Tales of a Beauty Outsider

What happens when you're not an ivory girl? One writer reports that the industry is recovering from colour blindness

Tales of a Beauty Outsider

The writer at age 16, going to her semi-formal

“Why can’t your makeup just be normal? You know, natural?” pleaded my high-school boyfriend. Our hot and heavy make-out sessions would invariably leave my thickly applied foundation all over his shirt collar and pale cheeks. I always wanted to wipe his face for him after coming up for air, but ever the 15-year-old tough girl, I just pretended it ain’t no thang, while deep down I wanted to curl up into a mortified ball. Natural? Normal? Of course I wanted to look, and feel, that way. But going through my awkward teen years in ’90s Winnipeg, the only black girl at my private school of 800 students, I didn’t stand a (non-white) snowflake’s chance in hell. I couldn’t blame him for being clueless. I spent months trying to make him grasp why he couldn’t run his fingers through my relaxed hair, especially after it was “just done.” Clearly, the relationship was doomed to fail.

The onslaught of puberty smacked me with the oily skin and breakouts that send teens in droves to the nearest drugstore in search of beauty camouflage. As a “Sporty Spice,” I longed to be like my fair-skinned classmates after soccer practice—to throw my hair in a ponytail, dab on some generic concealer and pink gloss, and bounce off.

But I struggled to find foundation, concealer, powder—anything—that covered my spots and scars. Everything my allowance could afford was too ashy, too pale, too pink, too thick or made me break out even more. I was always the last one out of the locker room, laboriously spackling my face with a palette of various toasted almond/cappuccino/tawny liquids, hoping that if I kept blending, maybe it would look okay.

On weekends, I pored over the beauty pages of YM, Cosmo and Seventeen with one of my best friends, an Indian girl with luminous, spot-free skin. She had a tackle box of every bright Wet ’n’ Wild product available. We’d pick out the one or two magazine looks for “dark skin” that we could possibly try, then rush to the drugstore to hunt for the products we saw on Tyra, Halle and Naomi. We were usually disappointed: The selection of foundations, concealers and powders stopped far lighter than us.

Staring at the sea of pale pinks, honey tans and beiges, I felt wholly excluded from the world of breezy beauty that my classmates enjoyed. Although in the magazines, the most popular brands promised “nationwide availability” for the shades with more pigment, they weren’t to be found on the shelves in Winnipeg. One supermarket offered some hope: It carried the full line of Revlon, with Halle Berry’s flawless face beaming down from the display. Still, I couldn’t find an exact match for my skin— milk chocolate in winter, and rosy bronzed in summer (yes, we tan, too!)—and resorted to mixing several bottles. The results were overly reddish, one-dimensional layers of paint, but for my rock-bottom self-esteem, that was preferable to baring my teenaged face to the world.

Moving to Toronto for university expanded my beauty world view. Most of the girls on my varsity track and field team were black, clear-skinned and gorgeous, and they let me in on their secrets, teaching me how to work a Shu Uemura lash curler and apply concealer with a brush. Armed with a more grown-up budget, I discovered the vast, untapped counters of the department stores—though they were still hit-and-miss. Fashion Fair foundation, made for black women, was too thick and oily, but M.A.C’s versions actually blended with my skin. Nars had amazingly pigmented blushes that didn’t require 10 layers to show up on my face.

Times were changing. Niche brands such as Bobbi Brown—with an experienced makeup artist at the helm—had taken off. When Brown started out in ’80s New York, she couldn’t find foundations that suited her own skin, much less the spectrum of model complexions she saw on-set. “I remember going to Bergdorf Goodman and buying their most expensive foundation. I came home, made myself up and realized: It’s pink!” says Brown at the launch of her new makeup manual, Pretty Powerful, which showcases the beauty and diversity of real women. Pink-based formulas were then the norm, so she had to buy a pot of yellow from a theatrical makeup store and adjust the shade herself. Her mixing skills came in handy when she worked with model Waris Dirie for a CoverGirl campaign. “I couldn’t find one foundation that matched her skin. So I created my number 10 [Espresso] for Waris.” Yet back then, Brown recalls, people told her, “No one’s this colour.”
Even now, a dismissive attitude persists in certain quarters of the beauty business. When supermodel Iman launched a liquid foundation—the first for her self-titled brand—in 2010, she faced some skepticism from retailers, who believed black women don’t buy liquid foundation. As it turns out, foundations account for 70 percent of Iman’s overall sales, and Luxury Radiance Liquid Makeup is the top seller. In her view, not enough shades exist for women of colour. The women in her own family (her mother, two daughters, three aunts) need at least six different shades of foundation—so the token dark hue or two in a mass palette doesn’t cut it. So-called “ethnic beauty” products shouldn’t be relegated to a few counters in urban areas, Iman argues. “Customers cannot buy what is not available,” she tells me by phone.

