Am I Too Brown To Be Emo? How Alternative Beauty Favours Whiteness

Paramore's Hayley Williams was right when she sang, "I'm in the business of misery". Growing up in the 2010s, my life consisted of a few simple things: black eyeliner, greasy hair, Pierce The Veil records and self-doubt. I was struggling with severe mental health issues that I couldn't quite understand but that made me the perfect candidate to be indoctrinated into the cult of emo.
For me, emo was a safe haven where I could embrace the turmoil of teenage emotions and talk openly about my mental health. At 13, I was knee-deep in energy drinks and neon band merch, and soon entered the "RAWR XD" Tumblr phase, screaming along to "The Sadness Will Never End" by Bring Me The Horizon. Alternative culture spanned many aspects of my life – and still does – but it's beauty and fashion which became a solace. However, with a heightened awareness of and affirmative action towards racial inequality in the past few years, I'm aware that alternative beauty in particular has an underbelly of racism and exclusion.
It is clear that racial beauty biases favour white faces. A quick Google image search for "emo girl", "emo boy" or "goth gf" shows a hierarchy of idolised alternative "goals". The problem? The majority are built in white beauty standards. Take a look at the baseline for newer alternative beauty trends and subcultures such as emo, e-girl or pale grunge, for example. Having poker straight, flippy Caucasian hair, "dead" or pale-looking skin and Eurocentric features is commonly celebrated and considered the "true" alternative look. Anyone unable to achieve this is scorned as a poser. This is something I have experienced firsthand. I've been told that I don't look "real emo" because I don't have the features of a white person. If my crippling anxiety hadn't cast me as the generic reject kid while growing up, I was also brown, experiencing acne and confused about my sexuality and gender. I didn't have a healthy mechanism of coping or venting so dressing how I felt on the inside just made sense.

One quick image search for 'emo girl' shows a hierarchy of idolised alternative 'goals'. The problem? The majority are built in white beauty standards. 

How could I, with my big nose, brown skin and half-South Asian heritage, compete with the white people who were put on a pedestal and considered the main face of the alternative subculture I identified with? There is a real twisted irony here. The alternative community is typically built on acceptance yet it doesn't easily accept the more downtrodden of society. Freelance music writer Jenessa Williams recently touched on alternative beauty standards in her article for gal-dem, "My Chemical Relaxer: what it's like to grow up Black and emo". She wrote: "Limp, chemical-fried layers hanging over one eye, I angled my face to display my more prominent European features. This was as close as I was ever going to get to being my vision of an emo queen – but all at the expense of my true self."
Emo was one of the first subcultures to be heavily influenced by the online world like MySpace, for instance. At that time, conscious culture didn't exist; brands were rarely called out for their lack of foundation shades and people of colour didn't have the online platforms of today – platforms which allow people to question shortfalls in inclusivity and spark real change. Racism isn't just violent aggressions, brutality and blatant slurs. It's the uncomfortable, unspoken normalcy of whiteness, which is perpetuated through alternative beauty conventions. In most cases, though, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) have been the architects of alternative communities. Rock and roll can be traced back to Black musicians and a lot of alternative beauty trends like stretched ears, nose chains and face gems are Western adaptations of African and Asian cultures dating back centuries.

How could I, with my big nose, brown skin and half-South Asian heritage, compete with the white people considered the only face of the alternative subculture I identified with?

