the whitewashing of affordable beauty brands

Why does the low-cost end of the make-up market pale in comparison for dark skin?

by Lynette Nylander
06 August 2015, 5:09pm

Photography Christoph Wohlfahrt

Late last month, Sudanese model and social activist Nykhor Paul took to Instagram to highlight the industry's ignorance when it comes to black women and catwalk make-up. "Dear white people in the fashion world!" read the post, "Please don't take this the wrong way but it's time you people get your shit right when it comes to our complexion! Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don't have to do anything but show up wtf!" The internet went into overdrive, and a massive race-related debate ensued, one that the fashion world has largely chosen to ignore. In fact, not since the 2008 Is Fashion Racist? feature in Vogue -- in which Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman discuss what it's like being "the black girl" and how they're repeatedly mistaken for one another -- has such a wide debate infiltrated mainstream media.

Elaborating on her Instagram post in an interview with yesterday, Paul -- a former face of Louis Vuitton -- said: "I've been in this industry for a long time, so it wasn't one thing that set it off. It's been a constant battle. Dealing with all the make-up issues, skin issues, hair issues, it makes you feel inadequate, especially when you've come to work geared up and ready to do your job as a mannequin. This is not just something I'm going through - a lot of girls are going through this."

As for the debate her initial comment sparked, "Everything has been positive except for a few people online," she said, "The complaints I have gotten have been from people who feel I was attacking their race, but anyone who reads my comments carefully knows that wasn't my intention." Nykhor went on to praise the power of the internet as a tool for calling out discrimination. "I love social media," she says. "I always say people don't have room to be racist anymore; it will be picked up by some social media, someone will tape it and expose them."

The flurry of news pieces surrounding Nykhor's comments suggests that a model speaking out about racism in fashion is something of rarity. But, as we well know, she's not the first to do so. In 2013, supermodels Naomi Campbell, Iman and Bethann Hardison formed the Diversity Coalition and wrote an open letter to the top fashion houses in the world calling for a greater diversity on the catwalk and the boycott of fashion brands that don't comply. In a recent interview with i-D, Jourdan Dunn explained: "If I do a show and I'm the only black model walking in it, it doesn't sit well with me. New York and London are the best for sure. For me, Milan hasn't been that bad, but some black girls go there and they don't get booked at all, nothing. It's really awful." Others who have spoken out include New York based model Brandee Brown, told i-D about the unnecessary ignorance of styling her hair when she gets booked for a shoot.

Off the runway, the sad fact of the matter is that Nykhor's experience of make-up artists not properly working with her skin tone is mirrored across the entire beauty industry. While prestige brands such as NARS, M.A.C and Bobbi Brown have carved themselves spaces as leaders in providing a full spectrum of make-up spanning a wide array of skin tones, the more affordable end of the market pales in comparison -- offering much fewer choices despite the assumption that accessible cost should offer widespread appeal. What's ironic is that most make-up brands are owned by one of the same few umbrella corporations, so from the high street to high end, the knowledge and expertise is there. The lack of options for those who need reasonably priced make up is an even more bitter pill to swallow.

Personal experience rings true. While the fancy make up counters and their price tags are within reach now, the 15-year-old me struggled with finding make-up for my medium black skin tone. Although I could indulge in mascaras and lip gloss, my meager budget and the pitiful selection meant making do with chalky foundation that made me feel self conscious and out of place, especially when I was seeing images of black girls on TV and in magazines. The effect? The dull pang of knowing that I was going to have to go beyond my local high street for the equivalent of what my lighter and whiter peers were able to buy.

While this may be dismissed as nothing more than an unfortunate oversight, its wider implications shouldn't be made light of. Many younger girls' first experience of make-up will be in their local Duane Reed with pocket money in their purses. Girls of color among them are instantly offered less choice than white girls in that same position. The subliminal message that make-up isn't made available for you already sets a sobering message: that you are different, you're darker and that's going to be a problem. It serves as a stark and somber message that white privilege goes as far as the make-up counters the world over. 

Purchasing make-up is a key coming of age moment at a time when all you want to do is fit in and navigate your way through adolescence without unwanted attention for standing out. With one taunt about your appearance or a jibe about your look, your confidence can easily be destroyed. And the issue is more problematic the further out of multicultural hubs that you travel. Writer Reni Eddo-Lodge and Marie Claire UK Senior Beauty Editor Anita Bhagwandas recently discussed the lack of make up growing up in small towns outside of London and the long term effects it has had on BBC's Woman's Hour. Anita lamented, "I actually grew up in Newport, South Wales, and there was nothing and nowhere to get any makeup. I would go to Cardiff and I remember going to the counter and getting a foundation that was four shades too dark and wearing that."

And don't be fooled: it's wholly convenient for brands to say that there is a lack of demand for affordable darker skin toned products or services, but this isn't an ice cream parlor. Just because vanilla is most popular, should other flavors not be offered? It may sound silly to bring it down to this analogy, but so is playing catch up in a sector that is missing out on a very lucrative opportunity. According to WWD, the black beauty industry is worth 7.5 billion dollars and black women on average spend 80% more money than their white counterparts as they trial and search for beauty offerings suited to their needs.

Julie Bell, of LVMH-owned Benefit Cosmetics noted to the Guardian that "developing deeper foundation shades can be challenging. The range of skin tones is incredibly broad, and women with darker skin have varying undertones on different parts of the face - that makes it harder to find the perfect color." Although testing and manufacturing darker make-up may take more time and initially cost a nominal amount more to develop, surely the price we will pay culturally for brands not producing make-up to suit all will be more costly? 

To make the idea of products for all races seem like an inconvenience to brands owned by large multinationals with widespread manufacturing and delivery capabilities borders on absurd, and is no different than brands not catering for larger sizes. The mass market beauty industry seemingly just doesn't want to diversify in the significant way it needs to. Brands are getting better and women of color have joined the ranks as ambassadors for big beauty players, but companies need to look beyond the Jourdan Dunns, the Beyoncés, Lupita N'yongos and Frieda Pintos as simply marketing ploys. They need to ensure that that make up really is readily available to the woman on the shop floor and that this level of inclusiveness is made available for all people no matter how how deep their pockets or how dark their skin.


Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Christoph Wohlfahrt

lynette nylander