It was 1992 when Veronica Webb became the first Black model to land a campaign for a major beauty brand. The 27-year-old signed a multi million-dollar deal with Revlon to launch its ColorStyle line, which catered specifically to darker skin tones. In a decade when magazine pages were dominated by Christy, Claudia and Kate, these ads were a major step in the right direction. But it was only one step: brands still stuck to “safe” options when it came to showcasing Black beauty. Often only those who were lighter-skinned or racially ambiguous, like Kersti Boswer and Kara Young, were cast at the forefront of big campaigns. That’s not to take away from these models and their Blackness, but simply to illustrate that, for a very long time, even when women of colour were represented it was still in very limited ways.
In the years since there has been slow but notable progress, with dozens of non-white models and actors fronting ads, and brands (finally) making at least some effort to include more diverse shade ranges in their makeup offerings. Cosmetics giant Lancôme teamed up with Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o in 2014, making her the face of the brand when it launched its Le Teint Particulier customizable foundation line, which offers a whopping 72,000 different shade combinations.
But for consumers, it’s not enough just to see an airbrushed actor that sort of has the same skin colour as them repping a makeup brand. That’s why so many women of colour have taken it upon themselves to use social media to create their own forums for discussing Black beauty and cosmetics. Instagram pages like @melaninbeautiesunite and @cocoaswatches—which each have more than 100K followers—exist to showcase how makeup looks on brown skin, and discuss beauty issues relevant to Black women.
And now, savvy companies are catching on. Glossier brand rep Devin McGhee created Glossier Brown last year as a space that could help women of colour find products from the line that work for them. While Glossier does showcase a refreshingly diverse variety of women on its main page, the 27-year-old says that she still saw the need for WOC to have their own forum despite the brand’s efforts to be inclusive.
“Once I became a rep, I started receiving DMs daily for product suggestions and colour matches,” McGhee says, adding that while doing her own research prior she was only able to find a handful of Black and Brown YouTubers who did Glossier product reviews. “It was amazing to see all of these women of colour interested in a brand that I adore so much, but I needed a better way to field their questions, manage the load and show women of all complexions using Glossier products.”
A few months later, millennial lifestyle site Refinery 29 followed suit, creating Unbothered, an Insta page dedicated to its Black followers. While it doesn’t only cover beauty, like Glossier Brown it aims to offer a space for women of colour to share and celebrate what specifically matters to them. In its own words, R29 Unbothered is “for and by Black millennial women,” highlighting stories about natural hair, inclusive makeup lines and Black artists, to name just a few of the topics covered.
What’s so important about these pages is that they seek to highlight the diversity of Blackness, not just the singular, usually Photoshopped and often whitewashed, ideal presented in typical makeup campaigns. By contrast, many of the photos on Glossier Brown are curated from the brand’s customers, and are clearly left untouched, with blemishes proudly on display. Different genders get to show off their looks and there’s no one body type, or skin tone that supersedes the other.
“This is most definitely done on purpose,” McGhee says. We all suffer from one ‘flaw’ or another, whether it be acne, dryness, large pores, whatever the case. I think it’s important to showcase everyday human beings enjoying Glossier products. Some are men, some are dark, some have acne, some have natural hair. All of that is OK, beautiful and perfectly normal.”
But while these spaces help to normalize what isn’t always portrayed as glamorous in mainstream media, some people are questioning whether separate beauty forums actually perpetuate the “othering” of women of colour.
“It may reinforce the idea that Eurocentric beauty is the standard and everything else is just an ‘addition,’” says Wanna Thompson, a Toronto-based writer for Bahi Cosmetics.
“Typically, you’ll see one Black girl posted once every other week on mainstream beauty pages, if we’re lucky,” says 26-year-old, who also admits she rarely saw herself reflected in the media growing up. “Mainstream representation matters and it truly does wonders for my self confidence and self-esteem.”
So how do we get to a place where separate forums aren’t so desperately needed? June Smith, the founder of TAJJ Cosmetics, a Canadian beauty line for women of colour, thinks it’s obvious: there need to be more women like her in the industry, period.
“In October I attended a private event in Toronto, hosted by one of the top leading beauty brands,” she says. “There were about 50 beauty influencers in attendance, and only three were Black—including me. I was not surprised by the lack of diversity in the room, [the industry is] simply not ready.
“The Black haircare industry is still one of the fastest growing industries,” she adds. “Yet most of the products are sold exclusively in Black beauty stores or in a tiny section of most major retail stores or at the back.”
McGhee agrees, adding that significant change has to start at the top level of the major players in the cosmetics industry.
“The lack of women of colour in leadership positions at beauty companies directly affects who is fighting for diversity and inclusion within those companies,” she explains. “If there is no one to fight for women of colour, who actually understands our frustration as Black beauty consumers, how do we expect to be equally showcased?
“Until leadership is truly diverse within beauty companies,” McGhee says, “it will always be important for women of colour to have their own spaces.”