Shades of Color in the Beauty Industry

By Melissa Wells
Photographed by Christina Philippides

This article has been adapted for the web from our Outsider Issue.

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America has a long history of catering to a very specific type of person—white, just as the beauty industry is guilty of catering to a very specific shade—fair. Since conception, colorism has been a deep-seated issue that continues to plague the beauty industry. In 2018, people of color are speaking out against colorism and racism within this industry with voices that can now be heard.

Prior to the launch of the highly anticipated Tarte Shape Tape Foundation, PopSugar and Tarte Cosmetics posted photos of the fifteen shades from both hydrating and matte foundations that were set to release. The shades were swatched on a person of color (who, ironically, didn’t even have a shade that matched her skin tone): eleven fair-to-light, two medium-to-tan, and two fairly deep. A social media storm ensued.

According to PopSugar’s “exclusive” with a Tarte representative, Tarte planned on dropping ten more foundation shades... seasonally. As stated in the story, it “...makes sense because your complexion tends to be paler in the Winter and darker in the Summer months.” They might as well have admitted to the colorism that drove this launch—and frankly their company, as reflected through their whitewashed social media and advertising.

The consensus from the beauty community was that Tarte’s statement regarding a later release date for the full range of colors implied weighted importance for light-skinned customers, making darker skin tones wait. But people of color aren’t going to wait for Tarte to come up with a more thoughtful excuse for its neglectful shade range. In her article criticizing Tarte’s defense, Revelist writer Marquaysa Battle wrote, “The brand has already shown which customers it cares about—and it’s not those of us with dark skin.”

From Jackie Aina and Shayla Mitchell to Nyma Tang and Alissa Ashley, black beauty Youtubers, vloggers and influencers alike spoke out about the broader issue that this release brought to the forefront. The common buzzword: afterthought. The uproar fueled by this launch revealed what the beauty industry fails to comprehend: the powerful impact that inclusivity has on society as a whole. In her article, “Un-Palette-Able: Colorism in the Makeup Industry”, Arianna Lewis wrote, “It sickens me that society views dark women of color in a way that suggests that not only are they not beautiful, but they are not even worth acknowledging.”

Shayla Mitchell, known as MakeupShayla on her social media platforms, was one of many popular Black American beauty gurus who posted a scathing critique of the limited shade range. Addressing Tarte directly, five words she stressed would become a trending Twitter hashtag: #MySkinIsNotSeasonal.

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Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line did not “usher in a new era of inclusivity” like W Magazine would like you to believe. Instead, it allowed this generation to recognize lack of inclusivity as not only prevalent, but highlighted brands that continue to disregard communities of color in their target audience. This deliberate choice to neglect other shades is about race. An industry that “doesn’t see color” enables a system of oppression in denying those colors exist. As Nigerian-American beauty Youtuber Jackie Aina emphasized in her video, “I Don’t See Color - A Makeup Tutorial”, “I am someone who’s sick and tired of seeing people who look like me get stepped on constantly. And I’m not just talking about black women, I’m talking about Latin women, I’m talking about Asian women, I’m talking about Native women… for literally anyone who is told, ‘I don’t see you.’”

The makeup industry’s failure to validate people of color is unacceptable. Beauty encompasses men and women of all different ethnicities and undertones. The beauty community isn’t fifty shades of vanilla, but a gradient from paper pale to dark as night. It is this outrage—of people of all colors—that holds the power to bring about change.

In 2018, the industry suffers from not catering to everyone. James Charles, a beauty Internet personality, touched on this in his own review. “Women of color equate for 80% of all money going into the beauty industry. But for some reason, they are still overlooked. The lack of inclusion is a lose-lose situation...” Using their privilege, the white audience that are targeted by companies like Tarte can help send a message by refusing to buy their products until their shade range is inclusive. The beauty industry benefits from acknowledging that money can be made from communities not made up of the limited fifteen shades Tarte’s Shape Tape Foundation reflects.

Tarte released an apology via Instagram story following the controversy. It was important for them to say “for those who feel alienated in our community, we want to personally apologize.” The carefully worded apology hit all the right notes but didn’t address the entire problem. Moreover, it was played on a platform designed to disappear after 24 hours, as if their stance against the colorism and exclusionary practices in makeup that they engage in was just as temporary. Beauty brands must work on communicating sincerity, displaying inclusivity all around and just getting inclusion right the first time. Apologies promise resolution, but actions speak louder than words.

It was Shonda Rhimes who said, “You can waste your lives drawing lines or you can live your life crossing them.” The beauty industry has crossed the gender line and tentatively started to cross the line of color. Why? Because everyone, no matter their color or gender, should be able to enjoy beauty. People of color are just as entitled to try beauty products as the limited few who fit into a beauty brand like Tarte’s shade range. It is because it’s not just about makeup, it’s that people of color are underrepresented in many other brands, companies and industries. It is because this is much more than a complexion issue, it is a heart issue, and now is the time for the world to stop seeing people as less important merely for having darker skin. The black beauty community matters. Black beauty matters.

If the reaction to Tarte’s Shape Tape Foundation has demonstrated anything, it is that people of color have had enough in 2018. In the words of beauty Youtuber Alissa Ashley, “we’re going to hold you accountable.”