It’s no secret, buying makeup as a black person in Britain is a tumultuous task - and the darker you are, the harder it is. I was born and raised in London in a household where fashion and beauty were never really a priority, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to experiment with makeup. A combination of not seeing beauty products at home and having reasonably problem-free skin meant I was curious about makeup but not too attached to it. This was handy because it was virtually impossible for me to get my hands on.
Makeup is exciting and a fun way to express yourself. For some, it’s practically a rite of passage to experiment with makeup. It was one tradition I never really got to join in on. While I loved the transformative power of makeup, it appeared like there were millions of hurdles I needed to jump before I could join the cosmetics club.
There are two main types of makeup in the UK, affordable highstreet makeup or department store, high-end beauty products. Financially, I only had the choice of highstreet brands. My first hurdle in the quest of acquiring makeup was simply getting through the door. Due to racial profiling, black customers are frequently under suspicion in shops. While my friends were stealing everything they could possibly get their hands on undisturbed, I was being stalked from aisle to aisle by security. I’ve never stolen from a shop but to this day I’m on edge around the makeup section and continue to cling onto my receipt when exiting.
Once I finally got to the makeup aisle under the watchful scrutiny of every member of staff, I had about two brands to choose skin products from. Depending on what region you’re in, you’d be lucky to find a maximum of five shades suitable for a deeper hue; five shades to encompass the vast array of skin tones - sat alongside 50 shades of beige. Before the days of YouTube and large online beauty communities, we were simply left to guess what makeup we needed. My theory as a 17-year-old was that if the product is brown and my skin is brown it must be a fit. I didn’t know anything about undertones or the warm and cool spectrum that our skin lies on. Unlike in department stores, there is nobody to colour match your foundation leaving those with darker complexions ashy and frustrated.
Compared to the US, where there is a thriving and diverse beauty industry, the UK has a population of around two million black people. A common excuse for the lack of a larger cosmetic product range is makeup is stocked proportionately. Quite often, makeup brands do have a large range of shades but stores will only stock what they deem profitable. If nobody buys it then shops won’t stock it. So in London, you’re much more likely to find darker foundations than say in the suburbs where the population of ethnic minorities is much lower. But if proportionately stocking products is a justification for the lack of diversity in cosmetics then why are the 2 darkest shades always out of stock? Why were there queues for days for Rihanna’s inclusive makeup line? As long as there are people of colour, there will be a need for makeup to reflect that.
So, not only are our options limited, often foundation names for deeper complexions sound like you’re reading straight off of a Starbucks menu. The odd phenomenon of describing black and brown skin as edible goods is uncomfortable and dated. Referring to our complexions as cappuccino, mocha, toffee, coconut or caramel (all actual names of foundations stocked by a leading high street shop) is objectifying, racialised and diminishes us to nothing more than sweet treats. It’s even more obvious when these names are compared to the lighter tones that are all called porcelain, Ivory, shell, nude, pearl and soft beige.
It's invalidating to know that the country you were born and raised in still equates “nude” with white skin. It others ethnic minorities, reminding us that whiteness is perceived as the default and is still very much viewed as the beauty standard. The lack of makeup for darker skin just exemplifies that. It shouldn’t take until 2018 when we’ve been in this country for centuries, to be catered for.
Once I gave up on high street shops, I took the plunge into department stores. Yes, they have their own benefits simply because there’s a lot more choice. It was a cathartic experience buying makeup from a department shop for the first time. There were rows and rows of products for skin tones like my own. Instead of the jump from a “warm beige” straight to “coffee” there were gradual subtleties between shades. Unfortunately, professional makeup isn’t cheap and if you’re colour matched by an artist incorrectly that’s £30 down the drain. It’s frustrating having to spend triple the amount of money for the same products than my lighter friends did but it was my only choice.
Let’s not mention that regardless of price and quality - getting my hands on makeup that was environmentally friendly, vegan and suited for my complexion was almost unheard of. While everyone else has unlimited options, we’re stuck taking whatever we can get, even if that’s at the expense of being ethical.
Now, as an adult in the age of the internet, acquiring makeup is a less distressing experience. High street brands are widening their ranges, and most companies name their foundation with letters and numbers. We have brands who are both ethical and affordable, creating makeup that is inclusive of all genders and ethnicities. It seems the cosmetic industry is steadily getting better and my younger self would be over the moon with having more than 2 options to choose from. But it shouldn’t stop there. More work still needs to be done, and brands can’t become complacent. Businesses need to continue to listen to their customers’ needs and desires. Inclusion should never be a second thought as it has been in the past. This is only the start.
Niellah Arboine is lifestyle editor at Gal-Dem . She’s also a writer, journalist and host on Reprezent radio. Her work can be found in Marie Claire, I-D, Tate and intern magazine. She loves cooking, cycling and binge watching TV.