For years, hair and makeup products tended to exclude women of colour. Here, beauty columnist Funmi Fetto reveals how she faced up to racism in an industry that is finally undergoing its own makeover

by Funmi Fetto

If you had told my teen self, I would be a beauty journalist and that I would write a book on beauty, particularly one geared towards women of colour, I would have called you a false prophet. “You can’t be what you can’t see” is a hackneyed phrase, but in my case rang true. I loved magazines, but I always skipped the beauty pages. The voices behind them did not speak to me. The faces on the pages did not look like me. The products were not geared towards me. I had no place there. Growing up, I had always heard my Nigerian parents and their friends say: “This is not our country.” And so, despite being British, I parked any expectation to be included in the beauty industry. It never occurred to me that I could be a part of this world, let alone driving change from within.

When I started writing about beauty, almost 15 years ago, it was nothing to do with race. My reasons were pragmatic. I was a freelance fashion writer, work had dried up, so I turned my hand to writing everything and anything because at that time, in the timeless words of Gwen Guthrie, Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent. And I was irked by the way beauty was written – fluffy and asinine, as if for one-dimensional airheads. I made a conscious decision to go against that. Unconsciously, however, my foray into the beauty world was driven by my blackness and the industry’s rejection of it. My route to realising that was surprising, even to me.

‘Watching this British-born black woman navigate a very white world blows my mind’: Pat McGrath, the world’s most influential makeup artist.

 Photograph: Rabbani and Solimene Photography/WireImage

In February 2017, to coincide with Black History Month in the US, CNN launched a project inspired by WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folks, a literary classic that talks about race and ethnicity in America. Du Bois wrote about the first time his skin colour made him realise he was different. CNN chronicled several high-profilepeople of colour revealing their own personal “moment”. It was called “The First Time I Realised I Was Black.” I pondered this, wondering what my answer would be.

I was born in St Thomas’ Hospital, London, and grew up by the Albert Embankment. We were not posh. We lived in a council house that happened to be in Zone 1. In the early 80s, when I was five, we moved to Lagos, Nigeria. I do not recall a single conversation there where anyone discussed being black. There were conversations about politics, which we studied in school. There were conversations about class, a residue of colonialism. And there were conversations about skin tone. (Centuries of being brainwashed to believe the fairer-skinned are superior and should, therefore, be more favoured – particularly if their facial features mimic Eurocentric ideals of beauty – has had a rippling effect. Ever wondered why the bestselling black female artists are Rhianna and Beyoncé?) But this was the closest we came to discussing “blackness”. Which was why, when I returned to London five years later, I still did not consider myself “black”. But goodness, I soon found out just how “other” I was.

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At school, a mixed comprehensive, I was the “African”. Children spat out the word in repulsion. Teachers would speak to me slowly as if English was not my first language. Someone once called me “Black Attack” because of my dark skin. I had short hair (I needed a hairstyle with minimal upkeep because I had attended a boarding school in Nigeria.) My TWA (Teeny Weeny Afro) became a taking point. I remember someone sniggering that I looked like Kunta Kinte, the central character in Alex Haley’s Roots, viciously taken from his African village and sold into slavery. At swimming classes, I was the girl who “didn’t need arm bands because her rubber lips would help her float”. I am strangely sadder about those words now than I was then. I now see the depth and layers of hate from which this ignorance stems. As a young girl, I could not articulate my feelings beyond thinking: “This white boy is really horrible to me and thinks he is really funny.” Even so, these experiences made me feel “different”, but they were not signifiers of my blackness. I discovered that in something much more pedestrian: a trip to the chemist.

Cultural icons, speaking for change and representation in the industry: Edward Enninful, Rihanna, and Naomi Campbell at the 2014 British Fashion Awards. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

When I hit adolescence, I begun to get interested in beauty, not as a potential vocation, but to attract boys and to tackle my confidence-crippling acne. I would surreptitiously take from my mother’s stash of lipsticks – coloured bullets she would pick up from random stalls and stores in Brixton. The quality stretched from OK to diabolical. But I did not care. I would swipe it across my lips and head into school convinced I epitomised sophistication.

One day, I walked into the local pharmacy with my Caucasian friends to scope the beauty offering. While my friends giggled excitedly about their finds, everything I tried either left an ashy finish or just did not show up – the pigments were not strong enough. Still, I persevered, because at that age, aren’t we all desperate to be part of the collective? I moved towards the foundations and chose the darkest shade. It was called “Biscuit”. I looked like I had white chalk on my skin. I laughed to hide my embarrassment but, at that moment, everything changed. Suddenly colour mattered, in more ways than one. This is when I realised, I was black. It was like I had turned up to a party to which I was not invited. I felt irrelevant, excluded, and ashamed. The message from the beauty industry was loud and clear: I was not valuable enough to be part of the conversation.

In the years that followed, there were a few lights in the tunnel. I remember the first time I saw Naomi Campbell in Vogue. I was mesmerised. She looked like me – as far as skin colour went at least. In truth, she fitted into what the industry sees as the acceptable face of black. But she was black and that was enough for me. It gave me hope.

