Racism & The Lipstick Counter: Jessie Gurunathan, Jess Molina, Siposetu Duncan & More On Why The Beauty Industry Needs Decolonising

By Kim Knight
How do you define beauty? Virginia Braun, Lucy Slight, Atutahi Potaka-Dewes, Siposetu Duncan and Jess Molina join the debate. Photo / Babiche Martens

The face of beauty is diversifying, but what about its DNA?

We were talking about bras that wouldn’t show under a white shirt.

“You need nude-coloured underwear,” I said. Authoritatively. Dictatorially. The Sri Lankan doctor raised an eyebrow. “On me,” she said, “Nude is a colour.”

For so long, “flesh-toned”

She wrote: ”I meet women who have given up on foundation, despair of finding the right shade or a sympathetic ear . . . I’m told a big brand has just deleted its darkest shade because number crunchers overseas decided not enough was being sold, despite its having a loyal following among Indian women . . . "

Six years later, Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty. The cosmetics brand, named for the singer’s surname, is world-famous for its soft matte longwear foundation that comes in 50 different shades. It wasn’t the first makeup to be promoted as inclusive or diverse, but ask any industry expert, and they’ll tell you it was the one that really, truly, finally made the big brands try harder.

The beauty industry used to be racist and now it isn’t — case closed?

“I can’t help but sometimes laugh,” says Jessie Gurunathan. “I picture a work meeting taking place at a media publication and they’ve all decided that by choosing to feature a black model in their cover shoot they can all tell themselves they’re amazing allies and they’ve basically solved racism. Tokenism is the new black. If I got paid a dollar for every time I have been tokenised, I swear I could buy a Tesla!”

This story started with an email. Gurunathan, a former Miss World New Zealand runner-up and reality television star turned digital creator and diversity advocate, wanted to talk about “decolonising beauty”. I asked for an interview and she responded with concerns. What would that interview look like through my Pākehā writing lens?

Good question. GREAT question. We went back and forth. I read. She wrote. I asked questions and she helped me find more people to speak to. It was four weeks before I hit the keyboard and I’m still second-guessing every word. Mainstream media works to deadlines and word counts — deciding which and whose words is a privilege. (Ever gone searching for a synonym to “beauty”? Oxford Languages options include “English rose” and “peach”).

Gurunathan: “The concept that ‘whiteness’ held more value than ‘brownness’ was something I learnt very early on. I witnessed it growing up in Malaysia. When my Pākehā mum walked into a room, she commanded a certain level of admiration and respect, purely for existing in a white body.”

Advocate, digital creator and former Miss World New Zealand runner-up Jessie Gurunathan. Photo / Supplied
Advocate, digital creator and former Miss World New Zealand runner-up Jessie Gurunathan. Photo / