The Faces, Bodies, & Genders We See (and Don’t See)
The beauty industry has a representation issue. For far too long, the standard of beauty we've been sold is one of whiteness, youth and straight cisgendered femininity. We spoke with some of our colleagues in the green beauty industry who agree. It’s time to change the standard.
THE LEGACY OF COLONIALISM AND PATRIARCHY IN THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY
Before we dive into representation, we need to take a look at the history of beauty standards. Why do we have the narrow definition that we currently have?
Historically, when European settlers colonized a "new" land, their purpose was to exploit that land for profit. That meant one thing: violence toward the people who already lived there. In order to dehumanize the people and cultures they were destroying, European colonizers sold whiteness as "superior" to darkness and demonized native cultures, customs and physical features.
When we take this into consideration, it is easy to see that Eurocentric definitions of beauty are rooted in racism and violence. Now, multiple generations later, these standards have been passed down through culture and upheld by institutions, despite the fact that our society is more diverse than ever.
Laura Kraber from Fluide notes that beauty has a patriarchal legacy, as well: “For so long, makeup has been perceived as an instrument of an outdated and patriarchal beauty ideal—women wore makeup to improve themselves, to make themselves acceptable to a standard of (often white, cis-) female beauty that few could achieve.”
THE MYTH OF CONSUMER DEMAND
It's not as if the beauty industry can claim to have no market for products not centered around the traditional European standards. The market for gender neutral beauty products has been on the rise in recent years. In 2009, Women’s Wear Daily reported that “African-American women shell out 80% more money on cosmetics and twice as much on skincare products than the general market.” And when Rihanna launched her Fenty Beauty collection in 2017, six of the deepest foundation shades were among the first to sell out.
For Shontay Lundy, founder of Black Girl Sunscreen, the lack of representation in the beauty industry was an opportunity. Lundy decided to start the business after questioning why people who looked like her were left out of the mainstream. “I took an existing worldwide product and catered it to a completely ignored market—people of color. We are filling a major gap in the sun care industry to make sure everyone is comfortable being moisturized and protected in their own skin.” Since starting the brand in 2016, Black Girl Sunscreen has grown a following of nearly 40k on Instagram, and is sold at Target nationwide.
Even in the world of green beauty, the brands who are founded by or feature folks of different ages, skin tones and gender identities are few and far between. As Krystal Vaquerano from Shea Brand puts it, “The natural beauty space is still portraying and catering to that white cis-gender customer. Diverse people are interested in natural and clean products, but they are often forgotten.”
“I don’t believe conventional beauty companies should be let off the hook, but if the green beauty industry were to live up to its renegade roots, then I would say that it should take more responsibility to be representative and inclusive. A lot of green beauty brands are small compared to conventional ones, so change can happen more quickly. As an indie brand, I feel we have a responsibility for leading the charge.” –Jeff Kurosaki, co-founder Meow Meow Tweet
HOW DOES LACK OF REPRESENTATION IN BEAUTY CAUSE HARM?
Rachel Winard of Soapwalla tells us “I spent years feeling unwelcome in department stores, skincare boutiques, and in health/wellness spaces” as a queer woman. “Lesbians and queer women often suffer from invisibility bias,” Winard explains, saying “invisibility bias means that a group is completely or relatively excluded from representation/conversation/inclusion. I have faced this sort of silent exclusion most of my life, and remember getting really stressed out as a child over the ‘women’s’ vs ‘men's’ personal care products.”
Meow Meow Tweet co-founder Jeff Kurosaki also describes a personal struggle with this gender binary in beauty, saying “when I look at the beauty industry, I see it generally represented by thin, white, able-bodied, cis-women. Sure, there’s the token person of color that brands will include, but they’ll check all of the boxes for society’s narrow standards of beauty. In an industry that reinforces a strict gender binary, the same issues occur with products that are targeted for ‘men.’ Over the past year, I’ve been feeling more and more disconnected from my assigned gender and just personally struggling with it. I’ve been trying to embrace identifying as non-binary more in my life.”
Michele Ranavat of Ranavat Botanics grew up as a first generation Indian woman in a small suburb of Wisconsin. Of her experience with traditional beauty, she says “I definitely felt that Indian beauty was not a part of the conversation. The idea of putting oil in your hair or turmeric on your face was quickly regarded as ‘strange’.”
Krystal Vaquerano also says that lack of representation has greatly affected her, consciously and subconsciously. She remembers feeling left out of magazines, commercials, and even the telenovelas that her Latino parents watched. “The telenovela stars were all ‘white passing’ latinos. For years, that affected my own view of myself. I was not fair skinned, did not have small features, and didn’t have the light eyes that were portrayed as ‘beautiful.’ That did result in me not valuing my own beauty—my caramel, acne-prone skin, big features and black eyes.”
Many people of color can probably relate to this experience, having been shown by the industry that the closer your features are to those of a white person’s, the more beautiful you are. This narrative is responsible for more than shame, stigma and a feeling of being left out—it causes real, physical harm as well.
Many of the beauty products marketed towards Black, Latina and Asian women around the world are marked as “whitening” or “bleaching.” These lightening products often contain highly toxic ingredients that can cause health problems ranging from skin irritation to cancer. Yet they still comprise a multimillion-dollar industry.
Haircare targeted toward Black women is another way that the beauty industry makes money off of shame and narrow standards. While a growing number of Black women are choosing to wear their hair naturally, there are still millions who regularly apply relaxants or chemical treatments to their hair. Not only do these treatments take up precious time and resources, the Environmental Working Group has also linked them to “hormone disruption, reproductive damage and cancer."
REPRESENTATION IN PRACTICE
Seeing the depth of this issue may feel overwhelming at first, but we are bolstered by knowing there are folks in this fight who have already begun the work of dismantling one-note beauty standards.
“The skincare industry has gotten much better in the last few years about highlighting different kinds of bodies and identities. However, lesbians and queer women are still sorely lacking from that representation,” points out Rachel Winard. In order to push the industry even further, Rachel makes a point of listening to other perspectives and takes representation into account in every business decision.
“For Soapwalla, I define representation as a conscious decision to give every body a seat at the table. I seek input from people who don't look like me or have my life experiences, and then I shut up and listen to what they say about their experiences with skincare, the wellness industry, navigating what can be fraught shopping experiences, and what feels accessible to them. We don't use gendered language anywhere on our website. We don't use human models on our website. We are careful about who we feature on our social media page (nearly always, if a human is featured on our IG, it's me). When Soapwalla premiered 10 years ago, I was committed to building a brand for all humans—no exceptions, no exclusions.”
For Shea Brand, Krystal Vaquerano sees marketing and customer education as an ideal arena for challenging norms. “We want to celebrate all communities, skin tones, skin types, gender identities and body types. We want to emphasize that the fact that no individual is identical is a good thing and make equitable representation the norm; it not only more accurately reflects the world we live in, but we also believe that collective diversity is what makes life beautiful.”
We Are Fluide comments: “to locate makeup outside of this paradigm of cis-female beauty is incredibly liberating and it opens up the potential for makeup to be empowering for all people, rather than a representation of all the ways you don’t measure up.”
“With MMT, we never set out to make products specifically for women and men. Thinking back, it wasn’t intentional, but rather a naïve belief that everyone would agree that all personal care and scents can be used by anyone. We still believe in this, but the capitalist model has conditioned us to think we need specific products for specific purposes,” notes co-founder Jeff Kurosaki. They explain “representation and inclusivity are broad issues, so you can do a little or a lot. Image descriptors may seem small, but mean that everyone has access to your photos. Advocating for diversifying the white, thin-privileged, cis-female, able-bodied representation in the beauty industry is a bigger issue to take on.”
IS REPRESENTATION ENOUGH?
One sentiment we heard from most of our interviewees was a desire to move beyond “representation” in the green beauty industry to actually embodying inclusivity. While showing diverse bodies in marketing is an excellent start, it’s not enough. True inclusivity means hiring diverse people, building partnerships across racial and socioeconomic lines, and creating pathways to success for those who haven’t traditionally had access to opportunities in our industry.
“Honestly, I hope we get to the place where we don't have to talk about representation anymore, that inclusion is the standard. I want brands to be truly inclusive—outside Pride and Black History Month. I want brands to be inclusive in their hiring practices and accessibility programming and product R&D and legacy giving. I want to see true representation across all segments and in every nook and cranny of the skincare/beauty industry,” says Rachel Winard of Soapwalla.
For Jeff Kurosaki, “representation for MMT would be a Noah’s Ark with a gangway that was always lowered, taking on new creatures indefinitely. I love to think of things in relation to animals, and in all seriousness, this is how I would center representation for the business. I want everyone to have access to the information we disseminate into the world and to our products. It’s an ongoing effort.”
Another strong sentiment that really touched our hearts is the entire concept of a beauty standard in the first place. People said that they don’t think the beauty industry should even be able to tell us what is “beautiful,” because individuality and uniqueness are beautiful, period.
Michele from Ranavat says “beauty is a space for self-expression, individuality and confidence, and it’s our job to make sure our space offers this to every single person. My mission is not just to gain more representation of South Asian beauty rituals into the world, but for every person to feel included and connected in the process.”
Shontay Lundy’s wish for the natural beauty industry is to bring awareness to inclusivity. “This means realizing no one is perfect and everyone is beautiful and unique. I wish for this to be showcased and celebrated by providing products that cater to each unique person so we can all strive to feel and look good!”
The Meow Meow Tweet blog is a collaborative thought project between the founders of Meow Meow Tweet, Vera Kachouh, and Faye Lesser. This post was written by Faye Lesser.