Posted on December 21 2020
TOXICITY IN THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY HAS NEVER BEEN A SECRET, EVEN BEFORE COMPANIES WERE PROMOTING THEIR PRODUCTS WITHOUT THE HELP OF INFLUENCER MARKETING, THERE WAS AN UGLY SIDE TO IT.
By Jax Cassidy
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve probably heard it a thousand times: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” While there is merit to this notion - posed by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford back in 1878 - and that everyone does perceive and define beauty differently, it does seem that we’ve allowed those who ‘behold’ us to have too much power. We’ve come a long way from 1878, and I don’t think figureheads of literature from past centuries could have predicted the scope of how we consume and judge media - and beauty - today.
Most of us can agree that social media has been both a blessing and a curse. It can be a great tool for small businesses, freelancers, activists, and anyone who’s constantly trying to learn new information or connect with like-minded people. That being said, there’s also no denying that social media can be a breeding ground for misinformation and toxicity. And it seems that the beauty community can be particularly guilty of creating negativity pockets in a space that could otherwise be a bastion of creative empowerment.
We’ve seen prominent beauty gurus and makeup artists find themselves in hot water plenty of times over the last few years. It’s not a new or shocking occurrence by any means. In fact, we even seem to be reaching a state of boredom with the drama and the scandals.
So why is it that a few big names consistently find themselves being called out for problematic behavior? Is it because the rest of the internet doesn’t seem to pay any mind to the beauty community unless there’s some kind of drama going on? I’ve heard multiple commentators at this point state that there’s a market for negative attention. But is it true that any publicity is good publicity?
Maybe, if you’re just not a very good person.
Toxicity in the beauty industry has never been a secret. Even before companies were promoting their products without the help of influencer marketing, there was an ugly side to it.
When I was growing up, the narrative surrounding makeup was actually inherently more negative than what it is today. (Though I do still see the occasional comment about how cosmetic brands instill and rely on our shaken confidence to peddle their products to us.) I remember being a young tomboy and honestly not caring about ever wearing makeup. I believed it was ‘girly and dumb.’ (Sad.) Looking back, I think it was a combination of feeling alienated by my female classmates and having yet to unravel the misogynistic idea that women who wear makeup shouldn’t be taken seriously. Fast-forward a few years and I realized that makeup is actually a fascinating form of self-expression. I started using cringey techniques to make myself look (kinda) terrible but simply loving it. And now, I maintain that people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their faces without judgment. However, it should actually be what they want for themselves, and not what they think they want because someone made them feel like it’s necessary. That seems to be something that many mainstream beauty gurus struggle with to this day.
I’m a firm believer that there’s room for everyone in the world of beauty. Inspiration comes in so many forms, and there seems to be an audience for everyone. There’s always a person out there looking for representation, for a beauty icon they can identify with.
But the continually growing demand for makeup techniques - other than the viral ‘Instaglam’ - being taught and made popular probably has a lot of mainstream influencers shaking in their boots. And furthering this, gatekeeping in the beauty community is very real. We witnessed this first-hand when James Charles and Manny MUA both publicly tore into singer Alicia Keys when it was announced that she would be collaborating with E.L.F. to create a beauty brand. The artist publicly swore off wearing makeup years ago. Because of this, the two beauty influencers mistakenly believed that the collaboration would be a makeup brand and were clearly irritated by this news. However, they both seemed to feel a bit silly when Keys announced that it would actually be a skincare line. (Turns out, context is important.) They each publicly apologized for throwing shade at Alicia Keys, and the matter seemed settled.
But truthfully, in my opinion, there was more to the situation that wasn’t really talked about enough.
IT'S BEEN MADE PAINFULLY CLEAR THAT INTERNALIZED RACISM AND MISOGYNY HAVE THEIR PART TO PLAY IN THE WORLDS OF MAKEUP, SKINCARE AND FASHION
Regardless of what the products would be, it seems odd to me that James Charles would jump at the chance to criticize a singer for coming out with a beauty brand. After all, he has close friends who rarely wear makeup or always rock the ‘natural’ look, who have collaborated with makeup brands and even come out with their own brands - without him saying a word. (And I can’t imagine that James was too happy with the teasing and criticism that came from the public when he hinted back in March that he was working on some original music.) For him - and any content creator trying to expand in their profession - to not be more sympathetic to someone breaking into a new field seems a little off. And, between Manny MUA having his own (very successful) makeup brand and James Charles recently announcing that his own line is on the way, I have to wonder if the boys were simply scared of a little competition. (We’ve seen worse things come from this mentality in the last year.)
And this incident happened a few months after the Black Lives Matter protests swept the globe, and the beauty community rallied together and called for supporting and uplifting Black artists. (And we all seemed to collectively agree to give Black women the recognition they deserve and stay the hell out of their business…)
Not a great look, boys.
But this happened back in August, so it probably seems like I’m dwelling on something that holds no bearing in what the beauty community represents. But it’s been made painfully clear that internalized racism and misogyny have their part to play in the worlds of makeup, skincare, and fashion.
Sharon Chuter, the Nigerian-born founder of Uoma Beauty, essentially laid the groundwork for the beauty community at large to start making serious anti-racist strides with her Pull Up For Change Initiative. This initiative came to the forefront of beauty news back in June and has remained relevant (thankfully) ever since. Essentially, it called for beauty companies to be transparent about how many black employees they had at the corporate level and in leadership positions. As brands made statements of support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, this was meant to hold them accountable and encourage them to put their money where their mouths were. A number of brands responded, and it became clear that, in terms of diverse employment and representation behind the scenes, cosmetic companies had a long way to go.
