As I perused the makeup section with my younger sister today, thoroughly impressed by the diversity of shades, I thought back to a similar scenario six years earlier. It was the first time I went makeup shopping with my mom, and I was in awe of the aisles of foundation, mascaras, and lipsticks that gleaned in their beautiful, untouched packaging. I came prepared a list of products that Seventeen Magazine swore were “must-have essentials” for every make-up bag. First on the list, naturally, was a make-up bag. The other products, however, were specific foundations, blushes, and lipsticks that were sure to compliment everyone. And yet, as I browsed the aisles of Maybelline and Covergirl, I began to second guess the authenticity of the list. None of these products were made for me, or more specifically, made for the color of my skin. The foundations asked if I was fair, beige, tan, or dark tan. Well really, I was like a medium, honey beige with yellow undertones but only in the winter and early spring. My skin in the summer was a completely different story. But it seemed like none of these makeup companies seemed to consider that.
Slightly disheartened, I picked out the tan shade and moved on to the lipstick section which looked pretty darn foolproof. Seventeen Magazine recommended having at least two lip colors: a nude pink for during the day and a bold fuchsia for going out. As an introverted freshman with a questionable social life, I stuck with the first option. The nude shade was supposed to be close to the neutral color of skin, with just a little pop of color, whatever that entailed. Browsing the lipstick cases, I was torn between shimmering apricot and moody mauve. I stuck with the latter, which more closely looked like the shade Seventeen recommended and called it a day.
As I got home, I rushed to my bathroom and ecstatically opened my new purchases. I looked at the faces in the magazine and envisioned myself as a completely new person. The next few minutes were followed by confusion then defeated dejection. The foundation transformed me into a slightly anemic oompa loompa while the lipstick suggested that I was in favor of the 90’s frosted lip making a comeback. Horrified, I washed the products off and consulted what I (naively) considered to be my makeup bible, my Seventeen Magazine, trying to see if I accidentally bought the wrong products. But it turns out, I did buy what the magazine claimed to be makeup items that complimented every skin tone and I began to speculate if maybe they just forgot to consider women of color.
As a South Asian woman born and raised in the U.S. I was accustomed to being considered the black sheep in the beauty industry. I was always too dark for my parents’ standards and not the right shade of tan for Western standards. Beauty icons with my skin color were largely absent from the shows I watched and the magazines I read. One of the first women to break this void of South Asian women in Western media was Frida Pinto, who exploded on the scene after the wild success of Slumdog Millionaire. After that, however, it wasn’t until much later that I began to notice more and more South Asian women being featured as beauty icons. In 2011, Mindy Kaling became the executive producer of the office and then in 2012, she wrote, produced, and starred in her own show (which is so, so good). Her success as an actress and producer (in a largely white, male dominated industry) began redefining the role of South Asian Woman in Western media. In 2014, Neelam Gill became the first Indian model to be featured in a Burberry campaign. I remember seeing the ad and being in awe that there was this person featured in a high fashion ad that I genuinely saw myself in. I hung a picture of the ad in my room as a tiny victory. More recently, Priyanki Chopra became the first South Asian actress to receive a People’s Choice Award and again I felt a small swell of pride. Although we’re always taught that beauty is only skin deep, it was nice to know that the notion of beauty, regardless of being external or internal, was diversifying its image.
Moreover, despite these small breakthroughs, there continues to be a large void in the film, fashion, and beauty industry in including South Asian and other women of color; however, I think we’re slowly starting to pave the way to a more inclusive media. Don’t get me wrong–I still sometimes feel very self-conscious when I walk into a place, knowing that I am the only non-white person there; however, surrounding myself with a wonderfully diverse group of friends and finding beauty icons within those very people is a good place to discover what it means to be and feel beautiful.