How The Beauty Industry Has Failed Black Women


Illustrations by Mallory Heyer.

My Black is beautiful. Black girls are magic. Melanin poppin’. These rallying testaments of self-love are trending in the Black community on a national scale (hey, Bey). For many millennials, being Black — and embracing said Blackness — has never been more lit. Never have their influence and voices been more powerful. And never has the value of the Black consumer been more apparent.

According to Nielsen, African-Americans currently hold a buying power of $1 trillion, a number that’s estimated to reach $1.3 trillion by 2017. And they’re blowing a lot of those bills on cosmetics, spending nine times more on ethnic-targeted beauty and grooming products than the general market. Black women, in particular, spend an estimated $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, shelling out 80% more on cosmetics and twice as much on skin care as their non-Black counterparts. Yet, they’ve been grossly underserved by the cosmetics industry throughout history.

That is, until now…sort of.

L’Oréal started its Women of Color Lab, led by Balanda Atis, in 2013. It specializes in innovation for women with dark skin tones (L'Oréal also acquired natural hair brand Carol’s Daughter in 2014). Actress Kerry Washington has been working with Neutrogena over the past two years as the brand’s ambassador to help finally expand its shade range (when she started, there wasn’t even a foundation shade that matched her complexion, she told us). Brands like Dove and Head & Shoulders have released “textured” hair-care collections. Even brands that already serve curly ladies, like Ouidad and DevaCurl, are coming out with lines that better suit those with tighter, kinkier coils.


But why is this sudden reality check happening now, when brands like Carol’s Daughter, SheaMoisture, Black Opal, and Iman Cosmetics have been catering to women of color since the early ‘90s? The answer is simple: the internet. “You have a lot of women on social media who are finding each other, and forming alliances, and demanding that they be represented,” says natural hair blogger Whitney White. “So when you have women coming together like that, their voice is going to be louder.“

Just look at the recent controversy surrounding Maybelline. Unsatisfied British customers flocked to Twitter when the brand only released one shade of its new Dream Velvet foundation for darker complexions. In a statement to BuzzFeed, the company explained that it plans on releasing another shade in "the next few months,” supposedly after British photographer Nadia Gray wrote a blog post laying out her frustrations.

“It’s not that these consumers were silent before, but companies didn’t have to listen,” explains Desiree Reid, vice president of Iman Cosmetics. “You can no longer put a product out and leave out a segment of the market with such financial power.” Brands are also increasingly marketing to Black women. But it’s not enough to slap Lupita or Kerry or Zendaya’s face on your ad and call it a day — you have to also deliver with the product.

Maya Brown, the vice president of marketing for Black Opal, believes brands are too focused on quick fixes rather than truly taking the time to understand the needs and concerns of the Black community. Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily come. “These changes are done from a standpoint of not taking in some of the cultural factors and understanding the nuances that relate to people of color and recognizing that we’re not homogenized,” Brown says. “Brands are trying to come out with something that’s a brief introduction into the marketplace without really looking at the formulas and how they’re going to market, and making sure that the products are customized and tailored."

Reid adds that the responsibility falls on retailers, too. Often, stores won’t allow companies the space or investment needed to court the customer. "A lot of the times, they’ll say something like, ‘You know, we did have something but the sales weren’t there…’ Then, the question becomes: 'Well, did you tell [the consumers]? How did you tell them? Where was the product positioned?’ 60% of the time she’s gone in there, there hasn’t been anything for her and now you have something…how do you communicate that to her when she hits your store and that beauty aisle?” It’s a team effort, she goes on to explain: “It’s not just a brand issue; it’s a partnership that has to be formed between retailers. Location, communication, information, and having people that understand what she’s looking for and are able to guide her, are important.”

Speaking of location, it’s key in making customers — and companies — feel like they’re included and not a mere afterthought. Many brands don’t want to be placed in the “ethnic” space; they want to be on the shelves right alongside the beauty big dogs. “The room for improvement is in breaking the cycle of thinking that there needs to be a separate shopping section for people of color,” says Lisa Price, the founder of Carol’s Daughter. “There just needs to be a broad range of products for all, period.”


Reid emphasizes that women of color want to be thought of as a collective part of the beauty industry, not just an extension of it. “They’re not categories; they’re customers that are looking for the same thing every woman’s looking for when she walks down that beauty aisle,” she says. “Whether it be a great red lipstick, a foundation, a mascara, she’s looking for products that meet her beauty needs, and her beauty needs are not that much different from women who are not of color.” As any unrequited love works, when you adore something so strongly, sometimes you just want it to adore you back.

And until mainstream brands start addressing these needs — releasing shade ranges for women of color that rival the ones their white counterparts are offered, and start thinking of them as individuals who are sitting at the table rather than off to the side — you can’t really blame Black consumers for rolling their eyes, turning their backs, and taking their money elsewhere. “If you’re not listening, you’re going to lose a segment of the market because theywill move on and find brands that do speak to them and service them,” says Reid.

That is, right after they call you out on Twitter.

By: Taylor Bryant


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