Colourism in the Beauty Industry

After years of criticism from dark-skinned people of colour, has the beauty industry done enough to combat colourism, or, could they do more?

Samantha Seidu
9th May 2022
Image: Instagram @fentybeauty
The issue of colourism has been one of the longstanding criticisms of the beauty industry. Whilst in more recent times, we’ve started to see a slow increase in diverse representations of various skin tones, is there still more that can be done to fully eradicate this issue?

Colourism may be a term that many people aren’t so familiar with. I like to describe colourism as the ‘ugly cousin’ of racism, in that both are rooted in the concept of white supremacy and stemmed from European colonialism. The difference between the two, however, is that racism is perpetuated by those in institutional positions of power, whilst colourism is perpetuated by the same systems but is often upheld by those in the same community. Colourism effectively is the discrimination of a person on the basis of their skin tone (light-skin or dark skinned) and is often experienced by dark-skinned people of colour. This often sees people with lighter skin tones receiving more opportunities and privileges because of their proximity to ‘whiteness’.

I like to describe colourism as the 'ugly cousin' of racism, in that both are rooted in the concept of white supremacy and stemmed from European colonialism

For a lot of people, colourism is not something they have experienced, but for anyone that is dark-skinned, the difficulties are all too familiar. Growing up, I had no representation of dark-skinned black women and thus, found myself trying to become as visibly ‘white’ as possible. This made me resort to using chemical hair relaxers and skin bleaching products, a very common practice in many African and Asian countries. Makeup was something I never bothered to try because nothing was in my shade or would suit my complexion. Even in the present day, I cannot pick up a skincare product without googling ‘does this work for dark skin tones?’.

Growing up, I had no representation of dark-skinned black women and thus, found myself trying to become as visibly 'white' as possible

Image: Instagram @jackieaina

In comparison to the late 2000s/early 2010s to now, colourism has definitely being addressed more: Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty launch in 2017 set the standard for complexion product shade ranges and the rise of dark-skinned beauty gurus such as Jackie Aina and Nyma Tang have helped dark-skinned people navigate their way through a whitewashed industry. The only issue with this, however, is that these were individuals that took it upon themselves to enter an industry that wasn’t accommodating to a certain demographic.

Image: Instagram @nymatang

The industry itself still has not done enough to get rid of colourism, increasing the shade range of foundation is only the tip of the iceberg. Many skincare products are still created with lighter-skinned people in mind, containing ingredients that could possibly cause hyperpigmentation and scarring on dark skin, many makeup and skincare products look ashy and chalky on dark skin and some beauty procedures such as laser hair removal work better on those with light skin than dark skin. Most importantly, the representation of dark-skin people is severely lacking, with light skin or sometimes racially ambiguous people being the ‘dark skin representation’.

Despite the beauty industry making beauty more accessible to dark-skinned people, it still continues to push a harmful narrative that eurocentric features are what is the most valuable in the industry and that anyone outside must conform. The skin lightening industry is worth $8 billion, meaning that dark-skinned people of colour still feel the need to lighten their skin in order to conform to eurencentric norms.

The skin lightening industry is worth $8 billion, meaning that dark-skinned people of colour still feel the need to lighten their skin in order to conform to eurocentric norms

Even with small improvements, the beauty industry mustn’t settle for the bare minimum: we need more representation of dark-skinned people and more products created specifically for their skin type, tackling the issues that are exclusive to them. Most importantly, we need more diversity in the beauty industry itself, ranging from dark-skinned photographers, to make-up artists and bloggers who know how to work with dark skin.

Dark-skinned people have continuously been let down by the beauty industry, whilst there seems to be a slow stream of progress, more needs to be done to get rid of colourism for good.

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