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After the Fenty Phenomenon, What’s Next for Inclusivity in Beauty?

After the Fenty Phenomenon, What’s Next for Inclusivity in Beauty? 1

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The tears came as soon as I saw my reflection in the mirror. It was 2004, the afternoon of my senior prom, and against my better seventeen-year-old judgment, I had accepted my first full-face makeover. But instead of undergoing a chic transformation, I wound up looking like a clown. A clown with conspicuously pale, cakey skin. I burst out of the room and sprinted the entire half-mile home, disappointed to have my prom-night dreams dashed and my fears about makeup in general confirmed: It was not for girls who looked like me. It would be almost a full decade before any foundation touched my skin again.

I have a long-running group chat, home to a range of skin tones, that is full of similar stories. One friend recalls an almost-identical prom-night disaster in Paris; another remembers the MAC counter, imperfect but dependable, as the only option during her adolescence in Toronto. We knew about early brands serving women of color, such as Iman Cosmetics and Black Opal, but they were often relegated to select, far-flung drugstores. My college roommate resigned herself to buying different shades of liquid foundation and alchemizing them into a hybrid of her own.

Studies have shown that in the U.S., African American women spend the most per capita on beauty products, and yet it often feels like we don’t exist beyond the ethnic aisle of the drugstore, where products often feature dangerous chemicals and toxins. But as this disparity is increasingly called out on social media and on YouTube, where vloggers like Nyma Tang and Jackie Aina are challenging the industry via impactful discussions on colorism, a slight reprieve has arrived. Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, which offers 40 foundation shades, is the new standard by which all other brands are now held. Meanwhile, the global resonance of K-beauty and J-beauty suggests that people are eager to try culturally specific offerings, making space for a new crop of start-ups run by founders who say their inspiration was rooted in experiences like mine.

“I spent my most carefree years on endless diets and skin-whitening treatments,” Yu-Chen Shih recalls of life as a Malaysian-Taiwanese teenager growing up in Singapore, where whiteness was the beauty ideal, even among prominent Asian cosmetics brands. In February, the 26-year-old, now based in L.A., debuted Orcé Cosmetics, a line of foundations designed to address the tone variety and issues common to Asian skin, such as sensitivity and higher oil production. Epara, Ozohu Adoh’s new ten-piece skin-care line for people of color, was conceived in the Nigerian-born financier’s kitchen out of parallel frustration before it was picked up as a Barneys New York exclusive this spring. “I’m a woman of color,” explains Adoh, 42, who has little experience in the beauty industry. “I know what our needs are, and therefore I’m capable [of meeting them].”

But the more we change, the more we stay the same. “If you Google ‘beauty,’ you still are getting images of white or light skin,” says Juliana Pache, 27, a makeup enthusiast based in New York. Disingenuous attempts to appear inclusive—the widespread practice of making white models appear ethnic, or the subpar formulation of darker foundation shades—are also now rampant and can easily come across as shilling empowerment in the form of consumerism and diversity at the expense of real people.

“I feel these conversations happening about diversity, but they’ve been really shallow,” agrees Sharon Chuter, a 32-year-old Nigerian-born, London-based beauty veteran who will launch her highly anticipated Uoma Beauty concept at Ulta this spring. Poised to directly compete with Fenty, Uoma—which means “beautiful” in the Nigerian language Igbo—includes an impressive 51-shade foundation collection that straddles makeup and skin care. Chuter has also signed up prominent models, including South Sudanese–born Nyakim Gatwech and hijab fashion pioneer Halima Aden, to star in her first campaign.

Uoma’s goal, says Chuter, is to appeal to anyone looking for a forward-thinking beauty platform. She’s assembled her ideas—bold lipsticks, a brightening concealer called Stay Woke, and eye-shadow palettes that feature vague nods to tribal prints—under the banner of Afropolitanism, a controversial, widely critiqued umbrella term often claimed by African elites to represent an ultramodern, globalized outlook. “The whole story line of ‘Hey, let me bring black soap, let me bring shea butter,’ that’s already done,” she says when I ask how Uoma was shaped by her own heritage. It’s an almost post-inclusive approach that leaves me feeling conflicted: I can’t help fearing that the products—which are thoughtfully formulated—will become eclipsed by performative messaging. And yet I wonder how it would have felt to seventeen-year-old me had a brand like Uoma been widely available.

There is a long way to go toward the universal understanding that ignoring people’s differences ultimately erases us and sidelines our needs. But when I look at my vanity, now dotted with countless foundations—all perfect matches for my medium-brown complexion—there are many reasons to be hopeful.

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