The Art of Beauty: How Black Women Are Making it Our Own

Making lemonade out of lemons has always been our strong suit

Since the beginning of time, beauty is something that has always had a market. Dating back all the way to 4000 B.C when early beauty treatments used berries, bugs, charcoal and other natural resources to create makeup, scrubs, pastes, and exfoliates, one can argue that the market for beauty is one of the oldest markets around today. Ancient Egyptians were known to use kohl as our modern day equivalent of eyeliner in order to create more dramatic eyes, use human hair and wool for wigs (which quickly spread to other civilizations), and unguent to keep their skin hydrated and supple. Borrowing from the Egyptians the Jews adopted the use of makeup as well while the Romans would use chalk to whiten their complexions and rouge as blush while Persian women used henna dyes to stain their hair and faces. Over time, the need for beauty products only increased as technology and innovation has helped to revolutionize and mass produce it.

Despite calls by new age thinkers and even some feminists to divest from the beauty industry in favor of a natural look and to embrace your natural beauty, there will never be a shortage of people who want to use modern day beauty tools to enhance it. Today, the beauty industry is a behemoth, worth $532 billion. But the influence of black people on the beauty industry hasn’t lessened. The launch of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty consisted of a 40 shade foundation range with an emphasis on darker skin tones quickly became the norm for beauty brands due to what is called the “Fenty Effect.” Fashion designers like Ann Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress and Zelda Wynn Valdes not dressed incredibly notable people like Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt but is also known for her glittery, hip defining bustier gowns as well as the first ever Playboy bunny costume. Tracy Reese designs and fashion sense has helped our forever first Lady Michelle Obama become a fashion icon. If we’re not contributing our ideas we’re contributing our money. Black women are responsible for 22% of America’s $42 billion a year personal care market even though we only make up less than 7% of the population and the black hair care industry alone is worth more $2.5 billion. But despite our profitability and innovations to the beauty world, we continue to be neglected, ignored and even poisoned by the same industry we have aided.

Photo by Marcus Lewis on Unsplash

Despite the progress we have made in recent years, white beauty still remains the standard while black beauty remains othered. Blackness is the dirty, impure opposite to pure, pristine whiteness. Therefore, blackness in all of it’s impurity could never be considered beautiful and could never be considered feminine. From makeup, to hair care, to skincare, black people are nowhere to be seen, despite being a driving force behind the beauty industries unimaginable profits. At Revlon only 5% of employees at the director level or above are black. At Sephora it’s only 6% and at L’Oreal? 8% of black people at the executive level. But even at the consumer level black women continue to be ignored. Stories of black models and actresses having to do their own makeup and hair because the makeup artists and hair stylists didn’t know how to work on them saturate the mainstream. Just recently High School Musical star Monique Coleman revealed the reason why she wore headbands when playing her character was because of the lack of hairstylists that knew how to do it. The erasure of black women expands in advertising where many beauty companies have treated black women as an afterthought because it was believed that a market for us didn’t exist. Even with the attempts to expand diversity in makeup and advertising we have witnessed many companies flounder and stumble as the lack of quality and marketing for darker makeup products have caused them to be pulled.

Even within sectors of the black beauty industry that specifically cater to black women, it can be hard to find black people who have ownership over the products we use in daily life. Of the 9,000 beauty supply stores only about 3,000 are owned by black people while the remainder are predominantly owned by Koreans. Not only are black beauty stores largely owned by Koreans, but the manufacturing and distribution of black hair, weave and extensions is largely monopolized by Korean who often refuse to sell to black beauty supply store owners making it difficult for them to build up their inventory.

But even if black women had control and were welcomed into the board rooms, most of the cosmetics and hair care products aimed at Black women contain more toxic ingredients than those manufactured for other ethnic groups. In a study done by the Silent Spring Institute, they analyzed 18 hair products that are commonly used by women of color and found 66 chemicals in them that can have toxic effects. But a large number of these toxic compounds were nowhere to be found on the ingredients label. In fact fewer than one fourth of the products marketed to Black women scored low in potentially hazardous ingredients. The chemicals found in many hair care products marketed to black women have been found to cause asthma, hormone disruptions, cancer, early puberty, preterm births, and obesity. Hair extensions like Kanekalon Hair that are used to braid have also been rumored to have dangerous chemical carcinogens.

With the erasure of our existence from the beauty industry and the poisoning of our beauty products, Black women have been forced to create our own and in doing so we have pushed the boundaries of the beauty industry. Black women like Trinity Mouzon Wofford along with her cofounder Issey became the youngest black female entrepreneur to ever launch her beauty and wellness brand Golde in Sephora. Creating the brand and the products in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with her life partner Issey, Golde has taken on it’s own life being featured by the likes of Beyonce herself. Mouzon Wofford launched her self funded brand in 2017 in order to “usher in a new era of wellness centered on approachability and the belief that well should feel good.” Her line of turmeric products works to help with stress, bloating and skincare. The best part, her products are 100% natural and vegan friendly. Mouzon Wofford’s brand is all inclusive but her release of Golde is one of the many companies that works to create clean non toxic products that black women and women of all walks of life can enjoy. Today Mouzon is one of the only black women who is heading a major wellness brand that stands alongside brands like Goop and Madewell. But regardless, her work has helped to carve a path for other black women who desire to create clean beauty and wellness products and other black women are walking alongside her.

In 2019, Ciara Imani May turned to braids when she grew out her fade. But after experiencing an itchy and inflamed scalp, she began to be curious about the chemicals put in artificial hair. While acknowledging that rinsing the hair with apple cider vinegar can help, because the fiber is made out of a plastic called PVC there’s not much you can do about the chemicals already in the hair. In order to combat this, May started a social enterprise called Rebundle which recycles used synthetic hair and creates plant based braiding hair products. Her mission: to include black women in the ongoing discussion about sustainability and deliver us products that recognize the intersection between sustainability and black hair care as well as creating hair that is comfortable and beautiful. Not only is May working to address serious issues in the hair extension industry in regards to unsustainability and exposure to toxins, but in doing so she has become the first but is the first U.S made brand to do so.

The beauty industry has a long way to go, but the good news is that black women aren’t twiddling our fingers waiting for change. We’re bringing it to ourselves. There are so many black women out there who are working to deliver black women clean quality beauty products because black women deserve to feel beautiful too.

The directory of Black owned business can be found on Beyonce’s website and not only features black owned business in beauty, but in fashion, art, home and living, restaurants and more. I highly encourage you to check it out.

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22, Taylor Bryant

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“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” I come with truth because I care more about the world than I should.

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