‘Natural’ Skin Tones, Fetishised Names & Accessibility: Australia’s Foundation Offering Is Overwhelmingly White
I’m standing at a shiny, sleek makeup counter, surrounded by soldier lines of bottles and dispensers. A store assistant with an unimaginably sleek bun is helping me find my foundation shade, my cheek streaked with liquids in varying tones.
“You’re in between these two,” she cheerfully says as she passes me two opaque tubes. “Bamboo and ginger.”
I groan internally. Of course. As a Chinese woman who’s grown up in a predominantly white Australia, I’m used to being typecast into Asian stereotypes; ‘ni haos’ are flung my way by passersby on the street and strangers’ interrogations about where the soy sauce aren't uncommon at the supermarket. But now, a bloody foundation bottle is telling me that my skin tone is indicated by traditional Asian grocery ingredients.
Associating skin colour with food has been linked to fetishisation, with dark skin tones copping the brunt of this. For many, it’s dehumanising to have your identity reduced to something that can be consumed.
In another foundation brand, I’m matched with the shade ‘Punjab,’ which sits uncomfortably with me as a light-skinned person. Having my skin tone supposedly represent an entire state of South Asia feels flattening, reductive, and inconsiderate to colourism, where light skin is favoured by members of the same ethnic community.
Many brands use names such as ‘natural’ and ‘nude’ to describe light skin tones. In fact, The Pudding found 159 shades with ‘natural’ in the name, and 110 shades with ‘nude’ in the name — with an overwhelming number of them referring to lighter tones.
“The darker shades are sort of made to be less than, [which] makes it easier for brands to treat those shades differently. Which is why we see such inequity with access to those shades in retail, for example,” Rebecca Willink, founder of Make The Space Australia (an organisation that advocates for diversity and inclusivity), tells Refinery29 Australia.
I realised my frustration was sorely misplaced. While the problematic undertone of racially insensitive names is a microaggression, there is a more glaring issue I failed to notice.
Willink points to two brands that have been consistent in the inclusivity space: Fenty and Mac. Both utilise a neutral code system that uses descriptors to describe the depth of skin tone (like medium or deep) as well as the undertone (like cool pink or warm golden).
During our phone call, I realised that while racially insensitive names are clearly a microaggression, there is a more glaring issue in the beauty industry that I'd failed to notice.
“Currently, there are no supermarkets in the country that stock any dark shades, let alone a full shade range, and that's in-store and online,” Willink says. “The alternatives for people of colour [are] specialty makeup stores like Mecca and Sephora, a chemist, or they can buy online. All of those things are just extra hoops to jump through, extra obstacles that we have to face just to be able to buy a basic everyday product.”
“I’m disappointed that I'm not surprised. A lot of black and brown folk, unfortunately, have become used to it. It’s crazy because I'll literally I'll go into a [supermarket] and there is not a shade even remotely close to my skin colour — and I'm light-skinned for a brown woman.”
A typical excuse from stores is that there isn’t enough shelf space, which has been debunked, seeing as there is still a lack of inclusive options online too. Willink also notes that online shopping comes with an additional financial surcharge, with unavoidable additional shipping costs, or a minimum spend.
You can't treat makeup the same way that you might treat a particular flavour of chips. The colour of our skin isn't a preference; this is how we’re born, we can't choose to be a particular colour.
Singh stresses that BIPOC shoppers aren’t just missing out on affordable products; they’re also missing out on quality brands. "A lot of those drugstore brands are actually really good,” she says. “It's just so unfortunate that not only is it a race issue, but an income disparity issue. It really, really sucks for people who don't have access to the likes of Mecca and Sephora because it's expensive and that's an investment.”
“It’s really unfair that there's just no equal access to basic everyday products,” Willink says. “You can't treat makeup the same way that you might treat a particular flavour of chips. The colour of our skin isn't a preference; this is how we’re born, we can't choose to be a particular colour.”
After making waves with Make The Space’s petition to diversify the range of cosmetic colours in Australian supermarkets, the monopoly players Woolworths and Coles have both decided to run limited trials.
Woolworths will be offering 31 additional tones in Maybelline New York’s Fit Me Matte+ Poreless range, which will be available online only for metro and greater areas of Sydney and Melbourne. Coles is participating in a three-month trial offering the full range of Maybelline Fit Me Matte+ Poreless Foundation which will be available both online and in-store in 10 stores across Australia.
While Willink appreciates that some change is underway, she’s also wary of the precedent this may set, particularly because Coles and Woolworths aren't advertising the trials. “It’s just sort of relying on word of mouth which is a little bit scary,” says Willink. “I guess it's like we're doomed to fail because if not enough people buy them they can say, ‘well, we couldn't make enough money on these trials so we're not going to bother doing anything.’”
Singh expects the supermarket conglomerates to stand up and act. “It shouldn't be a test. [The trials] do get a little bit personal because [they’re] doing it as if it’s ticking a box… [but] we’ve been yearning for this for years and years and years so I think they should just bite the bullet and just go for it. I think that'll be just much more appreciated by the wider BIPOC community.”
Thousands of Australians are demanding change and the ability to access everyday beauty products that their light-skinned counterparts have always had. I sheepishly admit to Willink that I didn’t even realise dark foundation shades weren’t readily available, disappointed that I had never noticed the inequality across shade ranges during my supermarket shops. She points out that I never had to worry about this because I was unaffected by the choices made by the suits at the major supermarket chains, which would always prioritise light skin.
Australia’s beauty industry’s bids for inclusivity still fall disappointingly short in many ways. But what I’ve realised is that these shortcomings impact BIPOC people in many different ways. While I'm personally still peeved about insensitive foundation shade names, I acknowledge my privilege which allows me to walk into any supermarket and purchase my foundation shade. And that's something that really shouldn't have to be a privilege.