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Edit: This was written in February 2018. It is the original, unedited version so some references will be out of date, but I thought it was important to share it exactly as I wrote it back then.
This is a topic I have wanted to write about for quite some time now because it has been on my mind for a good couple of years. Thanks to social media we now see more of brands than ever before and that has proven to be both positive and negative. Since becoming a blogger I have become increasingly aware of the pervasive lack of inclusion in the skincare world and I feel it’s time to share my thoughts and experiences. This is not an easy subject to discuss, but I think it is an important one considering the current racial climate we are living in.
Growing up I naively never considered skincare in the same way I did makeup. Very early on I accepted that most makeup brands didn’t want me as a customer due to their lack of shade range (which is still happening today), but skincare felt different. While I might not have been able to shop for foundation along with my group of friends, we could all buy and share the same skincare products because let’s face it, as teens everyone in our group was pretty greasy, a little spotty and in need of a “proper” cleanse, regardless of race. We all used the same face masks and happily dipped our fingers in my mum’s very expensive pot of moisturiser (sorry mum!) because skincare was just about skin type rather than skin colour back then.
Fast forward a few years and I don’t feel quite the same about skincare at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I still love testing new products and still get excited about innovative ingredients, but I can’t help but feel disappointed in the lack of representation. A lot of it has to do with current events (hello, shithole countries and DACA), which have made it hard for me to support brands that don’t seem to care about working with people of colour. Diversity and inclusion matter, now more than ever, yet I am still seeing so many brands perpetuate and reflect racially negative societal “norms” where Black and brown people are treated as second class citizens.
Of course, the beauty industry as a whole has had a long standing and well documented problematic relationship when it comes to women of colour. From refusing to cater to darker skin tones and denigrating it as undesirable, to then co-opting the practices of ethnic cultures and repackaging it as new, cool and trendy without giving credit (I see you, green beauty), all the while trying to impose Eurocentric ideals through products and campaigns that promote light/white/fair as the epitome of true beauty. It has simultaneously oppressed and exploited Black and brown women for years, but for this discussion I want to focus on the modern ways this is now happening.
Much of the current issue is as a result of the digital, social media and PR/“influencer” led world we now live in. Suddenly, the curtain has been pulled back on what brands are up to and I have found that some seem to have little or no diversity at the executive level or even on staff and many don’t even bother to feature people of colour in their campaigns, whether it’s a magazine ad or a simple social media post.
In terms of PR companies and bloggers/influencers it’s more of the same thing. From what I have seen and in my limited experience as an amateur blogger, the vast majority of PR and Marketing teams are populated by white women in their mid-twenties to early-thirties (don’t get me started on how this affects ageism in the industry). There is very little diversity in these roles and as a result these women (whether unintentionally/unconsciously or not) predominately favour influencers like themselves to send packages to, invite to events, take on trips and most importantly, work with on a paid basis.
The problem with this is the lack of economic opportunity it creates for Black and brown women in the industry. The more the brands and PR agencies send packages to bloggers who look like them the more they will receive exposure creating a mutually positive business relationship, and the more they invite these bloggers to events and on trips the more intimate they become creating personal relationships that ultimately influence who they choose to work with again and again. Incidentally, a WOC PR agent told me that she felt unable to work with too many minority bloggers for fear of being accused of bias, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern at all on the other end of the scale.
For bigger influencers I have learned that things are a lot worse, especially in the UK. I have seen countless pictures on social media of trips or events where every single influencer is a white girl who looks pretty indistinguishable to the others in the group or ones where there are a token two or three (but usually one) Black or Indian girls, so the demographic looks like a human version of a makeup brand’s bad shade range with one “dark” tone thrown in as an afterthought. This is discrimination and tokenism, again whether intentional or not and sends a clear message to consumers of colour about the type of people certain brands value. Another interesting point is the number of times I have heard white bloggers refer to the people on the trips as “a great/good group of girls”. This sends a clear message about which race is favoured.
I have observed this happening not only through social media, but also in real life. I’m not often invited to PR events and I think I have been to a total of four or five, partly because they usually happen in the middle of the day when I am working and partly because I find them very uncomfortable/intimidating. At one, as I walked in to a big beautiful ballroom a sea of white faces turned to look at me and I froze thinking I had entered the wrong room and quickly left only to find out that was exactly where I was supposed to be. At another, I sat at a table as the only Black/brown person (where everyone also knew each other) and when the founder talked about sun exposure and darker skin tones everyone turned to (not so subtly) look at me. After this I stopped going, even if I was available. I just didn’t feel very welcome and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this.
Disappointingly, this issue doesn’t just affect “mainstream” skincare. I have seen the same practices in the green beauty community where brands will happily use ingredients native to India like turmeric in their products, rave about the health benefits of ghee, champion yoga and meditation, quote Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., but rarely (if ever) feature a person of colour on their page or collaborate with bloggers who have skin tones darker than the current trend of “ethnically ambiguous” tan. This is a form of cultural appropriation that has become extremely routine in beauty and fashion, but that does not make it any less unacceptable. And just for the record, Black and Brown skin can be sensitive too and lots of us are very interested in natural skincare.
For the most part, I do not believe this is being done maliciously, but more as a result of a vicious and insidious cycle of racial bias/prejudice that happens in many industries. It’s how the spectacularly clueless Pepsi and H&M ads happened or the Dove and Nivea campaigns (both repeat offenders) extolling whiteness as “pure” or “clean”. If everyone working for the brand, press or PR teams are white, who’s going to question the sensitivity of an ad or be concerned that the invitation list isn’t inclusive, or if their products are being shared with a diverse audience?
Diversity in the skincare world is important for many reasons, one of the biggest being that Black and brown skin can sometimes react differently to certain products and ingredients, especially when we’re talking about actives like acids and retinols. Redness isn’t the same issue for us and our acne scars are usually dark brown and even black, not red/purple and take a lot longer to get rid of, as well as being near impossible to cover up. Not only that, words like “bright” and “translucent” don’t mean the same thing to us and achieving an even skin tone is much harder due to the spectrum of pigmentation on different areas of our faces. Issues like a sunscreen making our skin look white, grey or purple or an exfoliator causing patchiness is something consumers of colour want to hear about from people who look like them and can truly speak to a products claims on skin like their own.
The industry needs to recognize that Black and brown women are a powerful and influential consumer group. Nielsen (global measurement and data analytics firm) have done multiple reports highlighting the true value of consumers of colour, as well as the role they play in social media product recommendation and it’s big. They buy more, spend more and over-index in most health and beauty categories. If the response to Fenty Beauty is anything to go by and the fact that it is already on track to be a billion dollar company (like Pat McGrath), mainstream brands are missing the point, morally and financially.
The skincare industry has failed women of colour in so many ways and for so long, but it does not have to continue like this. Skincare should be for everyone and it is a great opportunity to connect with those who might be totally different to you in every way possible, but can completely understand what it feels like to get a massive breakout the night before a big event or the joy of multi-masking while binge watching a show on Netflix after a long work week. There is no reason anyone should feel excluded or like an outsider because the only things “dividing” us is skin type and budget (access is another issue, I know).
To be clear, I am writing this to bring awareness to an important issue that needs to change, not for any personal gain. I am fully aware that writing this will get me dropped from many a list, but it’s more important to me to say something. It also goes without saying that not all brands and PR companies have this problem and I have been lucky enough to work with some incredible people in the industry, but that doesn’t change the fact that there needs to be more diversity across the board. It’s inexcusable to continue to ignore the need for representation in the industry and inclusivity is not “positive discrimination” as one ex-Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman shamefully claimed. It is the right thing to do.