The politics of beauty

The rise of social media has seen an increase in diversity within the beauty industry however it has also seen the rise of a new generation of cultural appropriation
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“When I first launched my foundation range, it was important to me that we catered for different skin tones,” said Rihanna, speaking at her Fenty Beauty talk in Dubai last year. “My mom is darker than me, and I could never have a foundation range that didn’t cater for her,” she explained. It’s a strategy which has no doubt paid off, launching with 40 shades in 2017, the brand now carries 50 different tones, and led to something which is now known as the ‘Fenty Effect’ - a standard within the industry for credible make up lines to carry a minimum of 40 shades.

It something that a short while ago however, was not imaginable in the wider fashion and beauty industries. “The only black models I remember growing up were Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks,” says Brittainy Lynn, founder of The Dope Cactus an agency which specialises in diverse branding and social media management. “However, thankfully, now there are many more,” Lynn says. Indeed, this January saw 39 black models take to the catwalk at the Valentino Spring/Summer 2019 Couture show in Paris. Naomi Campbell explained in her YouTube series Being Naomi, how powerful the moment was for her: “it was more than a fashion show to me. I cried because I was so overwhelmed and happy. When I looked up and saw the girls above me, it just seemed like yes - these almost 33 years in the industry, it has been worth it to speak up.” Moverover, it’s a revolution which seems to now be impacting other industries. Earlier this year the Business of Fashion reported that the ‘Fenty Effect’ had arrived in skincare industry too, with a slew of brands now aiming to cater for diverse types of skin.


The Instagram revolution

I feel like one of the big changes has been social media,” explains Dee Mohamud, a YouTuber and content creator based in Dubai. “It has helped brands understand consumers better and create products that they actually want and need rather than producing products that they want to sell and forcing them down consumers throats,”she tells L’Officiel Arabia. I started my blog six years ago and I was never contacted to participate in beauty campaigns up until a year and half ago when MAC reached out to me to shoot with them. I remember going through big beauty brands on social media and noticing that they barely included black women in this region. I also remember anytime I would receive a press package from beauty brands the makeup wouldn’t match as the foundation colours were always too light, or the lipstick and eyeshadows were too bright for my complexion. It was extremely frustrating.”

For some of the biggest brands in the industry, e-commerce, the digital community and social media has increased the reach and accountability for their campaigns. “Brands are becoming more aware that their consumers are not of one demographic,” says Mili Unjia, a brand manager of consumer beauty at Coty. “We truly live in a global world where it is easy to be connected to a campaign being executed in Paris [even when you’re in] the Middle East for example and so it’s important for brands to ensure they are showcasing a balance of models who are relatable as well as aspirational.”


"I remember going through big beauty brands on social media and noticing that they barely included black women."

The rise in cultural appropriation

I think social media is a double-edged sword in the beauty world,” explains beauty journalist Stacey Siebritz. “It can be a very supportive and fun community, and I’ve connected with people all over the world who share my passion. However, there are still some significant issues, in part exacerbated by social media. It can promote a very unnatural and unrealistic ideal of beauty, through airbrushing and the fact that the ultra-artificial look is pedalled as the ideal,” Siebritz continues.

As diverse beauty has become popular on social media platforms, the online community has also seen the rise of a phenomenon known as “blackfishing”, a term used describe white women using makeup and hair products to make themselves appear as though they are of a darker ethnicity in order to gain popularity on platforms such as Instagram, which Siebritz describes as “basically akin to blackface”.

“Cultural appropriation is a lot to do with ignorance and privilege. So much of WOC’s contribution to the beauty world has been ignored or attributed to white women in a position of privilege. t’s not just individuals who are guilty of this, but beauty culture at large. Larger curves, big lips, darker skin tones – it sometimes feels like these are most valued on privileged white women such as the Kardashians. Kylie Jenner has built an entire empire on lips that have been surgically enhanced to look like black women’s lips. They’re enjoying the reaction to these physical attributes but none of the discrimination that comes from actually being a POC,” Siebritz explains.

Using makeup to darken someone’s skin colour to demonstrate a look as opposed to just actually finding someone with darker skin has never made sense to me,” adds Lynn. “Or teasing someone’s hair as opposed to finding a model with actual curly hair. WOC are tired of fighting to be seen by these mainstream popular brands and have started creating a lane for themselves. Which was probably the best thing they could do. If they won’t give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair,” says Lynn.


The future of beauty

There are definitely other areas where the industry still needs to expand, notes Lynn “I pray on top of seeing more WOC, that we see more plus size men and women, differently abled people, and all other forms of diversity too. These brands are in for a rude awakening if they don’t begin to embrace all the different people and lifestyles there are in the world.” Indeed, one of the concerns many have for the future of the industry is for complacency to set in. “I think there’s often this temptation to achieve diversity to a certain level and then be like, ‘cool, yep, all done,’” explains  Siebritz. “But, like all forms of discrimination, it’s always going to be an ongoing battle. But the good news is, diversity in the beauty industry is better than it’s ever been. We just need to keep the momentum going.” 

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