Unfair and Lovely

Zoey Greenwald, staff writer

On Sept. 8, 2017, pop star and Esquire’s “Sexiest Woman of the Year” 2011, Rihanna, released a line of makeup known as Fenty beauty. Strolling through Sephora the day after, I stare at the display in what can only be described as awe. I don’t wear makeup— and not due to some sort of crusade against cultural standards or to stand out in my hippie-dippie exuberance. I don’t wear makeup because my shade of skin is not usually to be found within the tiny glass bottles that line the shelves of various stores in the mall. And I’m used to it. I grew up looking at perfect, smooth-faced women in advertisements and on television, not giving a second thought as to our vast levels of separation. Makeup isn’t made for me. This idea was not an emotional revelation but rather a soft, unmoving, tepid reality. One that— from every makeup commercial to every magazine cover— ingrained in me that the world of fashion caters to European beauty standards: the elegance, smoothness, and perfection that everything from my skin tone to the bushiness of my eyebrows seems to naturally defy.

Then came the creams. The creams and the razors and rashes and burns, all in pursuit of that supermodel look. But I never felt imperfect. Instead, I felt unclean. Unholy. As if I’d been tainted simply by being.

In the years since middle school, some creams have stuck around. Others; escorted out of the house via gloved hand and hazmat suit. But altogether I’ve accepted the fact that I am who I am, wild curls and hairy legs included.

But in between the Indian soap operas that my grandmother and I consume like popcorn lurk ads for Fair & Lovely; boasting models with paper-white skin, and showcasing like a zoo the absurd number of men who fall in love with them. It was then when I realized that I am one of the lucky ones. I live inoffensive and ethnically ambiguous in a state wherein people of all different complexions and aesthetics are accepted by the modern populace at large. If I’m so separated from the supermodel ideal that I see, I wonder what those girls in India must feel.

It’s not hard to see why such a problem exists. India was under British rule for a long time, and fairer skin became a form of currency. The lighter your skin was, the more likely your success. These sentiments are not exclusive to India nor British rule— you can find the idea of lighter skin equaling “success” or “purity” or “beauty” all over the world— including America. This is what many historians and sociologists call Colorism, or prejudice against people of darker skin tones. This is not to be confused with racism, as colorism can exist both within a race and in situations wherein race is not known. As Time Magazine puts it, “Colorism is a societal ill felt in many places all around the world, including Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Here in the U.S., because we are such a diverse population with citizens hailing from all corners of the earth, our brand of colorism is both homegrown and imported. And make no mistake, white Americans are just as ‘colorist’ as their brown brothers and sisters.”

Colorism within the fashion industry may not be as outright or as dangerous as other race-related issues in this country, but this problem is just one of the many factors subtly etched into our society that makes racism work. Things like prejudice are not issues that periodically rear their heads due to elusive troublemakers or the whim of centuries of bad karma. They exist within systems— systems that are comfortable (enough), and (seem like they) work to keep society moving. Systems that are extremely difficult to move away from.

MAC and Clinique will always have fifty-seven shades of “white,” three shades of general “tan,” and three shades of “black,” because that’s how it’s always been, and society has always accepted this. But maybe it’s time that we put a dent, little it may be, in the system.

I believe that Rihanna did this when she released Fenty. Her face glittering from the display stand, I think of how this is a makeup made for me, and how good that makes me feel. I think about how the vicious cycle of white woman after white woman after white woman selling me makeup would finally change. I think about the dent that Rihanna put in the comfortable (enough) system. I think of the many dents in the system that all of the women in America could make, and how we could all look so good doing it; standing proud, unphased, unfair, and lovely.