On November 21, a slideshow was posted to the Pull Up For Change Instagram page that asserted that beauty brands who claimed to advocate for real change…didn’t mean it. The caption read, “AI analysis of Instagram feeds of 70 beauty brands shows that representation efforts that were adopted in June at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement has diminished to pre-June levels.”
And at this point, we’ve heard numerous personal accounts of experiencing racism and colorism within the beauty community.
MANY MAINSTREAM BEAUTY BRANDS ARE FOUNDED AND RUN BY MEN, PERHAPS THIS IS WHY SO MANY WOMEN HAVE SWORN OFF MAKEUP AND HAVE A GENERAL MISTRUST OF THE INDUSTRY.
Spankie Valentine, otherwise known as SWOOP on YouTube, posted a video to her channel in October 2020, in which she gave us a detailed account of her falling out with a white influencer who she’d publicly been friends with for a number of years - Mykie, also known as Glam & Gore. I won’t go into detail about what was revealed. It’s not my story, and Spankie is a truly talented content creator who I think you should watch anyway. Obviously, she can explain the negative impacts of the privilege and the racist micro-aggressions exhibited by her ex-friend better than I can. But this fairly recent ‘cancelation’ of Mykie - who apparently wouldn’t have been suspected of such behavior by most people - just shows us how white entitlement runs fervently under the surface of the beauty world.
Since her initial video, Spankie has also shared that she’s received ignorant comments claiming that she’s “too light-skinned to speak for the Black community” and that she should tan to make herself “more obviously Black”. And another prominent mixed-race influencer, who goes by Snitchery online, had to make a YouTube video addressing concerns that she was Blackfishing…even though she’s half-Black. Which is laughable, when you consider how many influencers are getting away with Blackfishing on the regular. (Can we make it clear that having cultural appropriation be part of your brand is not cute?)
Sizeism, ageism, and sexism run rampant in this way as well. Many mainstream beauty brands are founded and run by men. (Perhaps this is why so many women have sworn off makeup and have a general mistrust of the industry.) This continues into the online communities, where a considerable number of beauty boys on Instagram and YouTube - particularly white and white-passing ones - are more successful and recognized than their female counterparts. And, coincidentally, they get away with a lot more problematic behavior and face considerably less judgement than women in the industry. This is particularly noticeable when you compare the stats of male and female creators over the age of 30.
One influencer who’s been in the public eye for years and holds incredible success also happens to be a gay, plus-sized, feminine-presenting Filipino-American man - known online as Patrick Starrr. Patrick started his own beauty brand in 2020. One/Size Beauty - available at Sephora - is affectionately named for the catchphrase Starrr has been saying for years: “Beauty is a one-size-fits-all.” Though the brand was eagerly welcomed into existence and supported by most influencers - and in spite of Patrick himself being a well-respected and genuinely loved member of the community - he did receive some backlash in September. On his channel, Starrr gave Rare Beauty by Selena Gomez an unfavorable review, comparing the liquid eyeliner from Selena’s brand to his own brands’ liner multiple times. Many found the review tasteless and ill-informed, and Patrick got dragged online. A number of people even called for the cancellation of not only Patrick, but his brand as well.
Meanwhile, over the last decade, we’ve watched as thin, white men in this industry have walked away from much worse scandals unscathed. And they and their own business ventures weren’t made to suffer as a result for years at a time.
I WANT TO SEE PUBLIC FIGURES BEING HELD ACCOUNTABLE WHHEN THEY MAKE STATEMENTS THAT ARE MEANT TO DEHUMANIZE WHOEVER IS THE SUBJECT OF THEIR HATEFUL RHETORIC.
So obviously, the world of beauty has a long road ahead in terms of progression.
And just in the last few years, we’ve already seen great strides in terms of barrier-breaking representation. But now is the important time to reinforce the idea that there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ representation. We need to show corporations that diversity is actually good for business (and community), and what we expect to see become the norm in our feeds. Changing the way that beauty is perceived starts with switching up who represents what is beautiful.
I want to see public figures being held accountable when they make statements that are meant to dehumanize whoever is the subject of their hateful rhetoric. I want it to be the expectation that beauty gurus regularly feature black-owned beauty brands on their channels, not just for a tag once a year. I want to see models of all sizes, shapes, races, sexualities, gender identities and expressions, etc. in beauty campaigns. I want more marginalized people at the forefront of beauty corporations. These should all be considered normalities at this point. So why are we still being told that we have to wait for that to be the case? And how do we combat that?
My answer: live loudly. When you’re continually denied the change you want to see, you have to create it. Use beauty as a form of self-care, not as a way to hide yourself. Your skin and hair care routine should be a ritual; the way you do makeup should be completely your choice and a means of self-expression, not to conform to the toxic beauty standards that still exist today. Your beauty is for you. So I say we trade in Margaret’s phrase for one that’s admittedly even more cliché: Beauty isn’t a look, it’s a feeling.
After all, there is no one correct way to be beautiful, or to enjoy beauty content and products. Beauty is, in fact, for everyone. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Jax is a freelance writer and content creator who strives to deconstruct tired ideals of beauty and create a safe and supportive space for all in her little pocket of the internet. She’s passionate about writing and teaching, as well as being an advocate for mental health awareness (being someone who struggles with depression and anxiety herself) and equality for all. You can find her on Instagram.