by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse
Every now and then, I like to pretend that I’m a girlie girl. I get weekly facials. I get pedicures and manicures (despite the fact that I’m a nail biter). And I have become a devoted follower of the late Kevyn Aucoin, one of the best makeup artists of our time. Yes, I, Wendi Muse, am getting into makeup.
My mother never wore much of it, nor did many women in my family or my group of friends, so I had little experience in the art of face painting for adults. I had to do quite a bit of independent studying, educating myself by reading books, magazines, and websites in order to get a handle on a pretty overwhelming step in daily beautification. Once I had become comfortable with eyes and lips, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. But there was just one more step.
I didn’t need foundation or concealer or powder. My virgin skin was still flawless. I had nothing to hide. I had learned, however, that even women with perfect skin needed a little tone-evening here and there, so I set out to find a nice tinted moisturizer by Clinique, whose 3-step cleansing products I swear by.
I checked the website and noticed that the darkest color they had was “BEIGE.”
I didn’t lose hope, however, as I noticed that right next to beige was a listing for “OLIVE DARK.” There was no option to buy online nor did they show a color to correspond with the product title, so I decided to take a trip to Bloomingdale’s in SoHo to see if this elusive color existed at their in-store counters.
I smiled, walked up to the salesman, and told him of my dilemma.
He looked confused. ‘Sorry, hun,’ he answered,’ but we don’t have that in your color.’ My smile faded. ‘The darkest color we have is beige.’ I wanted to ask ‘Well, why is that? Does Clinique think that women don’t come in any other colors?’ but politely held back. I couldn’t shoot the messenger. The sales rep continued, ‘Considering that this,’ he held up the coveted tinted moisturizer, ‘won’t match your skin tone, try the MAC counter, they may have something that’ll work.’
For a moment, I felt like a kid who had found coal in their stocking on Christmas day.
I wondered, “Why didn’t Clinique carry their tinted moisturizer in my color, or for that matter, our color, the color of women who make up the majority of the world’s population? Lots of people are darker than beige, so what gives? What had we done wrong to deserve being ignored by my most favorite skincare company in the beauty market?
It turns out we had done nothing, nothing at all. That’s probably how Clinique felt as well—that we had done nothing to boost their sales, at least not enough for them to remember us when creating products for their makeup line. The key to good business is all about supply and demand, so maybe the money brown and black women shelled out on cosmetics was not enough to make them notice? But then I thought, that can’t be right.
Cosmetic companies like MAC, Fashion Fair, Bobbi Brown, and the drugstore lines like Iman, CoverGirl (with their Queen Collection), and L’Oreal (with their H.I.P. collection) were proof that there was a market in tailoring products to women with complexions darker than beige. It was more than obvious that we were willing to spend money on beauty products.
Being the optimist that I am, I tried to look on the bright side. I convinced myself that Clinique just felt that women like me with beyond-beige complexions were so beautiful that we didn’t have a need for makeup; that our skin spoke for itself.
Despite my Pollyana-esque mindset, I knew that my presumption was a little off. In actuality, as per usual, women of darker skin tones were simply being ignored, and when the industry remembered us for a moment, our needs were considered to belong to a niche market, calling for a separation of default skincare and makeup products from the ones for “women of color.” I understand the need to highlight a new set of products for a certain population, but at the same time, why aren’t colors that are made for the beyond-beige ladies just a part of the regular lines? Why must we so frequently be singled out, somewhat as a reminder of our phenotypic foreignness in a market that still considers light skin not only the default, but the beauty norm.
Peggy McIntosh had forgotten to include this dilemma in her list on the benefits of white privilege, but maybe in assessing all of her privilege, she simply failed to notice because the challenge had never arisen before. She could walk to any makeup counter or wander into any drug store and find powder, foundation, and, ahem, tinted moisturizer that could match her skin color without thinking twice.
She could also open any fashion or beauty magazine geared simply to “women” and find tips that suited her needs as a white woman. While the magazines clearly state they are for “women,” white womanhood is clearly, once again, the default, which is made all the more evident, ironically, by the creation of magazines like Essence, as an alternative. As one of the few mainstream publications that includes makeup tips for black women of all shades within its pages, Essence, despite its many flaws, at least serves as a reminder on the racks that beauty comes in all colors.
This is, of course, not to say that women’s magazines that don’t explicitly state their target racial demographic have bad intentions. Some are trying . . . kind of. Take Allure magazine. Billing itself as “the beauty expert,” Allure presents the latest trends in health and beauty, with a few fashion tips and pop psychology thrown in that are meant to help you become the best woman you can be, or at least the best consumer you can be until you reach that point. For the most part, I like Allure beacause it helps guide beauty beginners like me who haven’t the foggiest idea about the drastic results a few subtle features on tweezers’ ends or mascara wands can bring about. What I don’t like about Allure, and many women’s beauty magazines, is that while they never say their magazine is meant primarily for a specific group of women, if you can read between the lines, it becomes clear that it is.
To realize this, one need look no further than the makeup and hair sections, which profile the vast diversity among white women and lump women of color into one category: black. Women of East Asian or South American descent are few and far between, and women of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent are non-existent. I can find a zillion makeup tips to match brunette, blonde, and red hair (of course, belonging only to white women, as women of color NEVER have anything but raven hair, nor do they use hair dye). There are also makeup tips for women with fair, medium, or olive skin tones, but these models, once again are all white. In this month’s issue, the “dark” skin section on the makeup tips page features model/actress Gabrielle Union, who is about 3 shades darker than I am and about 3 shades lighter than say, a woman of African or South Asian descent who has very dark skin with bluish undertones. How is there so much distinction between shades of white, but very little distinction between shades of brown?
Ay, and don’t get me started on the hair! Natural hair styles for black women are only seen on women in advertisements (you know, that curly haired, racially ambiguous brown woman look in every stock photo on the planet), and when the magazine does have a hair feature including a black woman, it’s usually a celebrity with hair extensions and weave that the magazine tries to pass off as the real thing. The pictures should come with a caption that reads:
This shampoo may work on the Korean or Indian exported goods sewn in, but don’t kid yourselves, ladies; it certainly won’t do any good for your roots.
I am thrilled to note, however, that their “ask an expert” makeup section features Brit beauty maven Pat McGrath, a runway makeup artist and consultant to the stars who just so happens to be of Jamaican heritage. To have Ms. McGrath telling their readers how to make themselves more beautiful is a good sign that they value the opinions and expertise of a woman of color, but I still wondered why so few of us graced the pages showing off the aftermath of all that beauty-geared hard work.
The sparse presence of models of color on the runway, the absence of women of color in beauty and fashion mags, and the complete lack of regard for the diversity of color in the makeup industry had really gotten to me, and was really discouraging in the infancy of my attempt to beautify, at least in the mainstream sense. But all in all, I learned to get over it, as odd as that sounds, especially coming from me! I decided to stop looking down at the content on magazine pages or department store sales counters, and instead, made a concerted effort to look all around me, to see that beauty, available every day and at every location, did indeed come in my color.