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The Australian beauty industry ignores black women | Helina Mengistu

I have loved beauty ever since I was introduced to the world of makeup and microblogging as a teenager, but black people are made to feel unwelcome, and even invisible in the Australian beauty sphere.

The beauty industry is increasingly marketing itself as a progressive feminist space, but if it only caters to a few out of a majority then it isn’t.

Priceline, one self-professed “100% woman” chemist-cum-makeup retailer drew criticism in late 2016 when a Melbourne franchisee racially profiled a group of black women innocently browsing – I was one of those women.

Beauty is a passion project of mine, but I am met with antagonism and othered along with many other black Australian women.

Women of colour often encounter the lack of nuance in foundation shades from chemists to high-end brands. A foundation line might have just a handful of brown shades and extensive beige shades. In 2018 it’s just not good enough.

Makeup retailers such as Mac, Target, Sephora and Mecca will stock American brands that are shade inclusive, such as Makeup Forever, Maybelline, L’Oréal, Urban Decay, Too Faced, and Nars, however I often find that darker shades are understocked, or not even stocked at all.

The one exception is Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, a brand that prides and markets itself on nuances in foundation colours for black women. The founder of Fenty Beauty is a black woman and a celebrity, which I think influences Sephora’s decision to stock every single shade.

Imagine the backlash that would ensue if Sephora did not stock all the shades. Yes, the imagery of a famous black pop star attached to a brand easily generates sales across demographics including black girls, but why should that be the threshold in determining if a Sephora or Mecca should stock darker shades of a product?

When I cannot find foundation shades in my colour I feel the implicit suggestion is that we can’t be beautiful or care about our appearance. That we’re not worth the effort to be tangibly inclusive, but only worthy enough of the token representation in advertising.

The excuse that we don’t exist enough in numbers is patently false, as we saw with Fenty Beauty’s overwhelming success. It feels capitalist to beg for recognition of the buying power of black dollars but that’s what it has come to, unfortunately.

I’m willing to concede that we should do the work to create our own representation but barriers to entry, like competition and brand loyalty to existing retailers, make the creation and success of black-owned Australian cosmetic brands incredibly difficult.

Not to mention that African-Australians lack the generational business acumen that African-Americans may have.

Model and popular vlogger Nikki Perkins has expressed grievances with the lack of makeup available for black people in Australia. “These other brands out here … in Australia that refuse to acknowledge that there are dark-skin women who wear [makeup] products … from a deep-dark woman … it’s kind of insulting.”

Recently, I discovered American black haircare brand Shea Moisture was finally launching in Australia. I was so excited. There are very few options when it comes to products for natural/textured hair here. But then I saw on Instagram that the launch party in Sydney had zero black women in attendance.

It was inexplicably weird – a black-owned brand with none of the target market of consumers present.

I raised concerns that the whole event was tone-deaf and alienating to which the brand agreed, and I discussed it with a representative of the brand – but only after I was invited to the launch event in Melbourne.

It was a productive conversation but obviously didn’t solve the larger issue, which was that even when black-owned brands are allowed into the market, they must cater to non-black women in order to be accessible to us in the first place; a demoralising realisation.

Although there have been minor improvements in 2018, that is mostly due to the efforts of black women, specifically those from America. The US might have its own set of problems when it comes to blackness and cosmetics, but at least the industry is established and blooming there, which is much more than I can say for us.

Australia has a long way to go with prioritising black women in conversations about beauty. Until then, I’ll spend my money internationally, where I don’t feel excluded from the right to feel beautiful.

  • Helina Mengistu is a digital media student from Melbourne

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