The discourse on diversity in the beauty industry has been firing up a lot lately. The homogenous ideals of western beauty, which feature white, wide-eyed and thin women are still all too prominent in our society. As a domain that traditionally doesn’t encourage much variety in its definition of beauty, the much-needed progress has been slow.
L’Oréal recently fired Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender model, activist, and DJ for her comments on social media that challenged systematic racism. The now deleted Facebook status read: “Most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour. Your entire existence is drenched in racism.” The post was written in the aftermath of the Charlottesville events, in which clashes between white supremacists and anti-racism demonstrators culminated in a car driven by a white nationalist ploughing into protesters; killing one and injuring numerous others.
As the face of L’Oréal’s new initiative, Bergdorf, along with a racially inclusive cast of models, could have represented a big step forward for the industry. The campaign intended to support diversity through their ‘True Match’ foundation range, which promised to match 98% of skin tones in the UK. The initiative featured the slogan, “28 Shades, 28 Stories. Write yours” which excouraged self-expression. Unfortunately, Bergdorf’s recent firing shows just how disposable diversity is.
It’s not all bad news, though: there are those out there trying to make positive changes. In the aftermath of her firing, another woman of colour, DJ Clara Amfo, left the campaign in a show of support. Shorty after, Illamasqua picked up Bergdorf, tweeting their support for her by writing: “We don’t stand or accept any form of racism, but we also believe Munroe’s comments have been edited out of context by a certain media title (who we won’t bother naming) without telling a true story.” The media outlet in question was the Daily Mail, which described Bergdorf’s post as an “extraordinary rant declaring all white people racist.”
L’Oréal’s actions, while poor, have brought many important issues in the beauty industry to the fore. Change is slow, and although there are many steps backwards, progress is happening. Take, for example, the huge success of Rihanna’s new Fenty Beauty line, which offers 40 different shades of foundation. Rihanna delivered on her promise of make up “created for everyone” by using a diverse cast of models including Duckie Thot, Slick Woods, Paloma Elsesser, and Halima Aden to showcase the range. The hype represents the need for more diversity in beauty products, with the darkest shades immediately selling out, and many positive reviews from the albino community.
While the brand is encouraging vital change, unsurprisingly, there are those trying to capitalise in the wrong way. Jeffree Star reviewed the brand on YouTube, despite numerous instances where he has been caught on film screaming racial abuse to women of colour on the streets. Even Kylie Jenner felt the need to promote her ‘Brown Sugar’ lip kit (a shade targeted at people of colour) the day before Fenty Beauty’s debut. The reality television star consistently appropriates black culture, having recently released a T-shirt that featured images of rappers TuPac and Biggie with the faces of herself, and her sister Kendall Jenner overlaid.
While this doesn’t detract from the success of Fenty Beauty by any means, it shows just how willing the industry is to profit from a woman of colour’s ingenuity and success, while simultaneously ignoring real injustices faced by minority groups. The firing of Bergdorf serves as an example of how thinly veiled “diversity” initiatives can be. Hopefully, the fact that we can have open discussions about these incidents can be seen as a spark that may initiate real change. New York Fashion Week Spring 2018 saw a significant rise in models of colour featured; for the first time in NYFW history there were at least two women of colour in every runway show. This is a big jump from 2016, where only 30% of the models were women of colour. Another immense improvement showed 90 plus-sized models walking the catwalk, a massive increase from just 26 only last season. Unfortunately, this positive change did not extend to include many other models outside of the status quo, such as those who are gender-queer or disabled. This trend also appears to be US-centric, with London, Paris, and Milan sticking to more traditional notions of beauty.
It’s important to remember that while a lot of negativity surrounds this conversation, there are many campaigning for positive change. As consumers, the power lies within us to educate ourselves in order to make the distinction: we can’t expect progress to occur if we remain complicit to systematic inequality. This is why it’s integral to listen to Bergdorf and others who have spoken out against false claims of diversity. Only then can we start making a positive difference and create tangible change.
Words by Rebel Boylan, art by Isabella Corbett