It’s an unsettling reality – and one I can’t unsee the manifold impacts of.
Scanning rows after rows of foundations in popular pharmacies, supermarkets or retail stores to find something, anything, close to my brown skin tone only to be disappointed and settle for the closest light skin toned product I could compare to. Helpless at the lack of options the store (or rather, every store that doesn’t set me back at least $60 for a single foundation) has for me, it’s almost instinctive for feelings of alienation to follow. What also follow are subconscious thoughts that embed in me the view that fair skin is the ideal, making me feel like a misfit who wore the wrong-coloured suit.
This is an unfortunate but widespread experience for thousands of BIPOC folks out there. From hundreds of marketing campaigns featuring only fair-skinned women, the severe deficiency of BIPOC-catering beauty products to the lack of affordable and attainable choices, it is a sad reality that even in 2021, cosmetic retailers actively choose to cater to a selective section. It is undeniable that the exceedingly profitable beauty industry plays an integral role in creating unrealistic standards of beauty and identity, which in Australia favours a selective fair-skinned or 'whiter' section of the country. And so, this systemic colourism, opted for by leading beauty brands and retailers, creates tangible accessibility barriers on several levels for those who are chosen to be left out or not deemed to be the norm.
Australia’s beauty industry’s tokenistic ‘inclusivity’ is harrowingly superficial, with genuine inclusivity a long way away.
This ignorance begs the question of why? Why, in this day and age, where equal access is a right, not a privilege, are Australian BIPOC communities unapologetically sidelined by the beauty industry? Why do only fair-skinned individuals have ease of access to basic products, with BIPOC people left to opt for substandard alternatives?
Unfortunately, these fundamental questions have been long neglected and justified on so many levels that equal access in the beauty industry is now overlooked, primarily by those it does not affect and increasingly more so by those it does. It’s shrugged off as “that’s just the way it is” or by some excuse concerning shelf space or demand issues, which surprisingly don’t fail to make the space to ensure the availability of lighter-toned products.
“It is an issue that is often always pushed to the side and thought of as, ‘well, nothing is really going to change’ or ‘nothing is really going to be different; this is just how it is’. And things got to the point this year when I thought there is something more I could be doing to address the issue,” Rebecca Willink, the founder of the diversity and inclusivity movement Make The Space, tells SAARI Collective.
After similar experiences of being frustrated at the lack of foundation options available to her or to any other person of colour in leading Australian supermarkets, such as Woolworths and BigW, Melbourne-based Rebecca decided to speak to the store managers. What she found was truly shocking - the darkest shade sold in any Australian store is medium beige.
To visualise - this is the medium beige foundation tone by MCoBeauty, which clearly excludes a broad section of the community. It is unacceptable that the cap for the Australian foundation shade spectrum holds medium beige as the darkest option.
“I got to Woolies and went to the aisles, and the whole range was completely white. I naturally thought foundations may have sold out or it may be a mistake. I then went to another Woolworths store and saw the same thing. All of these retailers only stock the white shades, so you can't actually go into a store anywhere in Australia and buy a shade meant for any South Asian skin or dark skin. Basically, if you are darker than a medium beige, your only option was to buy from their store online at a higher price point or to go to a higher-end store, like Sephora, which is an investment many can't afford.”
Annoyed but determined, Rebecca decided to reach out to the popular brand MCoBeauty, who blamed the lack of availability on monopoly retailers such as Woolworths and Coles, whose CEOs quoted a lack of physical shelf space and demand as justifications. She then started a petition titled ‘Make The Space, Australia’, which quickly gained momentum and signatures. Several women shared similar experiences, the feelings of alienation and inequality that followed, and their gratitude to Rebecca for speaking up.
“Make The Space initially came from me wanting Australian retailers to make the physical space for people of colour on their shelves. But it soon turned to something bigger than that. It became a platform to raise awareness of the several complex inequalities people of colour experience within the beauty industry.
