The American Beauty by Crystal Valentine

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Onnesha and I set out last week to tackle the beauty and race conversation. We quickly found the topic to be too broad to cover in one blog, so my first blog will attempt an overview at our experience.

We visited three different stores. Our goal: to compare the availability of beauty and hair care products in different settings. It seemed obvious that different stores would cater to different groups, but I went in with an open mind and the plan of paying close attention so I could report the findings of our little experiment.

JC Penney

Visiting a department store was the first stop on our route. Because I am a cheapskate who buys low-quality junk, I don’t have as much history browsing the makeup aisles of fancy places. I went in unsure of what to expect, but assumed based on my limited knowledge that Onnesha might have difficulty finding products that matched her skin tone.

One of the first things that drew our attention in the cosmetics department was a display that bordered the ceiling. There was a group of models faces (all larger than life) set in front of bold graphic designs- one white, one black, one Asian, all strikingly beautiful.

We browsed through several lines of foundation and powder. Out of fifteen or so, we found around six brands that seemed to have a range of options on the darker end of the color spectrum. Onnesha seemed pleasantly surprised and said this was progress compared to past experience.

We walked to the back of the store to find the salon and checked out the hair care products. Onnesha asked if there was a natural stylist on staff (a stylist who specializes in chemically-untreated Ethnic hair, for the uninitiated) and learned that they do have one, but she wasn’t working at the time. Then we walked through the lingerie department in search of Panty Hose. JC Penny’s apparently no longer sells those to black women or white women, which is better for all of us in my humble opinion.

Wigs and Beauty (AKA Where I will now shop for wooden earrings forever!)

We attempted to visit the specialty store on Friday evening, and after spending a few minutes talking outside, we approached the door to find it had just been locked. It was only 8 pm!! After some explaining and begging, the owner agreed to let us run in for a brief look.

We returned on Sunday afternoon to spend more time. This time we browsed slowly, aisle by aisle, looking at wigs and weave and row after row of hair products and accessories. I recognized some of the sulfate free shampoos from having tried them before. (I even found castor oil, but Onnesha cautions that castor oil from a hair care store should probably not be used to induce labor.) My daughter left with clip in neon braids and wants to return to Wigs and Beauty.

Walmart

Spoiler alert: Walmart sucked the worst. Even as a kid, when I wasn’t old enough to know anything about anything, I still knew that people hated Walmart. And yet, there are times when I have to go there because everything else is closed or because I can’t resist their stupid roll back specials on toilet paper.

First, we walked the haircare section. The products offered for people of color occupied a tiny space at the very end of the aisle and had limited selection. Not many options at all in the way of natural hair care products, so if those items are part of your regimen, you might need to travel across town (and be sure to get there before 8 pm!).

Then we walked the cosmetic aisle, which was also limited in options. Even brands that seemed to be interested in courting black women (by enlisting black models and spokespeople) didn’t deliver much in the way of color options for those with darker skin tones. I hadn’t realized this before as I’m usually looking for my own color matches and not considering other people’s experiences.

What happened on our tour was mostly a confirmation of what I expected to find. One thing that stood out as most striking, however, was the Almay brand and their marketing approach. First, I noticed that Almay does not even attempt to cater to darker skin tones. Their color spectrum literally stops at “medium.” Then we noticed their tag line, “The American Look.”

It seems that Almay has the balls to say out loud what many of the other cosmetic brands are saying in effect- that “American beauty”- is designed to prop up and serve the lighter skinned among us.

I am sure that we can do better.

Read Onnesha’s blog on our interesting conversation in the car! Stay tuned for more beauty blogs and our video exploring the beauty aisles.

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