Though progress is slow, awareness and activism inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years has marked a turning point, particularly for alternative culture. Social media is a great place to start challenging what we perceive as the alternative norm. Marley is a YouTuber and the CEO of Glam Goth Beauty, and a pioneer for many young Black women and non-binary alternative beauty lovers. On Instagram, her beauty brand has a reach of 50.5k followers and champions alternative people of colour. Speaking to Marley proved that while alternative culture is supposedly built on inclusion, the lack of representation is detrimental and disheartening. "In every industry, everything is predominantly white and there's an indescribable feeling, like I would never really, truly belong," she told me. Marley agrees that beauty brands need to take initiative and foster diversity and inclusion in this space. "I want people to look at me, and all alternative people of colour, and see that it is possible to be Black and tattooed in the beauty industry."
Aside from Instagram, TikTok has become a beacon of hope for non-white alternative youngsters to finally feel included on the alt scene. Like Jenessa and Marley, Jamila, a self-described "activist, healer, vegan foodie, and metalhead" told me that her early teenage alternative years were frustrating due to the white beauty expectations in place. "I used to perm my hair so it could be bone-straight and gothic," she said. "I used to want to do corpse paint [a style of Black and white makeup popularised by Black metal bands] but didn't know how, since I'm brown-skinned. The mainstream obsession with Eurocentric features in general made me feel ugly or undesirable."
There are disparities when it comes to emo, goth and scene tutorials for textured hair and makeup tutorials for non-Eurocentric features. But they are slowly becoming fewer, as BIPOC flock to TikTok to share their experiences and love for alternative culture, in particular beauty. Trey, who goes by the username @treyxvone, has grown a community of over 60k followers and 1.5 million likes. They told me that growing up, they would be called "Oreo" or "the whitest Black person" for attending local rock shows. "TikTok has certainly given me a platform to express myself where it feels safe," they said. "I'm well aware that not everyone has that privilege so I use my platform to bring up these very issues."
Baby Succubuz, the self-proclaimed "alt bratz doll you should've had", has amassed 49.9k followers and 482.8k likes on TikTok. She stresses how harmful white alternative stereotypes are, and how TikTok is helping to change that. "When you grow up only seeing one kind of representation for being alternative, it can be invalidating and discouraging to someone who is not white," she explained. "One thing I really like about TikTok is that so much information is available," she added. "I've learned so much about my hair type and how to properly take care of it when I didn't really know before." Jamila agrees that having easy access to a wealth of diverse, alternative beauty content in an already marginalised space is important. "Black hair has been stigmatised for centuries and is seen as unprofessional, unsanitary and unappealing in mainstream fields. It's 100% necessary for these forms of content to be on blast, because our features are normal."

I get judged for being a Black goth woman every day online and I'm always met with comments telling me how I'm 'not alternative or goth enough'.

Dani Dissolve
Dani Dissolve is another growing name in the alternative community over on TikTok, with an impressive 650k likes and 38k followers. "I get judged for being a Black goth woman every day online," the gothic model said. "I'm always met with comments telling me how I'm 'not alternative or goth enough'." While Dani has only been a TikTok creator for a year, she has attracted an audience that she never thought she'd have. "The app has paved the way for so many beautiful and talented BIPOC to thrive but, unfortunately, we still live in a world where we're seen as lesser than," Dani said. "We're being accepted more but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done, and many conversations which still need to be had."
It isn't just the beauty space. Alternative fashion brands are guilty of perpetuating Eurocentric ideals, too. Online fashion boutique Dolls Kill has come under fire in recent years for insensitive merchandise reading "goth is white". Other alternative fashion and beauty brands have been hounded by consumers for reposting only white models on their Instagram feeds, perpetuating the ignorant and offensive notion that the only people to exist and thrive in the alternative beauty and fashion space are white.
In 2021, so much more can be done to make alternative style inclusive. Trey hits home the importance of recognising marginalisation in the scene as a big step in diversifying. "As is putting BIPOC at the forefront of alternative fashion," said Trey. "I'm personally seeing it more and more every day and it's certainly uplifting but bigger companies should do these things for reasons that aren't just aesthetic. That's really important." Dani agrees. "It's all about exposure," she told me. "We must continue to amplify alternative BIPOC voices and we need to advocate for more BIPOC representation in prominent alt magazines, fashion and beauty brands, music labels, you name it. There may be more representation than there ever was in the community but there's no such thing as too much representation."
Over the past year, the pandemic has had an immense impact on our mental health so it makes sense that many more people are turning to alternative subcultures, whether that's discovering new music or dialling up their alt style in a bid to feel like part of a community. (That, and the fact that My Chemical Romance's poetic ballads have healing powers.) Thankfully, the alternative landscape is starting to shift. In pushing for representation and championing historically underrepresented fashion, beauty and music creators on apps like TikTok, the alt scene will no longer be dominated by white, Eurocentric standards of appearance. The floodgates are open for a wealth of BIPOC talent to storm on through.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series