An unfortunate stereotype associated with the beauty and fashion industries is that they are a place of ignorance. Those that work in these industries are often met with scathing remarks to this effect. Although like every stereotype; this does not apply to everyone.
The presence of ignorance and more so racism cannot be ignored.
For decades, there have been discussions in regard to black women and black culture by extension. Our race is exploited by the world; black talent (writers, designers, models, make-up artists even doctors and children in school) are simultaneously excluded and looked down upon.
However, in the recent years we have seen what seems to be an obsession with typically black features. Fuller lips, darker skin and curvier bodies are all the rage. Many celebrities have admittedly gone under the knife in an effort to gain these features. What makes this offensive is the ridicule that black women and all black people essentially have endured for naturally having these very features. Features that are only deemed attractive when mimicked by women of other races. It seems that being ‘black’ is now ‘it’.
Many were left stunned when a renown French magazine Numero, had a feature dubbed ‘African Queen’. This publication opted to use a white woman, who in the pictures appeared black. This is from the heavy tan she had gotten.
They also saw it appropriate to ensure she was dressed in African regalia for the entire spread. This serves as just one of the many appalling examples of the beauty industry incorporating black aesthetics and black culture. But note, it’s not using actual black people and celebrating this powerful race.
Many brands and designers are quick to use black aesthetics: our hairstyles, our garments, our dark skin as well, but are not as enthusiastic about including us in their campaigns.
Designers such as Marc Jacobs are notorious for this. He has included hairstyles such as Bantu knots and dreadlocks on white models in his shows. However, he was not as enthusiastic about stating the origins of the looks. Model Herieth Paul insists that “If a designer is going to include tribal aesthetics in their work, they should credit the specific tribe they drew inspiration from.”
Though a quick glance at both industries may portray changing times and a final embrace of black beauty, former model Tyra Banks warns that this, like many other times, may just be a trend. She reminds us, in an interview with Daily Mail, that there have been seasons where women of color were ‘in’. Seasons where Brazilian models were all the rave, then African models, then Asian models. But we all know, white women were consistently the default. “There has always been a large presence of white models on the runway, with the presence of other races being trends that were eventually dropped.”
The disinterest in actual inclusion of black talent often shows itself when there are few makeup artists, let alone hair stylists, backstage that are willing and able to work on black models. Supermodel Veronica Webb famously missed the opportunity to be on the cover of a magazine because the hair stylist present didn’t know how to do black hair. “I had a terrible experience early on in my career where I was booked for a cover, and the hairdresser had absolutely no idea what to do with my hair… It cost me the first American cover I could have had, and it was a good five years before I got another chance.” Decades later, model Anok Yai states that that is still her biggest frustration; a lack of stylists with knowledge on black hair.
The only way that we shall see this ‘trend’ come to an end is simple, inclusion of people of color.
Not just of models but of designers, makeup artists, writers, photographers, creative directors and contributors, as well as casting agents and other creatives. Include people of color and appreciate their culture, their history, their practices. Moreover, not just for a short period of time but to embrace black culture. Then can we say that the industry has learnt to truly celebrate black people and black culture. A world that celebrates our race.
A mere glance at the diversity of models that have shown up in Fenty Beauty campaigns displays what happens when people of color are involved in the decision making process of beauty/fashion campaigns. The appointment of Virgil Abloh as the artistic director at Louis Vuitton and Edward Enninful at Vogue are encouraging.
However, for our race to truly stop being a mere ‘trend’, we must have a seat at the table. It starts with you, fight for our seat at the table.
Excerpt from Beyoncés interview with Vogue
Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like. That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell.
When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because black people did not sell. Clearly that has been proven a myth. Not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.
It’s important to me that I help open doors for younger artists. There are so many cultural and societal barriers to entry that I like to do what I can to level the playing field, to present a different point of view for people who may feel like their voices don’t matter.
Imagine if someone hadn’t given a chance to the brilliant women who came before me: Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and the list goes on. They opened the doors for me, and I pray that I’m doing all I can to open doors for the next generation of talents.
If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose. The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.
Featured Image Courtesy of Isaac West’s Instagram