In a recent U.S. report, market research company Mintel noted that black women who wear makeup spend nearly three times as much as women of other ethnicities—in part because they need to sample more to find what will really work. They are less satisfied with what they buy and have trouble finding colours that match or flatter their skin tones, according to the study. Fortunately, more and more brands are cluing in that neglecting diversity means they’re missing a significant—and growing—slice of the market, thanks to shifting demographics.

By 2042, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts, racial/ethnic minorities will become the majority population stateside—a much bigger market for beauty brands than Canada, and thus the focus of much R&D. (Here, Statistics Canada forecasts that by 2031, 63 percent of Torontonians will belong to a visible minority group.) Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations each jumped 43 percent, while the number of black Americans grew by 12.3 percent. In comparison, the white population went up only 5.7 percent. Notably, people of mixed race—who can’t be easily lumped into one category or skin colour—also grew by 32 percent.

To address the multitude of hues, Sephora recently debuted Color I.Q., in partnership with Pantone. A hand-held “spectrocolorimeter” takes images of a shopper’s face to pinpoint its Pantone code; the number is then input into an iPad app, which spits out the foundation shades—out of the 1,000 sold by the retailer—that come closest. (the free service is offered in its New York and San Francisco flagships, with a wider rollout in the works.)

The fact that a retailer today carries 1,000 foundation shades signifies the perception shift. “beauty companies—both mass and prestige—are introducing more shades to their colour cosmetics lines in order to reach a lucrative [ethnic] market,” affirms Virginia Lee, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International. But the expanding palette isn’t just a savvy business decision; it also reflects breakthroughs in the lab that enable much more sophisticated, natural-looking products.

Historically, the deepest foundations have suffered from an overly simplistic way of darkening shades: a heavy-handed dose of red pigments. Or they’ve left an ashy pallor. Even today, for many foundations, “most companies only use four pigments, and one of those pigments is titanium, which is white, and if you want a deep, clean foundation for dark skin tones, you can’t use white,” explains Valerie MacKenzie, vice-president of product innovation for M.A.C, one of the few brands that has always catered to all races. “The other three oxides are also titanium-based, so we have to make sure we process them properly,” she says, pointing out that new technologies, such as jet milling to produce baby-powder-soft pigments, make all the difference.

Equally crucial is ensuring the pigments are in a clear base, free of milky or talc-y extras. that’s why YSL ditched conventional opaque fillers in favour of a translucent gel for its Le Teint Touche Éclat Foundation launch this fall. “the opaque fillers were responsible for the muddy, ashy mask on darker skin,” explains Caroline Nègre, YSL Beauté’s scientific communications manager, who says that in the past “there was a lack of knowledge regarding dark ethnic skin.” the company tapped into research covering the complexion complexity of 7,000 women before developing the product.

Other brands making investments in skin tone R&D include Lancôme. As recently as 2005, staffers at its U.S. beauty labs realized even they couldn’t find foundations that suited them—the choices were too red/orange, ashy or light. that spurred Lancôme to launch a “Women of Colour” study to scientifically evaluate complexions globally and develop shades accordingly; the research led to this year’s launch of Teint Idole Ultra 24H (available in 50 shades worldwide).

L’Oréal also extended its true Match range this year with 14 shades for multi-ethnic skin, a campaign fronted by Beyoncé. Likewise, burberry beauty expanded its foundations and concealers to include four shades for darker skin. even estée Lauder retooled its market- ing to reach a multiculti world, choosing Joan Smalls and Liu Wen as spokesmodels and adopting the tag line, “every woman can be beautiful.” My own beauty inspirations include Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman and Alek Wek—if there are products that work for them, there must be products for me.

Sometimes, while perusing stores, I’m reminded of my frustrated teen self when I see a product advertised as “one shade fits most.” there’s still room for improvement, but the progress made by companies that embrace the gamut of skin tones has set a new bar.

My most recent beauty revelation has been to master a “nude lip and rosy cheek” look. In the past, to add insult to the poor colour selection, experts at beauty counters would ply me with saturated brights, garish frosts or vampy darks—making me look like a cross between Nicki Minaj and Elvira. I’d always run home and wash my face. But for my wedding, I found a makeup artist who shared my sensibility. With a kit full of M.A.C, she added a swipe of concealer, a dab of powder, Pinch Me blush, and touch lipstick layered with Lustergold gloss. I’d never felt more comfortable with how I looked—because I looked like myself.

Click here to find out the beauty innovators creating foundations for women of colour