My first time walking into a Black beauty supply store was an enlightening experience. I looked around and was amazed at the possibility that a store could be so devoted to the specific needs of Black communities. There were endless aisles of oils, butters, relaxers, styling tools, wigs, extensions, and lashes, and, for someone who had worked in the beauty industry for a long time, it was euphoria. Despite it not being a space that was technically made for me, it showed just how misguided “mainstream” retailers are when it comes to inclusivity and accommodating the needs of all people of color. It was possible. All of the options were there – and more! So, why aren’t they present in the common spaces where everyone goes to shop? It had my mind reeling and, the more I thought about it, the angrier I became.
As someone of Indian and Trinidadian descent, my cultural beauty spaces are somewhat similar, but I’ve never encountered a large retail space specifically devoted to my needs. Aside from beauty salons and unofficial, but not-so-secret, hair removal spas in Indian homes, the oils, powders, and creams made for someone like me exist in that one dedicated aisle in the Indian or Caribbean grocery store. The amla oil for hair growth, sandalwood powder masks, kajal for eyeliner, and an endless selection of cocoa butter and coconut oil intended for a variety of uses. Recollecting these culturally-specific spaces brings back memories of where I first found these small selections of products that are strongly associated with my ancestry and what my brown body needs. My thick, black hair and tough, yet sensitive, brown skin have preferences that are different from what the typical product at an average American drugstore offers. So why can’t I find this selection of culturally and body-appropriate options there?
It’s interesting because it’s not a question I had asked myself growing up. Just like most things when it comes to being a person of color, I viewed my identity as divided. I would accommodate my Indian and Caribbean interests and needs in these cultural grocery stores and the privacy of my own or relatives’ homes and anything that could be defined as part of the expected, American, or so-called “mainstream” culture, I would pursue in common spaces like the local Walgreens. I accepted this as “the way things are” for a significant portion of my life, but eventually, I hit a wall. I had become aware of this inner division, and seeking out different parts of myself in different spaces no longer felt right.
Novelty and otherness are so blatantly assigned to the practices and needs of people of color, and the non-presence or less than ideal placement of the beauty products that we turn to are clear examples of this.
Beauty segregation is the experience of being forced to pursue the integral resources and experiences that make us who we are in environments that are hidden, pushed to the side, or labeled as “other.” That’s not to say that our cultural spaces shouldn’t exist or be supported – because they most definitely should – but it is a problem not to have the opportunity or permission to show up as our fullest selves in all beauty spaces. It’s the row of tightly-packed relaxers collecting dust on the bottom shelf at the back end of a poorly lit aisle. It’s the small selection of Ayurvedic hair products, offensively referred to as “ethnic” and not integrated with the other options that are considered to be "normal." Novelty and otherness are so blatantly assigned to the practices and needs of people of color, and the non-presence or less than ideal placement of the beauty products that we turn to are clear examples of this.
I attribute much of this discrimination to the concept of minorities: the idea that there are groups that aren’t considered to be part of mainstream culture and therefore shouldn’t be prioritized or accommodated. The thing is, in many cases, this isn’t a justifiable perspective in the slightest. Communities with large populations of a variety of Black and brown cultures are often still forced to seek out what they need in their own spaces and don’t have the option of conveniently being included. Whereas other folks can get anything they need that is suited to their bodies and interests. And if money is the reason, people of color spend a significant amount in the beauty space, sometimes even exceeding that of the white “majority,” so how does excluding our needs make sense?
Newer brands that have the right aesthetic and following are being embraced, and selection is slowly becoming diversified…but all of the beauty products and experiences that we were raised with still aren’t at the forefront.
Integrated, mainstream beauty spaces are something that’s never been seen before and are only now appearing in fragments. In this moment of focus on diversity and inclusion, “BIPOC-owned” endcaps at large retailers are becoming a regular occurrence. This gesture is the retail equivalent of airtimemade in an effort to create lasting change and bypass what could be considered to be a trend. Newer brands that have the right aesthetic and following are being embraced, and selection is slowly becoming diversified. In the midst of these changes that have yet to be proven as lasting, there are feelings of celebration that are also tinged with skepticism. There are occasional wins, but all of the beauty products and experiences that we were raised with still aren’t at the forefront. They continue to be relegated to beauty supply stores, salons, and family homes while being given the permanent designation of “cultural,” as in not belonging in communal retail spaces.
In a sense – when it comes to beauty and particularly the needs of women of color – the identity divide continues. We know where to go for bright, new, and up-and-coming products, and we return to tried-and-true spaces for comfort and access to what our traditions provide. Beauty segregation remains a mainstay of the BIPOC experience, for better or for worse, even in the middle of a societal transformation that demands accessibility and inclusion. We’re in an interesting position of adapting to how the beauty industry relates to people of color and how they are or aren’t choosing to be conscious of our needs but, ultimately, it’s up to us to decide which of those spaces we support and what will make us feel our best. It’s possible that, one day, walking into a mainstream retailer will mean finding a full array of beauty products that cater to our needs, from the butters to the oils and powders that are unique to our ancestral experience, skin, and hair to the latest BIPOC-owned brands that are firmly planted in the space and who we’re happy to support. Until then, we’ll continue to bridge the gap in our own customized way, while ideally finding experiences and products in spaces that respect and elevate us the most.
I use terms such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), POC (people of color), and WOC (women of color) to refer to a general experience under those umbrellas, but, by no means, wish to imply that BIPOC are a monolith. There are some generalizations in this piece for the sake of expressing summarized ideas, but acknowledging that there are distinct differences in communities and individual experiences is important.
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