In recent years, awareness of the term “inclusive” has skyrocketed in the mainstream arena. It’s become second nature to say and to expect the claim of being “inclusive,” but what does inclusion really mean? BIPOC are well-aware of all of the ways the beauty industry comes up short in creating space and safety for us. Whether we want to work in the industry, shop at retailers, or try new brands, it isn’t always guaranteed that we are welcome and, for many, this has become a lifelong fact that is ingrained in lived experience. Cosmetics brands tend to be hit or miss in their commitment to providing an extensive range of products that offer all of the shades, undertones, and coverage required for Black and brown skin but, beyond shade selection, how is the beauty industry measuring up when it comes to being inclusive? Furthermore, what does inclusion mean at its core and why is the focus primarily on shade selection when people of color deserve and require so much more?
I caught a glimpse of the transformation in a mirror — and I was a ghost. An ashy, gray ghost with bright pink cheeks and blue eyeshadow and an assortment of other colors that didn’t flow or work for my complexion.
When I reflect on my relationship with inclusion and being at odds with the beauty industry, an early experience as a makeup-obsessed pre-teen comes to mind. I remember anxiously gathering all of my courage to ask for a complimentary makeover at a high-end makeup counter and it turned out to be a horrendous and telling experience. The salesperson awkwardly approached my skin not knowing what to do, and was visibly annoyed and stressed that she was put in that position. When it was over, I left the counter deflated and disappointed, knowing that the results couldn’t be good. I caught a glimpse of the transformation in a mirror — and I was a ghost. An ashy, gray ghost with bright pink cheeks and blue eyeshadow and an assortment of other colors that didn’t flow or work for my complexion. That was my first clear understanding that “high-end” equated to “not inclusive,” aka “not for me.” From the tone and disposition of the salesperson to the lack of options for my skin tone, my extravagant makeover expectations were shattered. In the years following, I searched high and low for makeup options that worked for my skin and, aside from the occasional appearance of a Black-owned cosmetics line, I was out of luck.
More accommodating brands have popped up over the years, making my treacherous early experience not quite as common. But this is no consolation, since people of color still have to dig for options and conduct extensive research in hopes of having a positive experience. To this day, when individuals discuss or think of inclusion, their mind instantly goes to shade selection and makeup products because, if we’re talking about people of color, we must be talking about skin tone, right? The false and shortsighted assumption that our skin tone is the only thing that needs to be accommodated is one of the primary ways the beauty industry holds us back. Our needs are vast and varied and, when it comes to the beauty industry, inclusion needs to be redefined and expanded far beyond the current definition and common understanding of what it is.
Admittedly, it’s been a breath of fresh air to finally scroll through Instagram and see people who look like me or to turn on the TV and see an Indian girl in an ad. I’ve never witnessed these things in my entire life, and the feelings surrounding this can be complex. Initially, celebratory while even experiencing a sense of pride, but then comes the question, “Yeah, but does the brand really believe in this?”
So, what is inclusion then? At its core, inclusion is removing the oppressive frameworks that the beauty industry was built upon in the first place. Inclusion is acknowledging that the vast majority of the beauty industry sits on a foundation of white, generational wealth and values, including a preference for promoting and supporting Eurocentric standards of beauty. Inclusion is an understanding that people of color have to work ten times harder to attain positions of power where their expertise will be respected and regarded. Inclusion is being willing to face these realities, while deconstructing them head-on, and involves rebuilding the entire ideological structure and belief system of what the current beauty industry prides itself on. Inclusion is accepting that the beauty industry didn’t originate with the creation of corporations that produce and distribute beauty products; it started with knowledge, ingredients, and formulations that were formed in Black and brown communities centuries ago and evolved into what is considered to be modern today. Inclusion is humbly admitting and accepting these facts and realizing that, ironically, the industry is alienating and excluding the very people who are descendants of that knowledge and those lineages in the first place. These points just touch the surface of the key acknowledgements that are required to foster inclusion, and it’s where the industry and brands need to start if they’re interested in making a real commitment to change.
The most recent response to the outcry for a serious move towards inclusion, one that goes beyond shade selection, has been an increase in the visibility of Black and brown faces in advertisements and on social media feeds. Admittedly, it’s been a breath of fresh air to finally scroll through Instagram and see people who look like me or to turn on the TV and see an Indian girl in an ad. I’ve never witnessed these things in my entire life, and the feelings surrounding this can be complex. Initially, celebratory while even experiencing a sense of pride, but then comes the question, “Yeah, but does the brand really believe in this?” And oftentimes, with a small amount of research, the answer ends up being a disappointing, “No.” I see this in the presence of an occasional Black face on an IG feed to meet an inclusivity quota and, to make matters worse, that sometimes only appears when there’s been a prominent, newsworthy tragedy involving a person of color. It’s become common to strategically use BIPOC representation as a public relations safeguard to ensure a brand won’t be labeled as “not an ally” when everyone’s watching.
Too established to admit contributing to and enforcing racism, but when an industry is valued at $511 billion globally, there is no denying that its influence and power are immense and that it has the resources to change.
These aren’t always the motivations, but it’s turned into something to be acutely aware of in order to weed out brands that aren’t genuinely invested in people of color. With that said, more representation in imagery is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, though it doesn’t necessarily reflect an authentic commitment to inclusion which, in essence, is targeting systemic racism at its core. It’s not much more complicated than that. Inclusion is an active commitment to anti-racism; anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-POC racism has been embedded in the Western and modern beauty industry from day one.
Some may argue that the beauty industry is much too frivolous and surface to be expected to engage in this type of responsibility. Too established to admit contributing to and enforcing racism, but when an industry is valued at $511 billion globally, there is no denying that its influence and power are immense and that it has the resources to change. Demanding this level of awareness and transformation in the beauty industry can seem like asking for a lot, but all that’s missing is the intention to shift structures in real and tangible ways. Overall, it’s clear that attention is not being directed to benefit BIPOC in all of the deep and meaningful ways possible, and what’s being done is not enough.
Alongside the hesitancy of traditional beauty industry players to fully commit to inclusion has been an exponential growth of independent, conscious, and BIPOC-owned brands who are entirely devoted to redefining the beauty industry and what it means to be a part of it. They are setting tremendous new baselines that are shifting what is considered acceptable by both big and small companies and also what people are looking for when seeking out beauty products and experiences. Change is occurring from the ground up and new leaders are abandoning exclusionary practices for good. Now, an accurate definition of inclusion is taking form and is rooted in BIPOC embodying what they truly need and desire in the beauty space while being unapologetic about it. It’s through their accomplishment, joy and example, and the support of consumers who want to see change, that the beauty industry will transform — both by will and out of necessity.