Makeup has, throughout the ages, been an important part of the identity of womanhood. It has carried both positive and negative meanings. Currently, we are in what is referred to as the “fourth wave” of feminism. It’s feminism that often focuses on the idea that there is no correct way to be a woman. Women who like to do stereotypically “womanly” things are just as valid as women who do not. In this wave of feminism, makeup is often seen as a way to express yourself and that it should be done by all people who enjoy it. It’s an artistic skill that should be utilized by people of all genders. Everything from hair to nail polish to face makeup is now treated as an art form to be enjoyed by all. Sadly, the reality is that white people have it easier when it comes to beauty.
If you take a walk down the makeup aisle of a drug store, you’ll usually notice a lack of pigmentation in their complexion products. Even when they are darker, they struggle to find the correct color balance, leaving people of color with “ashy” looking skin. This is when a foundation is too gray for the skin and leaves a white-cast on the face. Countless women have spoken online about the dilemma. Andrea Arterberry wrote that the shades made available to her “give [her] that ‘trashy ashy’ look.” Adrienne Gibbs wrote, “it frustrated me to no end that white people had 500 different shades of pink, tan, olive, and beige to choose from while Black people had two shades–neither one deep enough for me.”
Many have argued that it’s simple supply and demand. Black women just don’t buy makeup as much as white women do, so why would companies feel the need to cater to a group that won’t buy it. The reality of the situation is, black women spend 80% more on cosmetics than non-black women do. How could that be if they can’t find their right shades? The reality is, affordable brands don’t have their right shades. Expensive brands do. This forces black people to spend more on complexion makeup than non-black people. As a white woman who loves makeup, I get to spend less on it.
This actually extends to things other than foundation shades. As shown in Stuti Bhattacharya’s article “10 Things Dark-Skinned Girls Should Never Wear, According to Every Auntyji, Ever,” dark women are raised to not wear certain things. From red lipsticks to bold colored clothing, it’s almost as if women of color should be invisible. Think of popular beauty trends right now. Consider highlighting, the act of putting a blinding white shimmer on one’s high points of the face to give it more dimension. Highlighters often run extremely light, and even pink toned. Darker, gold toned highlighters are harder to find and often only available from higher-end brands. Consider even the fact that Korean beauty is so popular right now. While I do believe it is a good sign that people are willing to branch out into trends designed for people of color, black people are for the most part excluded from this trend. Korean beauty brands very rarely ever make darker toned products, and often only focus on products that will work with lighter people.
These same standards apply to textured hair. Textured hair products are more expensive and less prevalent than ones made for straight hair. Recently, a brand that seemed to stick by women of color, Shea Moisture has changed their tune on women of color. While their new controversial ad did include one woman of color, the other women were not. They were white women who were blonde or red heads. While the woman of color spoke about the real racism she faces in having her natural hair, the white women spoke about “not knowing what to do with their hair.” Many saw this as equating the two issues. Many women of color felt betrayed, as they went to Shea Moisture to seek out a company that understood them. But many took this as a sign of new marketing strategies that cared less for women of color, and more for anyone who could convince themselves that “their hair is just different.”
So when people talk about white privilege, it’s not that white people’s lives are perfect and they never have to worry. White privilege is that I as a white person can walk into a drugstore to buy makeup and expect to easily find my color. It is the fact that people of color often have to buy more expensive brands in search of a foundation dark enough to accommodate them. White privilege is the fact that I have never been told by the media that “bold lip colors won’t look good on me.” Or that I should “stick to the purple shades, they work with your skin tone better.” My first lipstick was MAC Heroine, a bright lavender lipstick that I adored. I was applauded for being cool and different. When women of color wear bold lipstick shades, they’re told it looks weird and they should really stick to something that “suits their skin tone.” That means that not only are women of color paid less, expected to pay more for makeup that matches their skin but must adhere to rules about their makeup that someone else made.
Without even looking at statistics we can see the impacts of the beauty industry. Students at St. John’s have also felt this. J’mi Worthen, an Ozanam scholar, biology student, and woman of color said that “even though the media has become more diverse with beauty standards, it’s not an easy transition for me.” She explains that within the media, “the women of color that are displayed are either much darker than I am or way lighter than I am. Yes, black representation is out there, but there’s no one out there that I feel represents me.” This sort of struggle to see herself in the media has left her feeling that “in their eyes, [she’s] not beautiful yet.” Another woman of color, Sydney Erin, also feels frustrated with the beauty industry. An outspoken journalism student and Feminists Unite media manager, she feels as though she has been “left out of the beauty industry very much for a few reasons… there are many high-end brands who have put out lines of makeup and only have one or two shades for POC. Those brands are still praised for having being ‘inclusive’ while leaving out a good percentage of people.” She also feels frustration as a self-described “low-income woman.” She shares the feeling that brands that do cater to people of color, often in a higher price range. She explains that while these companies may exist, she “can’t always sacrifice [her] funds to buy cosmetics if it means [she has] to miss meals.” She even says how difficult it is to talk about as she is characterized as “complaining too much,” and that “[people of color] simply don’t need it or that we should be happy with that we have.”
Let’s be real, it’s not really about makeup, is it? It’s really about the choices you get to make in life. As a white person, I get to make more. I have a higher chance of being able to afford higher education, I am less likely to be stopped by police and I get to wear whatever lipstick shade I want. Maybe the lipstick isn’t the most important thing on that list, but it means something bigger than itself. Until we as a society understand that people of color should be able to make whatever choices they want- and should be provided with just as many options as anyone else- we will live in a society where they are treated as second class citizens. As Billie Jean King once said, “Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing and the cherry on top too.”