Though I'd share
There is a photograph of me somewhere, possibly immortalised on Facebook, in which I look as if I have taken some flour and used it to create two warrior marks underneath my eyes. This snapshot wasn't taken at a fancy dress party, but is evidence of my first foray into makeup, aged 16. Ask any black woman in the UK, and she'll tell you that finding good makeup is a bit like searching for the holy grail. Then, last April, I moved to America and found the promised land.
Searching for a concealer and a bit of blush as my first Christmas here approached, I was dumbstruck by the amount of choice there is for black and Asian women. I can go to department store makeup counters and get a makeover, without fearing lurid colours or makeup that dulls my skin. If I fancy the DIY approach, I have the luxury of standing in a pharmacy and not being forced to go for the most tanned option sitting on a half-empty shelf. Here, there are at least five brands that I can buy at all price points.
Why hasn't the UK caught up with the US as far as black women and their cosmetics are concerned? According to the latest UK Mintel report, published in 2009, the market for black or Asian beauty products in the UK remains a niche one, valued at £70m, or just 2% of the total market for women's haircare, skincare and makeup, well below their percentage of the population. This is blamed partly on the fact that there is a "lack of commitment by mainstream companies to ethnic beauty needs and a lack of availability of ethnic brands in mass-market distribution".
This loosely translates to being forced to find specialist retailers while the rest of the population can find what they want on the high street. This deficiency is not just about a lack of concealers, it runs deeper. One friend said: "When I was younger I felt very alienated, because all my friends could just go to Boots and buy their makeup, but I couldn't. The fashion houses/makeup brands (Chanel, Dior) still do not cater for darker skin tones, which I don't understand as it seems they are closing themselves off to what could be a very lucrative market. And it sends out the wrong message, like darker beauty shouldn't be celebrated or revered."
Dr Shirley Anne Tate, director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Leeds, has written extensively on the subjects of race and beauty. "Many mainstream companies believe there is no market in ethnic makeup and so they are not willing to put money into this market or into advertising," she says.
Tate adds that the lack of representation by black models in beauty adverts perpetuates the feeling of many young black women that they do not fit the ideal of what is considered beautiful. Hannah Pool, whose column in this paper was the first in the mainstream media to address beauty issues for women of colour, agrees. "As black women, if we are lucky, occasionally, there is a picture of Naomi Campbell on a spread about makeup in a mainstream magazine," she says.
In recent years, things seem to be improving in the UK, albeit slowly.
Grace Kelly, organiser of the Afro Hair and Beauty show, an annual event in London, has seen an increase in the number of good-quality independent black makeup ranges on offer in the UK in the last few years. She believes this is a sign that things are getting better, counting Doris Michaels Cosmetics and KCoUK as some of the new brands available, with accessible price points. Marie Claire also now has a black beauty columnist in the magazine.
While these are steps forward, one large smack in the face comes with the news that K by Beverley Knight, a comprehensive makeup line for black skin, which came out in September 2009, and is no longer available in UK shops. This news is particularly glum since the line was launched as a result of the singer's own frustration at the lack of available products. Despite coverage of the brand in high-profile places, such as Grazia magazine and Asos.com, beauty blogs that are carrying the news about the brand's demise blame it on the common problems facing black beauty products, a limited availability and not enough advertising to get the word out.
So, my hope that in the next few years the British high street might start to resemble the American one is faltering. Until then, we'll all have to stock up stateside.