One shade does not fit all: Beauty industry underrepresents people of color

in Opinion by

Strolling through the cosmetics aisle at the drugstore, I notice an abundance of light-toned makeup products with names as similar as the shades themselves (try to discern the difference between “ivory” and “classic ivory” or “beige” and “nude beige” foundations). The problem lies not in the abundance of light to medium shades, however, but in the virtual absence of dark shades.

While makeup might seem like a trivial matter, the larger issue at hand — representation for people of all skin tones — matters. Sudanese model Nykhor Paul captured the problem with the beauty industry in an Instagram post, which she captioned: “Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the white girls don’t have to do anything but show up?”

Some claim that the beauty industry is not at all at fault: the shades stores stock depend on what companies perceive will sell. According to Andrea Arterbery, who contacted cosmetics companies to determine their rationales for skimping on darker shades, “If a retailer believes these customers don’t exist in their region, they’re less likely to allocate shelf space for darker foundations.”

In a rapidly-diversifying world, there is simply no excuse for makeup companies that produce 40 similar shades of light foundation to continue producing only one or two shades darker than tan.

The lack of commitment to the beauty needs of people of color is even more evident outside of the United States. According to the United Kingdom Mintel Report, “The market for black or Asian beauty products in the UK remains a niche one, valued at… just 2 percent of the total market for women’s haircare, skincare and makeup, well below their percentage of the population.”

It is time that the beauty industry stops turning a blind eye to people of color and pretending that all dark skin tones are the same. We cannot act as if two or three dark makeup shades will suit the complexion of every person of color, for dark skin is just as beautifully diverse as lighter skin.

Fortunately, some makeup companies are making progress: Chanel, MAC and Clinique are expanding their foundation shades (and not just the lighter shades). L’Oréal’s “Women of Color Lab,” under the management of Balanda Atis, who is African-American and familiar with underrepresentation in the beauty industry, is researching formulas and ingredients that work well on a myriad of darker skin tones.

“We traveled across the country to measure women’s skin tones and collected data, which represented skin tones from 57 countries of origin,” Atis said.

Despite this progress, mainstream cosmetics companies still have a long way to go in showing a commitment to representation and inclusiveness. No young girl should feel less than beautiful because she does not see models with her skin tone in makeup advertisements. No one should feel inadequate because cosmetics companies fail to recognize the diverse world we live in. Companies who claim that beauty comes in all shapes, forms and shades need to reflect this truth in the products they place on the shelf.


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