Race and the beauty counter: What a greater selection of hues says about culture

Black women are increasingly able to influence the cosmetics market through their purchases. And it’s sending a deeper cultural message than just creating a fresh face.

Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP
Singer Rihanna attends the launch of her beauty brand 'Fenty Beauty by Rihanna' at Duggal Greenhouse on Sept. 7, 2017, in Brooklyn, N.Y. The cruelty-free collection has been selling out since being launched online and in Sephora and Harvey Nichols stores across 17 countries.

When Wanja Ochwada dropped by cosmetic store Sephora recently she encountered a scene she describes as “coming into a sisterhood”: women excitedly trying out a new brand of makeup and offering up their opinions to their friends.

“[There were] maybe 14 or 15 other black women … [saying] ‘Do you think this works with my shade? Could I get away with this concealer...?’ Everyone’s hopping in being kind of like a bossy older sister with each other. It was great,” recalls Ms. Ochwada, who was looking for a foundation in the new Fenty Beauty line to match her dark skin tone.

But the color she wanted was already out of stock. Instead, the communications specialist from the Bronx in New York had to settle for sampling shade 420 while in the store.

Mega pop star Rihanna is the celebrity prowess behind Fenty Beauty. The line, launched in September and marketed as “Beauty for all,” features a foundation that comes in 40 different shades ranging from very light to very dark. It sold out almost immediately.

In Ochwada’s experience, options at the makeup counter have been limited. “You have to make do with what you got, basically,” she says.

Many women of color tell stories of having to blend multiple products until they get the right match for their skin tone – or just going without makeup at all. But recent trends, such as the sellout success of Fenty Beauty products, suggest that homemade remedies may soon become a thing of the past.

Traditionally, cosmetics producers have focused mainly on creating products for white women who, until recently, made up a majority of their market.

“Because we live in a society where white and/or light-skin is still considered the norm (or at least is associated with power, privilege, and positions of authority), the mainstream beauty industry has focused primarily on products for women who fit this category,” writes Shauna MacDonald, director of programming for the gender and women’s studies program at Villanova University in Villanova, Penn., in an email.

Deeper cultural message

But those norms are poised to change. Racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States are outpacing whites, with babies of color now outnumbering non-Hispanic white babies, according to the 2016 US Census. Further, women of color, specifically black women, make up a majority of black spending power in the US. Black Americans spend approximately $1.3 trillion today, and that number is expected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021, according to a 2017 Nielsen report.

In short: Black women are increasingly able to influence the cosmetics market through their purchases. And it’s sending a deeper cultural message than just creating a fresh face.

“I think we also have a tendency to – when we are talking about things like makeup – to really trivialize it,” says Professor MacDonald, an associate professor of communication, in a phone interview. “[B]ut it really says a whole lot about who we value, what we value, what we consider to be beautiful, and then that’s linked to whose lives do we value….”

The trend toward more inclusive beauty products isn’t exactly new – celebrities facing the challenge of finding makeup for their skin tone have helped to expand or create lines in order to fill in the color gaps within the cosmetics industry over the past several decades at least. In 1994, supermodel Iman, noting the lack of makeup options available, created Iman Cosmetics, marketed specifically to women of color with the tagline, “Beauty for your skin tone.”

Recognizing a growing market as ethnic demographics expand, established brands have increasingly worked to partner with celebrities of color. Neutrogena began to offer darker shades of foundation and lip stick after it signed Kerry Washington, the star of TV show “Scandal,” as a creative consultant and brand ambassador. Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award in 2013 for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” was named a Lancôme ambassador in 2014, the first black woman to be the face of the company.

In a recent interview with the Times of London Ms. Nyong’o said she sees expanding product lines as a sign of progress.

"Even during my time with Lancôme, they have expanded their range of skin tones," Nyong’o said. "I remember a time in my teens when it was impossible to find my color of foundation. When I began going on red carpets, we used to have to mix different colours to get the right one for my tone. I don't have to do that any more...."

Consumers weigh in 

In the world of social media, where word travels faster than gossip in a beauty salon, consumers offer their marks of approval of products like Fenty Beauty, as manufacturers watch reactions closely.

“[T]he online word of mouth, the reviews and feedback has helped consumers drastically, and then it helps companies direct feedback about their products so they can then adapt, adjust, create new lines,” says Sally Baalbaki, an associate professor of marketing at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Social media also has the power to fell misdirected efforts. Dove recently posted a three-second video on Facebook showing a black woman in a nude shirt take off her shirt to reveal a white woman in a beige shirt who then takes off her shirt to reveal an Asian woman in a nude shirt. Frames of the first two women were posted on the internet, drawing comparisons between Dove and old soap commercials that advertised the power to wash the “blackness” off of dark skin.

Responding to the social media backlash, Dove deleted the clip and posted an apology on Facebook, stating that they “missed the mark.”

“In some ways consumers are in a position to demand a diversity of images that they weren’t able to demand [before], and they’re also able to point out when certain messages fail,” says Afshan Jafar, an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College in New London, but notes that more change will come more quickly when women of color are represented in the top levels of cosmetics companies.

While some consumers think Rihanna’s launch comes at a timely moment in the current dialogue on race in the US, others feel the issue of inclusivity in the beauty aisle comes down to profit margins.

“[I]f the line does extremely well for Rihanna, I think you’ll see more companies … diving in,” says Kimberly Norwood, a professor of law and African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s not really about inclusion…. It seems to me that the driver here is, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a lot of money to be made here. Let’s hop on it.’ ”

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