating around at a beauty office and in the editing room is what’s needed and what we’re still pushing for today.” He cited and Tom Ford as a couple of his standouts over the past few years when it came to embracing a multicultural perspective, using their platforms to spread a multitude of points of view. “Designers who lend themselves to a modern approach in their casting are progressing with the times and moving the needle. Those who aren’t haven’t gotten the whole point of this yet.” Barnett also praised millennials and their goal of shedding light on the need for inclusion through social media. His younger sister, who is in college at the moment, is a constant source of inspiration and a sounding board for a lot of his ideas.

We still have a lot of 2016 left, with so many opportunities for change. The Academy has vowed to double its minority and female membership by the 2020 Oscars, and though many think this will not affect the beauty industry, it has the power to thrust a whole new crop of celebrities of color into the forefront. The attention may land them campaigns, covers, red carpet opportunities, and the like. “I’ll be watching the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the natural beauty of Maria Borges (who stormed the Victoria Secret runway rocking her short natural hair) and the fashion designs of Charles Harbison,” states Verdejo. She’s also excited about promoting eco-conscious beauty brands created by women of color, including five-free nail polish brand Mischo Beauty; The Lip Bar for cool, vegan lip colors; TGIN and Earth’s Nectar for curly hair products; and Flo + Theo for all natural soaps and face masks.


Harbison SS16.

Barnett would love to see a change of the guard when it comes to the booking and casting process for campaigns and editorials. “If that process was more open and colorful—if you will—I think we would be so much further along when it comes to inclusion. We are among a handful of industries in the world that is so far behind: fashion, along with Hollywood, and even the Academy, is making changes.” He continues, “Talent including hair and makeup and those behind the scenes on set need to change as well. What are we competing for? It shouldn’t be fame on Instagram and visibility, but to have high-profile contracts, campaigns, and covers across the board for artists of color. When you have these jobs on your résumé, you have more power in the editing room and in the casting process. You have power to say, ‘This artist or star should be cast because they set the mood of the season or of my beauty story.’ I would love to look to my left and my right and see more people of color on set. That is the only area I often feel completely isolated in the business.”

“Let’s not only dream of seeing a multitude of complexions, hair types, and bone structure in beauty this year, but also take all the steps to push that change forward.”

We’ve seen tides turn over the past couple of years. Brands, publications, and celebrities have been called out for their biases, and taught how to change them. And we need to continue to do that, along with continuing to push forward movements like #blackgirlmagic, and others that are used to inspire, encourage, and boost confidence. With a new year comes new rules—well, at least we hope. Let’s not only dream of seeing a multitude of complexions, hair types, and bone structure in beauty this year, but also take all the steps to push that change forward. Let’s support those who align more with the reality of beauty in the world, and teach those who don’t that a shying away from that simply won’t hold up. Whether it’s with tweets or your shopping carts, invest your time, energy, and dollars into what you truly wish to see.

Stay tuned to Milk for more inclusion in beauty.

Main image by Kathryn Chadason. Photo of Harbison by Mitchell McLennan. Image of Desiree Verdejo via InHerShoes.

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