More than Skin Deep


Beauty Standards Pose Additional Challenges for women of color

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder – the idea that beauty cannot be judged objectively is a sentiment with origins that can be traced back to everyone from Confucius to the ancient Greeks.

Yet in the modern world, with so much societal emphasis placed on the physical ideal – particularly the feminine beauty ideal – it can be difficult to avoid the constant bombardment of pressure to fit into a preconceived standard of physical conformity.

For women of color, however, that pressure can be compounded even further because so much of today’s standards of physical beauty stem from a Eurocentric definition.

“One of the bravest things you can be is yourself in a world hell-bent on shrouding one’s own unique light,” said East Lansing resident Shaun Cauley. “I cannot express to you how deeply liberating it was to stop surrendering to the pressures to hide my tightly coiled, gravity-defying, magical halo of a crown from the world in my marketing materials. Many clients have loved and embraced me for it.”

The beauty from within is where real power and confidence comes from, according to Lansing resident Fonda Brewer.

“Inside beauty radiates to the outside and needs no external cosmetic assistance, but it never hurts to have an amazing lipstick or lip gloss to highlight your inner beauty,” she said. “In other words, before you paint on your canvas, spend time creating the best you from the inside out.”

Not only can society’s standards of beauty be unrealistic and unobtainable, they also might be unhealthy.

A 2017 article published in Popular Science noted that, on average, a white American woman exposes herself to 168 personal care chemicals every day; however, the exposure levels for women of color are even higher. Part of that is due to the type of products specifically marketed to women of color such as skin-lightening creams and hair relaxers or straighteners.

A study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology issued a call to action to the OB-GYN community to prevent toxic environmental chemical exposures from beauty products and acknowledge their threats to healthy human reproduction. 

“Beauty products can include reproductive and developmental toxicants such as phthalates and heavy metals; however, disclosure requirements are limited and inconsistent,” the study states in its introduction. “Compared with white women, women of color have higher levels of beauty product-related environmental chemicals in their bodies, independent of socioeconomic status. Even small exposures to toxic chemicals during critical periods of development (such as pregnancy) can trigger adverse health consequences (such as impacts on fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment, and cancer).”

Adding to the dilemma is that women of color have historically been underserved when it comes to providing a wider range of beauty options. However, a December article in the New York Times noted that is starting to change, with skin care companies as well as independent brands stepping forward to open more access to products that specifically address the needs of women of color.

-“The truth is that a woman of color faces different concerns and at different times — hyperpigmentation being one of them,” Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist in Montclair, New Jersey, told the newspaper. “Any white person over the age of 42, they start with fine lines and wrinkles. Any black person over the age of 42, they start with pigmentation issues. Asians and Latinas, it depends on their skin tone, but they are often somewhere in between.”

One such effort that stepped up to meet needs starting last year was The Brown Beauty Co-op, a collaborative beauty boutique in Washington, D.C. The boutique opened because owners Kimberly Smith and Amaya Smith wanted to provide an experience they felt was lacking in mainstream beauty retailers. 

“Women of color are the biggest spenders on beauty, but often our needs aren’t at the forefront of the beauty industry,” they said in a statement to CAWLM. “From makeup to hair care, there continues to be a predominant culture that marginalizes the beauty of women of color. That’s reflected in a lack of foundation shades and lack of quality products for our hair being sold in mainstream retailers. One-size-fits-all beauty standards mean that we’re reluctantly spending our dollars in stores that don’t appreciate all our beauty. Our goal with The Brown Beauty Co-op is to center women of color to create a welcoming experience with products and ambiance made for us.”


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