When I heard the news that music superstar Rihanna was going to launch Fenty, an inclusive make-up line, I was excited. A mainstream beauty line that would cater to my needs?
I created group texts with a few of my girlfriends as we waited with anticipation for the new line to arrive on Australian shores. For the first time, I could share the excitement with friends from all races. It was a big deal.
Prior to this, it was very rare to see diverse women fronting beauty campaigns with their faces on magazine covers, on billboards and in commercials.
I remember when Beyoncé or Halle Berry would occasionally feature in the pages of Aussie fashion magazines, only to be met with disappointment once I made my way to the beauty aisle in my local chemist.
Yet again I would find the same limited range of shades that I had grown up with, none of which matched my own skin tone, despite the promises of fashion magazines featuring women of colour.
Eventually, I gave up on ever finding a perfect foundation to match my skin — in this country at least.
Rihanna’s line, featuring 40 shades of foundation, ranging from the palest to the darkest of skin hues, shook up a fashion landscape that rarely took diversity seriously. Even though the cost made it out of reach for many women.
According to reports following the launch of the line, the darker shades were the first to sell out, demonstrating the huge demand for make-up that actually reflected the diversity of the community.
Australian make-up products are way behind the rest of the world
For decades, many women (me included) have felt excluded from the beauty industry because many popular brands failed to cater to a diverse range of skin tones.
I recall my high school trips to the chemist with my friends and feeling like I was missing out on a teenage ritual because I could never find a foundation colour that suited me.
The “darker” tones were limited to just two — “cocoa” and “tan”.
Tan was too light and made me look like a ghost, and I found the cocoa to be too dark on my skin.
I would regularly mix and match different shades hoping to concoct the right shade for my skin tone.
That became too much effort, and I gave up on wearing make-up until my early 20s — when I discovered a niche American brand that catered to the skin tones of African-American women.
Finally, I felt acknowledged.
Since then, I mostly purchase my make-up overseas because I’m more likely to find what’s suitable for me.
One of the first stops I make when I get off the plane is to the nearest beauty counter. I seek out the lines with shades that cater to my skin tone, and ask for advice from make-up artists that understand darker skin and what works best for it.
It’s easy to argue that make-up is frivolous, but for many women, make-up can be a source of confidence and self-esteem. The choice to cover up perceived flaws should be available to every woman — regardless of her skin tone or socio-economic background.
The lack of variety means some women are denied the opportunity to opt for a ‘natural’ or ‘glamourous’ make-up look because brands have decided for them.
Why should some groups be able to make this choice and not others?
Inclusive make-up isn’t just about having different colours for skin tones. It’s also about understanding the different undertones skin can have, which makes a difference to how a foundation, for example, can look.
Speaking to Allure, make-up artist Lauren Gott said the undertone is the subtle hue underneath the surface of the skin. It can be cool, warm or neutral.
A better understanding of undertone explains why, as a teenager, the “tan” make-up I tried made me look ghostly — it had a neutral undertone and wasn’t reflecting my warm undertones.
There’s still a financial barrier to looking good
In recent years, the high-end beauty brands like MAC, Lancome and others have introduced different shades to their lines, and used diverse models in their promotional images. Some of these are also available in Australia, but like Rihanna’s line, these products are not cheap.
But more than offering variety, Fenty also forced the beauty industry to sit up and take notice of consumers they’d overlooked.
Since then, more affordable brands like L’Oreal and Revlon have introduced more colours that cater to more skin tones, though there are still only a few darker hues readily available.
The beauty industry, like every other industry, must do better to properly reflect contemporary Australia.
Women shouldn’t have to seek out expensive and niche brands that speak exclusively to them, while the larger, more popular, more accessible brands continue to overlook their needs.
Make-up might seem like a frivolous way to make the case for representation, but for many women that can’t partake in one of the most feminine of rituals, it does matter.
Women of colour are as beauty obsessed as our white sisters, and yet for the longest time, we’ve been largely ignored by the multi-billion-dollar industry.
The industry has finally started to take notice, but whether the motivations are driven by profits alone is yet to be determined.
For those of us who have felt excluded for so long, the smallest of acknowledgments can still go a long way.