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courtesy of Instagram/@charlottemensah

How women of colour are reclaiming natural beauty


TextTahmina Begum

“It is important that black businesses are created to benefit our community" Charlotte Mensah

In the past three years, natural beauty has become cool again. Doubling in sales since 2016 and forecasted to be worth $21.78 billion by 2024, the hunt for natural beauty is influenced by our more environmentally conscious lifestyle choices. Whether that’s having more sustainable packaging or knowing what goes into our mascara, our beauty, skin and hair care has turned green. With this demand for natural beauty comes the repackaging of natural ingredients - clay, coconut, avocado, turmeric - as new magic ingredients. But of course, these ingredients aren’t new, and to frame them as such is to whitewash the rich cultural history these ingredients stem from. Tired of Western beauty brands cherry-picking from their cultures but doing nothing in return to support the broader communities, more and more women of colour are creating their own natural beauty businesses, reclaiming their cultural traditions, and more importantly giving back to their communities.

“The mainstream may have just discovered the healing powers of turmeric but this has been used by women dating back to ancient ayurvedic beauty remedies,” says the host of the Naked Beauty podcast and avid DIY beauty hacker, Brooke DeVard Ozaydinli. “Many black and brown cultures have a deep history of using natural ingredients for wellness and to see wellness whitewashed completely ignores that history.” Indeed, the problem with The Goops of the world is that they add a hefty price tag to nature’s resources, which have been a staple part of everyday black and brown beauty traditions. “I’m over these overpriced face masks that you could easily whip up in your own kitchen!” says Ozaydinli. “I’d love for more women to realise how easy it is to make a body scrub at home (it’s as simple as brown sugar, olive oil, maybe some vitamin E if you’re feeling fancy) versus buying it from Sephora or even Credo for that matter. The big secret for everyone who loves natural beauty products: you can make most of them yourself.”

According to Clare Varga, Acting Head of Beauty at WGSN Beauty, a new forecasting platform for beauty product development that will launch in Spring 2019, the rise of black and brown women setting up their own natural beauty businesses is a direct result of knowing their roots. “These women, who grew up watching their mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers find solutions and create their own personal care products from using all sorts of natural tried-and-tested ingredients, are now taking all that wisdom and ingenuity and creating natural-based products that not only are good but do good.” And consumers are eating it up - or at least putting it on their faces. “Consumers of all colours are seeking out brands that not only deliver tailored products that work but brands that align with their values and ethics,” says Varga. So, if you’re terrible at whipping up a honey face mask at home, you can at least support the WoC led beauty brands who help other women stay in touch with their roots and also respect the context behind these beauty rituals.

"For Charlotte Mensah, it’s not only about rooting her brand in her culture but also about giving back to her community and empowering women"

While expecting her baby in 2016, Zara Saleem was trying to find a product that helped with her stretch marks, changes in skin colour and extremely dry skin. It was only when she was digging through the ancestral recipe books that she found a black tea scrub recipe, which worked wonders. Fast-forward two years (plus another baby and another round of skin issues) and the Black Tea Body Scrub was born, the hero product of her very own skincare line Delhicious. “To use natural ingredients is something that is so deeply rooted in our culture,” says Saleem. “We see it as easy, modern and relevant as opposed to ‘mystical’ and ‘exotic’ which is how it’s presented in the Western mass markets.” Drawing from a long line of hakims (a physician using natural Indian remedies), Zara Saleem wanted to reclaim her Indian heritage but also broaden its appeal. With the image of Ayurveda being “old fashioned,” she decided to give her products a modern twist. “So cue the typical gold foil henna designs,” she says.

For award-winning hairstylist, Charlotte Mensah, purpose also lies in the power of community and history. Though born in the UK, Mensah moved to Ghana at three months old to be raised by her grandparents. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Mensah’s eponymous natural haircare line is about embracing all that Africa has to offer. For Mensah, it was discovering manketti oil – “one of the richest, most hydrating ingredients nature has to offer” – that first begun her beauty journey. Six years on, sourcing her ingredients from Northern Namibia to Ghana, and describing her haircare as “London meets Accra!”, Mensah radiates the belief that our heritage is truly amazing. “The ancient processes, rituals and traditions are being revived and are now being used to form the basis of new brand offerings,” she says.

For these natural beauty brands, decolonising beauty isn’t just about rekindling with indigenous beauty rituals but also about uplifting the communities in a deeper way than merely compensating the locals for their labour.it’s not only about rooting her brand in her culture but also about giving back to her community and particularly empowering women and young girls. “It is important that black businesses are created to benefit our community,” she says. “We do this by giving them financial independence in order to support their family through purchasing raw materials.” In doing so, Mensah hopes this will contribute to increasing urbanisation, expenditure and a swelling middle class.

"The trend of natural beauty has enabled communities worldwide to broaden their market and arguably sustain their traditions. But what happens to this trade and culture when the trends die?"

For Saleem, it was through her initial research on how to source tea ethically from India (the key ingredient behind Delhicious’ body scrub is Indian black Assam tea), that made her realise that she could help women beyond their beauty needs. Once Saleem discovered how many young girls are trafficked due to the tea industry, she ensured Delhicious donates 10 per cent of their profits to a charity helping to stop this abuse and aid those affected.

Certainly, the trend of natural beauty has given communities worldwide attention and enabled them to broaden their market and arguably sustain their traditions. But what happens to this trade and culture when mainstream-backed trends die? With WoC-led natural beauty brands, it’s about maintaining traditions rather than “discovering” the latest ingredient which can often end badly. Just look at the coconut oil mania of 2016 when the “superfood” became the latest beauty must-have only to be attacked a few months later for not being as great for your skin as initially advertised by the large beauty companies. By the time black and brown women had told everyone all the different ways in which their culture has used coconut oil throughout history, coconut oil was revealed to be like any other oil and promptly dropped from favour, which had obvious repercussions on the communities that sourced and produced coconut oil.

When I ask Saleem and Mensah what they're most tired of, they were unanimous: The Western beauty industry's lack of responsibility in ensuring local communities are both credited for and supported in their longstanding cultural traditions. So, how do we change this? Buy local, buy from those that give back, buy even when ingredients lose their hype, and natural beauty dies as a trend. The way to decolonise beauty is to stop giving our money to those that appropriate and don’t give back to our black and brown cultures. It's as simple as that. 

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