There were other key moments. After years of accepting and wearing foundations that were not made for my skin, I discovered MAC in the 90s. Their Studio Fix Foundation was a game changer. This mainstream brand was arguably the first to create foundations covering a wide spectrum of hues. I would go as far as saying it changed the lives of beauty-loving black women. It was the first foundation I wore that made me feel beautiful.

The rise of Pat McGrath, the world’s most influential makeup artist, also had an impact on how I viewed beauty. Even now, watching this British-born black woman navigate a very white space and reach the top of the game blows my mind. Still, the culture of silence around the lack of products available to darker skin types remained.

There are those who may think: “It’s just beauty, what’s the big deal?” Makeup and skincare are powerful tools that have helped me cope with difficult moments in my life. In my youth, acne plagued my skin and carried on long after I grew out of my teens. It killed my confidence. The discovery of a decent facial. 

Years later, when my premature son was seriously ill in intensive care, my daily hint of blush, slick of lip colour and touch of mascara provided a sense of normality when everything around me felt scarily precarious. So, no, it is not just beauty. It holds a power that is not always tangible but trust me, it is there.

Fast forward. It is 2019. There are moments when I sense an exciting shift taking place in the beauty industry. Along with sustainability, diversity and inclusivity seem to be at the top of every agenda. Whether this will extend beyond a trend or box-ticking exercise remains to be seen, but for now it is welcome. Foundation ranges suitable for all shades are omnipresent. In fact, thanks to the incredibly successful product launch of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, which addressed the whitewashing of the beauty industry, any brands now launching with fewer than 40 shades of foundation are seen to be slacking.

I believe the boldness in calling out a lack of inclusivity stems from cultural icons in powerful positions speaking out. From Naomi Campbell to Beyoncé to Oprah Winfrey to Rihanna to Edward Enninful… Hearing them addressing issues of race has given so many people a voice. There still exists, of course, the tone-deaf brands that do not believe darker-skinned women are their “audience” and have purposely limited their foundation colours. Thankfully, there are other foundations to cater for everyone. Preferences may vary based on texture, finish, and skincare benefits, but the market is now so vast, “the one” is lurking out there somewhere.

The issue is not really about foundations. It is about representation and equality

That said, the issue is not really about foundations. It is about representation and equality. I have had countless women of colour approach me via social media, at dinner parties, on the streets, to ask me for product recommendations. Their ages span from 16 to 80. They cover the spectrum of class. They come from all walks of life – school-gate mothers, students, high-flying executives, fashion stylists. If all these women are struggling to find products and beauty “professionals” still do not know what to do with darker skin and Afro hair, then the beauty industry, retailers, brands, marketers and, yes, even editors, are failing them. When I told a friend that I planned to write a book on widely available and easily accessible products and brands women of colour should have on their radar, she was flummoxed: “How are you going to fill that book? There’s nothing out there.” Ah, but there is. It is not perfect, but a mind shift in marketing and media could make a significant difference.

Most beauty journalism still assumes readers are white. Cosmetic brands are trying in their marketing, but most skincare brands are not – by only featuring white women in their campaigns, they also assume their audience and consumer is white. At most of the the big beauty companies, all the key decision-makers are white, which invariably informs what ends up on advertising material. I must ignore that homogeneity to discover gems. Black women not in my position do not have that advantage and assume “it’s not for us”.

This seems like a commercial misstep. A few years ago, a Nielsen report in the US found that black women spend nearly nine times more than their Caucasian counterparts on hair and beauty – mainly on niche brands targeting this demographic; brands that are generally sold in beauty supply stores in “ethnic” areas. If this survey were conducted on this side of the Atlantic, I am convinced the results would be no different. A significant amount of this spend goes on black-hair products, yet the mainstream hair industry remains the least inclusive part of the beauty industry.

The mainstream hair industry remains the least inclusive part of the beauty industry.

At a recent beauty industry dinner, I complimented a fellow editor on her hair. She told me she had just had it done at a high-profilesalon loved, lauded, and frequented by every beauty editor I know. I had never been, I admitted. Another editor overheard and was aghast. “What! You’ve never been?” she said. In my head, I responded: “I can barely find suitable hair products from mainstream hair brands, let alone finding ‘white’ salons or stylists to cater for my hair. Most approach my coily texture with trepidation, as if a pet alien has just sprouted from my scalp. Or they view it as an unruly beast that requires bashing into submission. Or I am simply turned away. And so, for the sake of my self and hair preservation, I now stick to black-hair stylists, or those situated in so-called ethnic areas, who don’t find my hair such a terrifying aberration.”

But I did not say that, because I did not have the energy. I have had these conversations many times before. They are exhausting. So instead, I simply shrugged and said: “I don’t go because they don’t do Afro hair.” “Oh,” she mused, “I never thought about that.” Of course, she had not. This is an advantage afforded by white privilege. It is a small privilege, but a privilege, nonetheless. It is a privilege I do not have. So, despite the current talk of diversity and inclusivity, I am constantly reminded we are not there yet. While it is wonderful that I can now find a base that will not turn me deathly grey or cantaloupe orange, in order to really move forward, the beauty industry needs to start having conversations that go deeper than the shades of foundation.

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