“It is crucial that there is space made for people of colour within the [beauty] industry as a whole. There is demand – there is me, and you, and the thousands of people who have signed my petition. It is collectively the brands and the retailers’ responsibility to work together to make their products accessible to everyone, which at the moment they are far from.”
Campaign creator Rebecca Willink holding a MakeTheSpace sign. Source: supplied
Rebecca states the beauty media industry in Australia has a moral responsibility to acknowledge that the current situation is inequitable and is in dire need of change. “I hope that if the Make the Space movement is successful in bringing about change, then cultures who have long been neglected and ignored by beauty brands and retailers will finally be able to see themselves represented visibly on store shelves," she says.
"Australian retailers who fail to include make-up, hair and skin-care products catering for all customers send the message that people of colour don’t matter, are not valued or appreciated enough to be catered for. This lack of representation has the power to make those impacted feel invisible and can contribute to feelings of shame, low self-worth and low self-esteem, which is particularly problematic for young people growing up in Australia who may already feel ostracised due to the colour of their skin.”
This is also felt by Melbourne-based makeup artist and content creator Ruchi Page who believes when BIPOC people are not represented, there is a definite decline in self-worth within the community.
She reflects that growing up, she quickly accepted her fate in the beauty industry by believing the narrative that makeup "just wasn’t for deeper skin tones". “It wasn’t until I was 19 and started really wanting to invest in makeup that I started reflecting on my frustration. I was repetitively turned away from makeup counters due to a lack of shade ranges. If I wanted to try complexion products, I had to save my money to buy high-end products, but still needed to be selective. I understood this to be such a simple need; the fact people of colour have to climb up a steep hill to reach the bare minimum is unacceptable.”
Melbourne-based makeup artist and content created Ruchi Page is tired of the whys of exclusion faced by BIPOC communities. Source: supplied
And while representation has undeniably evolved, it is still often narrowed down to check boxes of tokenism, blatant performative actions, pseudo-woke campaigning or afterthought actions, impacts of which go far beyond the beauty industry. “When life is lived with a safety net of general acceptance (which is a major part of the privilege that Caucasian people experience), daily situations are easier, shopping experiences are easier, new friendship groups can be easier. From my own experience, I have either been seen as different, categorised or stereotyped. New social situations meant that I had to earn my place in a group and brace myself for racially stereotyped jokes. So, when we see BIPOC represented beyond the stereotype, we can begin to eradicate these generalisations,” Ruchi voices.
Now, Rebecca’s petition has over 6,840 signatures and has prompted the monopoly players Coles and Woolworths to commence a limited trial run to diversify the range of cosmetic colours in their supermarkets. Woolworths will be offering 31 additional tones in Maybelline New York’s Fit Me Matte+ Poreless range, which will be available online only for metropolitan and greater areas of Sydney and Melbourne. Coles is participating in a three-month trial offering the full range of Maybelline Fit Me Matte+ Poreless Foundation which will be available both online and in-store in 10 stores across Australia. This is a world-first for Maybelline, where their full 40 shade range is stocked in the supermarket sector.
And while this response is a step further from where we were, it is also massively problematic. For starters, the two leading Australian retailers, which possess a labyrinth of resources at their disposal, are not advertising this monumental trial. Its success, and consequently the future of accessing inclusive and shade-diverse beauty products, is solely dependent on word of mouth. This strategy can almost be viewed as the trial being set up to fail - given it will be convenient to justify the lack of availability through the lack of sales in a limited trial run during the pandemic.
Moreover, it will also set a harmful precedent for other stores and companies to build on. As a woman of colour, it is infuriating that the supermarket conglomerates refuse to do better and are simply ticking a box to avoid a media outrage, or so it seems. This trial is reducing a massive Australian BIPOC community to a threshold of sales that demand to be met while offering lighter-skinned Australians a free pass and the privilege of ignorance.
Sign the Make The Space petition here.
Follow Make The Space on Instagram here.
Find your local Coles and Woolworths store partaking in the trials here.
Pranjali Sehgal is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne. She is a member of SAARI's Editorial Team and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Instagram.