Though Black faces are more common in mainstream beauty than they’ve been in years past, real representation extends much further than advertising campaigns. And companies still have work to do in digging into what that looks like.
Over a series of talks as part of Black Girl Freedom Week 2022, the message was about storytelling and space — space for “Black girls, femmes and gender-expansive youth” to take up, and space for them to exist beyond the tropes and boxes that beauty and other industries have tried to fit them into.
The event, inspired by a September 2020 call for a $1 billion investment over the next decade in those who identify as Black girls, known as the #1Billion4BlackGirls campaign, brought in leaders from across the Black community to discuss what’s necessary for collective liberation.
“For so long there has been kind of this disconnect, such a narrow representation of what Black womanhood can look like, what Black girlhood can look like. I feel like it always kind of plays on tropes or is not necessarily expressive in this lens of being beautiful and of Blackness being beautiful,” student and artist Ebony Morris said in a talk moderated by actress and Pattern Beauty founder Tracee Ellis Ross. “I feel like that’s starting to shift increasingly. In recent years there’ve been so many brands and organizations that have really put Black womanhood in the media in a different light and shared the versatility of Blackness and how there’s not one way of looking like a Black woman, not one way to be beautiful as a Black woman.”
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In many cases, the brands doing that best are those founded or helmed by Black women. And while that’s expected, in today’s world of non-negotiables when it comes to diversity, other brands have to figure it out, too. Because, amid the progress that has been made in recent years, many brands are still falling into traps of inauthenticity.
“A lot of marketers make the mistake of creating different types of Black women instead of making them multifaceted, multidimensional people,” said student and model Anyia Williams. “It’s very one dimensional in the way that there’s always this one loud person, there’s the preppy person but it’s like…you can be loud and preppy, right?”
That ticking of boxes with “types” when it comes to Black women is also part of what has kept models from equitable casting.
“When I first started…I went to an agency and one of the Black agents told my mom, ‘You know, she has the look but a lot of agencies are going to say they already have someone that looks like her,’” Williams explained. “But then there’ll be a wall of non-people of color that look very similar to one another and there’ll be that one prop and that’s enough.”
Realities like that are part of what makes the presence of diverse decisionmakers another non-negotiable for beauty — and any industry.
What’s more, as Ellis Ross noted, “We all know that Black girls drive culture, especially when it comes to fashion and beauty.” Which is one part of the reason, she said, that Black beauty and the diversity of that beauty can’t continue to be “treated as peripheral.”
One movement that could ultimately bridge the gap when it comes to belonging in beauty — whether brands helmed by non-diverse leaders embrace it or not — may lie in afrofuturism.
The concept, the ideology, the aesthetic, which isn’t even yet in Merriam Webster’s dictionary, in Ellis Ross’ words is, “The imagining of our identities outside of the framework of white supremacy and the freedom that one thinks of for oneself. [It’s] anything you can imagine.”
The term afrofuturism isn’t new but the Black cultural movement is gaining steam as the community looks to honor its past but write its own future, drawing on the past to celebrate traditional hairstyles, for example, the present for its pop culture, and embracing those points in time to reimagine styles and stories for the future. More than anything, it’s a 100 percent celebration of Black beauty and all that it comprises. And a place where being on the periphery won’t be a factor.
It’s, as Morris explained, “An escape and a space for Black people to exist beyond just being a maid or just being reduced to certain things….It’s a very narrow room for what Black women are able to be represented as. I think that those tropes are so often projected in the beauty and fashion industry and so I think that [it’s about] pushing for representation and different ways to show it.”
In a separate Black Girl Freedom Week session, actress Sanaa Lathan, whose latest work and her directorial debut “On the Come Up” will feature an all-Black cast, spoke about the need for Black women’s experiences, their differences and their influences to continue to be celebrated across industries.
“The roles that we’re playing [which could apply to acting, business or life in general] not only can entertain and stimulate people but it can inspire people and it can heal people. And not only the audience, but when you are the storyteller you can heal aspects of yourself,” she said. “We have a responsibility to continue telling our stories.”