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Kim Kardashian West Beauty concealer swatches diversity
via @kkwbeauty

How make-up swatches became a political battleground

In our new social-media driven beauty industry, swatches can reveal how shallow brands’ attempts at inclusivity really are

Last week, Becca, a cosmetics brand based in Australia, attempted to jump on the diversity train by using a black hand to model its darker shades of foundation. However, the images backfired and sparked outrage. The dark hands in their photo had equally dark palms – and, of course, black people don’t actually have black palms.

Becca’s misstep was reminiscent of a set of photographs from Stylenanda, a South Korean brand that was caught black-handing in a nail polish campaign earlier in the month. Becca apologised on Twitter, ensuring its followers that it has a commitment to “continually representing inclusive Becca beauties”, but the embarrassing mistake was symptomatic of a wider issue in the beauty industry. Social media conversations around beauty and inclusivity are still lightyears ahead of clumsily put together marketing campaigns from companies who are in a hurry to appear inclusive, rather than truly put the legwork in to include people of colour in every department of their organisations.

Like all good stories, this one started with Rihanna. Applying strips of eyeshadow or foundation onto skin to demonstrate its colour and quality wasn’t invented by Fenty Beauty, but after the flawless rollout of its impressive foundation shade range in September 2017, the politics around swatching shifted dramatically. The brand’s commitment to women right across the shade spectrum was hypervisible in a beige landscape of same-old ads with their Eurocentric ideals of beauty. Straight hair, curls, kinks, porcelain tones, rich mahogany hues – suddenly, these were all centred, and they were all celebrated, which helped to add to the social media storm around the collection launch. Immediately, make-up brands like Estée Lauder responded by Instagramming their palest to darkest foundations swatched on black women’s arms.

The simple act of swatching a shade range instantly exposes how much a brand cares (or doesn’t) about catering to women of colour – and so these images have naturally become a battleground in the current politicisation of beauty. Beautyblender, who started off making sponges for foundation application, recently drew criticism online after vloggers swatched their foundation collection, and found that the majority of the 32 shades are indistinguishable from each other.

Swatches are instrumental to a new beauty industry: one where products are often bought online rather than in-store, and so make-up lovers have to see how the products match the skin tones of vloggers and social media influencers before they buy. Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics arguably led the way for this new industry, as a brand that doesn’t actually appear in stores, but blew up entirely on social platforms. “Everyone knows when I’m releasing a product on Snapchat that I will be MIA (...) I’m running around my house, finding the perfect lighting, the perfect swatches. My housekeeper, I use her arm for my Snapchats. She has the best arm for swatches,” the mogul told Fast Company in an interview about her empire last year. While it’s bizarre that she uses her maid as a human prop for her billion dollar business, if you follow Kylie Jenner on Snapchat or Instagram, then then you’ll know that these ten-second swatch videos showing off the shades are central to the marketing of her new products.  “I care a lot about what my products look like when people first see them.” They happen with such regularity that even though they’ve been the subject of parody, the viral nature of these images has propelled the brand forward. According to Forbes, Kylie Cosmetics has sold more than $630 million worth of makeup since its inception.

In an age when most people first encounter a beauty range via photos of swatches online, putting out a tone-deaf and tone-invariant collection just doesn’t cut it. In January, YSL were ridiculed online for failing to shade-match swatches on a black arm – the concealer shown was nowhere near suitable for black women, but they included one anyway, feeling that the appearance of a black model alone would suffice. The company also drew criticism when they dropped the All Hours Foundation line in August of last year, with the claim that the products would “suit all skin tones”. People on social media quickly noted that only one shade looked suitable for darker-skinned customers.

Kim Kardashian also sparked backlash in March this year when launching new shades in the her already-criticised KKW beauty concealer range, as the promo shot hid the few shades that do cater to dark-skinned women, but still centred the black model in the campaign. In these cases, black women felt that companies wanted to use their image to boost the brand’s popularity, without truly catering to their needs.

This is also what Becca have attempted to do, by Photoshopping black hands into its campaign: they care more about appearing diverse than they do about including black women. Becca eventually shared a new image with real black hands, but the entire aftermath was hollow, right down to the language used in their apology, in which they claimed they are committed to “inclusive Becca beauties”. “Inclusive beauty” is nothing but a buzzword, only adding to the non-specificity of the cosmetic industry’s approach to “diversity”. Instead of hiring models of multiple ethnicities, making sure their workforces aren’t just white middle class people, and creating products in varying shades, many companies are keen to fast-track and keep up appearances.

Becca’s admission of having “adjusted” the skin colour of the model in the image to appear darker doesn’t just “miss the mark” – it shows how they want to employ the image of change without enacting it at all. Fenty Beauty started a real revolution – but as companies race to catch up with Rihanna, they’re cutting corners, and it shows. Blacking up hands is symptomatic of the fact that brands still think that representation means presentation only. To them, as long as we see brown skin more often, we buy into the idea that the brand is truly inclusive without them having to really change.