The foundations of beauty as a dark-skinned woman

This piece originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Breaking Brown Silence’s Newsletter, We Rise. You can follow BBS’s founder Mayuri Govender on Instagram and Patreon. Please support BIPOC and racism education.

It was the first time my mother said I could wear makeup for a family wedding; my cousin was getting married. The girls got dressed in glittering sarees and lehengas, jewellery that sparkled when the light hit them and their pastel skin blushed with hints of pink and silver. I used to sit in my salwaar, admiring how beautiful they all looked, until that day when I was 13, when mum said I could be like one of them. I patted the foundation onto my skin with a sponge and mimicked what I had watched my older cousins doing, and I turned out looking like a ghost. I sat in the bathroom crying for what seemed like an eternity until my sister managed to salvage whatever little makeup remained on my face. I went to the wedding looking half-decent, glad that everyone was looking at the bride and not me.

This story is not unique. Dark-skinned girls the world over have had an endless struggle in finding beauty products that not only match our skin tones but agree with our skin concerns too. When I was growing up, we had “Dark” and “Deep Dark” from which to choose – both with ashy undertones that made me look like I died and woke up in a zombie movie reenactment. Shades like “Chocolate” looked like melted Milky Bar and “Sand” was as if someone went to a beach in Anguilla and bottled the snowy grains and labelled it “for dark skin”.

When MAC first released its shades for darker skin when I was in university, the company was lauded for its “bold move” and I was like, “WTF, girl do you see any variety? More like 50 Shades of Beige”. It’s as if they found one black person who happened to look kinda white and tested the colours on that one person and said, “Yes. This is good.”

The colourism I faced in my youth had aunts telling me to pick a foundation one or two shades lighter than my skin so that I look fairer-skinned than I am but in the same breath being told that I shouldn’t wear this or that because the colour doesn’t suit my skin. (If I could even find one shade lighter than my skin that would be amazing but let’s not go there yet.) The obsession with erasing my dark skin did not go unnoticed – in fact, it made me more conscious of it. I pasted my face with colours that would make me seem lighter but of course it looked ridiculous. I would highlight most of my face with a lighter shade of concealer, essentially lightening my skin with makeup and masking who I really was. It was a performance and soon it began to feel like a resentful apology for having the type of skin everyone hated. 

The women I grew up with were quite the opposite of European standards of beautiful; they had rich, strong voices that spoke truth to power with presence that took down the apartheid regime one brick at a time. I looked up to them in awe but it was a long time before I began to appreciate their skin that was as rich as their voices because it was their skin that put them in that position in the first place. We were taught to be ashamed of dark skin from birth – being born brown in a political existence from Day 1. I cannot stress how much of a burden that is. I am a spokesperson for being brown in white spaces. I am a guinea pig for demographic purposes. And to top it all off, I can’t even find the makeup to do it in.

Society hating dark skin meant I was never considered conventionally beautiful – not even when I was thin, fit, and youthful – all other things society deems worthy. I had no way to hide my bad skin days when acne would flare up just before my period or when I was stressed – even if it was just to feel better about myself. Every day, I wake up in dark skin and the world tells me every day that it’s not good enough. Especially in the Indian diaspora where not only aspirations of whiteness are rife, but fairness is equated with beauty and darkness is considered ugly, no matter what. This was hailed loud and clear when Maybelline released its highly inclusive Fit Me foundation range of 42 shades but a mere 14 of these colours were released in India – only the light ones. The obsession with fairness is rife within the Indian community and it shows in Bollywood, advertising, and skin bleaching products targeted at Indian women the world over.

Though Black Opal Beauty has been making shades for brown skin for decades, it wasn’t widely available or well-backed. When Fenty launched in 2017, it was a dream come true. I was in Ireland when I got my first bottle of shade 440 in the foundation range that was designed for oily, melanated skin. The matching concealer and setting powder came to a whopping R1 400 and I wondered if this is what the cost of being dark-skinned is – a trip to Europe and many Rands-are-not-your-friend Euros later. It also got me wondering why it had to be a black woman making shades for black skin. Why couldn’t an existing makeup company just do it without having to have the golden-toned Rihanna behind it? The same goes for Pat McGrath. Let’s not get into Black UP and how the entire brand was literally stolen from its African founder, Bernard Fabrice Mahabo.

When a range has about 50 shades, almost every single tone is covered from the lilly-whites and porcelains to the deepest shades and a range of undertones – a demand that is growing. However, dare we make a brand only for brown skin and it will flop like a soufflé in my kitchen. Many brands are following suit from Fenty but there is still little consistency and dark shades are still fetishised and likened to hot drinks and puddings with names like “Ganache”, “Chai”, and “Butter Pecan”. Ugh.

To boot, the brands that do have the 50-shade ranges? They’re not available in Africa, where these shades are most in demand. Like, dude. 

It basically tells dark-skinned people that we are not worth the investment of R&D into makeup, but when they do, they mark up the prices up to 80% more than products for our fair-skinned counterparts. It boils down to a disinterest in a market that is growing and thriving and perpetuates a self-hatred in those with dark skin. 

Makeup may seem like a trivial topic when talking about civil rights but it’s important to talk about it. The beauty industry influences the way our society perceives human beauty, privilege, and worth. While it has progressed in terms of racial inequality with inclusive makeup lines and media celebrating dark-skinned beauty, colourism remains deeply ingrained in society and it won’t stop with ignoring our aunties at weddings. It needs to change from the top.