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Recent Makeup Swatching Failures Highlight the Dire Need for Diversity in Beauty Hiring

Why does this keep happening?
The controversial Becca Cosmetics image. Photo: Becca Cosmetics

The controversial Becca Cosmetics image. Photo: Becca Cosmetics

When Fenty Beauty made its debut nearly a year ago, its impressive range of 40 nuanced foundation shades shook the cosmetics world. By offering options for so many different skin tones — and casting models whose complexions matched them in its campaign imagery — it instantly set a new standard and sparked an industry-wide conversation about what inclusivity and diversity in makeup could (and should) be.

Because this wave of reckoning was such an immediate wakeup call, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that with the progress have also come a few notable bumps in the road. In late July, YouTuber Darcei Amanda Tweeted a screenshot of an advertisement for 3CE, the makeup line from Korean lifestyle brand Stylenanda, which was recently acquired by L'Oréal. The image showed two hands seemingly belonging to two different people, one with fair skin and one much darker. Immediately, users began to call out that the darker hand wasn't in fact an earnest effort to show the versatility of the soft orange polish on a range of skin tones, but rather a bad paint job — made obvious by the fact that the palm of the hand was the same exact color as the rest of the arm. As a result, the term "blackface manicure" was disastrously coined. 

Why, people wondered, hadn't the brand simply hired a Black model for the shoot? When hundreds of commenters asked this very question on StyleNanda's Instagram post, the image was eventually taken down from the platform. In its place, the brand posted a brief statement that read: "We are sincerely sorry for the upset caused. We have removed the picture and will no longer be using it to illustrate our products."

A similar incident was repeated only a few weeks later by Becca Cosmetics, a brand that found its massive success largely through championing diversity in both its campaigns and products long before the industry as a whole had made it a priority. Much like in the StyleNanda graphic, Becca's photo (above) showed four arms of different skin tones modeling swatches of the new Skin Love Weightless Blur foundation. Here again, the palms of the deeper-toned models were clearly colored in, highlighting that the true skin tone had been faked — or at least drastically altered.

Within minutes, Becca fans and online spectators took their weighted opinions to Twitter. One user brought up issues aside from the obvious by writing, "Not only is this an issue of race but if you're editing the color to match your swatches, I'd say that's a little a lot like being dishonest about how well your products match different skin colors."

After several days of silence, Becca responded to the backlash with a new photo on social media. "Thanks to everyone who shared feedback on our recent arm swatch image, we hear you and want you to know that we remain committed to continually representing our inclusive Becca Beauties, " the statement read. "To demonstrate this commitment, we've re-shot with real girls from the Becca office."

Coming from a brand that has had such a seemingly genuine commitment and focus on inclusivity in every aspect of its business, many saw the statement as an underwhelming response that lacked any real ownership over the egregious error. Why did it happen in the first place? Who approved the images to go live?  Becca Cosmetics, it should be noted, denied Fashionista's request for further comment on the matter.

These incidents are only the most recent ones in a string of many more where beauty brands have appeared to go out of their way to alienate consumers of color (never forget that YSL kicked off 2018 with this wildly confusing swatch). But it's never become clear how, exactly, these marketing disasters actually happen, especially during a time when diversity seems to be so top-of-mind in the industry. Considering how many people are involved in the approval process for these images, the chances that any of these oversights blameless mishaps become much more grim.

YSL's controversial swatches. Photo: YSL

YSL's controversial swatches. Photo: YSL

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"When things like this happen, I think it's a good wake up call to brands — even ones who have been known to be inclusive in the past — that people are paying attention," says Shyema Azam, editorial director of Tinted, a beauty-focused community for people of underrepresented skin tones. "We are in an age where consumers have a lot more information in their hands through social media, and things that might have slipped by them in the past don't anymore." That these controversies keep happening across so many different companies highlights the dire need for more diverse hiring practices and investment in talent that can represent a broad array of perspectives. "The importance of having diverse voices at these companies and more eyes on their marketing is important," says Azam.

These scenarios shine a light on the obvious lack of people of color working behind the scenes — employed by beauty brands not only as models, but also as scientists working on product development, executives, designers, creative directors and so on. Simply put, it's not good business for beauty companies to continue to exclude entire swaths of customers through imagery that is, at best, pandering and, at worst, incredibly offensive and outright racist.

According to a recent study from Nielsen focusing on the impact and influence of women of color consumers, African-American women's consumer preferences and brand affinities are setting the trend across the U.S. mainstream, driving total Black spending power toward $1.5 trillion by 2021.

"With 92 percent of the population growth in the U.S. over the past 15 years coming from ethnic minorities, it's important for content creators, media platforms, manufacturers, retailers and marketers to understand their future success depends on their ability to appeal and market to a multicultural world," said Andrew McCaskill, Nielsen Senior Vice President, Global Communications & Multicultural Marketing, in a recent interview with Forbes. The message is clear: Don't underestimate, undervalue, or overlook women of color. If you do, there's a lot of cash at stake.

The recent spate of controversies is disheartening, but let's not forget that plenty of brands are getting inclusivity right. Just last month, Thrive Causemetics launched an 18-shade collection of CC creams featuring some of the darkest shades available on the market right now in the category.

"Most CC creams have high levels of zinc and titanium dioxide to make up their sunsreen, which in their raw state is pure white," explains Karissa Bodnar, the company's CEO. "That's what makes it almost impossible for brands to achieve the darker shades. I just don't accept that; I was determined to make a CC cream that was truly inclusive."

Bodnar pulled together the right team to make it happen, from chemists and dermatologists to opthamologists and women of color that she knew in real life — including Essence magazine editors, Bozoma Saint John and Priyanka Chopra. "It's so amazing to hear from women who have never been able to wear a CC cream before," she says of the women who thank her and the brand on social media daily. "It makes me emotional because as a Caucasian woman, I've never gone into a store and thought: I can't use this makeup. So the fact that any woman would feel like she couldn't use one of our products because of her skin tone makes me so determined to include them."

Surely, other industry players striving for the same level of inclusion have felt that alienation first hand. Take the legendary Pat McGrath — whose cosmetics brand, Pat McGrath Labs, was just valued at $1 billion — for example. "I just remember as almost a child shopping in department stores and seeing all of these beautiful colors and then they never worked on my skin, or they were too bruise-y on pale skin," she told Fashionista in a recent interview during a press event in New York City. It's the same reason McGrath has made always made it a priority to communicate the importance of inclusive castings to her team for all campaigns, imagery and swatching.

"With the casting, working with girls of every skin tone is so important, because if you don't show the looks on all sorts of skin tones, how do you even know what you can buy, what suits you, what's right for you? When we launched our palettes before, we put it on every single skin tone we could. Everyone," she said.

As for the brands that have made blunders, Azam maintains that all hope isn't necessarily lost. "I think it speaks a lot for a brand when they own up to their mistakes and are proactive about correcting them," she says. "I've regained my trust in brands I've loved who have messed up, and I don't think it's crazy to think they can win those consumers back." And she sees social media — the very source of many of these controversies — as a tool for rebuilding brand image and relationships with alienated customers. "I feel they should really stay close and engaged with their consumers on social. They have such an important tool where they can talk to them directly, so why not use it?”

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