By Dhriti Gupta
I scan the rows upon rows of brightly packaged creams and lipsticks of every colour imaginable. My mom has let me loose in the makeup section of Superstore and I have approximately 15 minutes to find the concealer of my dreams before she’s done sifting through produce. I know the packaging by heart—fluorescent orange lid, doe-foot applicator, and big bold silver letters, all caps. There it is. The Rimmel Wake Me Up Concealer, in all of its cosmetic glory.
There are four shades to choose from: Ivory, Classic Beige, Soft Beige and True Ivory. Oh. I falter for a second. I hold the darkest shade, True Ivory, next to the soft brown skin of my own hand. You know what, in all of Zoella’s videos she says to choose a concealer a shade lighter than your skin tone — you need that little extra bit of brightness under your eyes! Besides, she swears by this concealer, so I can make it work for me.
The next morning I eagerly apply the pale fluid in two bold swipes under my eyes. At school, I walk to my locker, feeling the tightness in my chest that comes with wanting to be noticed. My friend Angela walks over. I beam at her, waiting for her to shower me with compliments of how bright-eyed I look this morning.
She catches a glimpse of my face as she slams her locker door shut. “You OK, Dhriti? You look kinda gray today.” The smile melts off my face. I rush to the washroom, desperate for her to be wrong. I stare at myself in the mirror, finally noticing the ashy rings underneath my eyes, and how they contrast against the rest of my skin. Dejectedly, I wet a paper towel at the sink and scrub off the concealer.
This was five years ago, when I was a small brown girl in a huge eurocentric cosmetic world, where a beauty guru’s recommendation was gospel. I’d like to say some things have changed since then. For one, Rihanna has since launched her own makeup line called Fenty Beauty, whose successful range of 40+ shades has prompted other beauty brands to follow suit.
If the extra money that comes with catering to people of all colours is not enough, brands are certainly held more accountable by their consumers for the shades they make available. But what is most important is the emergence of a new wave of racialized beauty influencers that I, along with other women of colour, can look to for advice that works for us.
Max Lara, 23, was just starting out on YouTube when she was first approached by a brand who wanted her to promote a skin-whitening product on her Instagram.
In the Philippines, where Lara lives, skin-bleaching and brightening creams are the norm — part of a societal preference for eurocentric features. She said intravenous skin whitening is also a regular offering at beauty parlours. The process involves injecting glutathione, an antioxidant thought to help lighten skin, directly into the veins.
“It’s normal here, and people want to do it instead of accepting the skin they’re in,” Lara said. “Our standard for beauty is basically white beauty.”
With the combination of societal pressures and the appeal of her first sponsorship, Lara agreed to do the campaign. But as soon as she posted it, she felt ashamed. “It was basically me turning my back on everything I believed in,” she said.
Since then, Lara has focused her channel on self-acceptance and encourages viewers to embrace their own beauty without alteration. She now adamantly refuses to promote any sort of bleaching products, even if that means sponsorships don’t come along as often.
“Creating content for my channel, I’ve always tried to target it towards those who don’t really know what to do with the features that they have,” she said. “I’ve never been afraid of creating something that’s not generic, or that isn’t standard and for everybody.”
She hopes to be a part of the movement in the Philippines that aims for individuals to embrace their darker skin.
Sandy Lin was just seven years old when she was first faced with an absence of people who looked like her. She had received a Tommy Hilfiger campaign magazine in the mail and was excitedly flipping through it only to notice there was not a single Asian model.
“I was looking through it and I realized there were a bunch of blonde, light-brown haired, beautiful Caucasian girls, and I was like, ‘Wow they’re so pretty,’ and I realized that none of them even looked like me,” she said. “I just remember feeling like I could never do something like this. Because it’s not what people want.”
But now 28, Lin has gone on to defy those expectations by creating her own beauty and fashion YouTube channel that has over 40,000 subscribers. Most of her makeup tutorials are catered towards people with monolids — a feature of hers that she grew up feeling insecure about, but has now chosen to embrace.
“I’m no longer going to feel put down for my eye shape because that totally defines who I am as a Chinese-American woman and for the longest time, I didn’t want to own that,” Lin said. “At a certain point I realized that I can’t cater to everyone because I am not that. I am specifically Chinese-American.”
Lin doesn’t feel worried about separating her content to appeal to a target audience, considering how she felt excluded from the media because of her ethnicity for so long. She also hopes that, to some extent, her advice transcends racial similarities.
“Maybe they don’t do their eyeliner like me, but maybe I can still help them with figuring out which colours to use together, or how to blend certain things,” she said.
Tasmia Masud, 17, an international student from Bangladesh, has a similar perspective on why it’s important to see people of colour in the beauty industry.
“I watch tutorials from people of different colours. I do it so I can learn something different from their own makeup techniques,” she said. “Makeup is for everyone. And I feel like for a long time, that wasn’t the statement. It just felt like it was for white people, they just wouldn’t say it.”
When YouTuber Daye La Soul got into the beauty sphere, she quickly came to understand that catering to a cultural audience might initially hinder her growth as an influencer.
By basing her channel mainly around her natural hair journey and helping other Black women embrace their natural textures, Daye understood the potential limits of the racial focus of her channel. But, as her channel grew, she noticed that people of all backgrounds were commenting on her videos, letting her know they appreciate her content even if they couldn’t personally relate.
With her hair videos, Daye wants to break down some of the barriers that exist within her own community. In one of her videos, she critiques the system of hair typing in the Black community, and instead focused on the causes behind common hair problems.
“Everything that you struggle with, somebody on the other end of the spectrum can struggle with. Just because you have an afro textured hair doesn’t mean that your hair has to be dry,” she explained. Daye wants more people to focus on the makeup of their hair texture rather than the physical curl pattern.
Growing up biracial, Brooklyn Johnson, 19, came to understand these struggles. Having much kinkier hair than her mom and sister, Johnson found it difficult to attempt the same styles as them. So she turned to YouTube to make sense of things. She learned how to braid and twist using video tutorials aimed toward other Black women with kinky hair.
“I don’t think that it’s a matter of we want to exclude people, I think it’s just people in my community want to see this,” she said.
Daye’s viewers inspire her to continue making her name heard on YouTube. In her early days, when she expressed her fear of comparing to the expansiveness of the platform, they told her: “We don’t care what they’re doing, we care about what you’re doing.”
“And I was thinking, that’s absolutely right. Everybody has a story, but nobody has my story,” Daye said. “Nobody can tell something the way I can tell it, nobody will see it the way I can see it.”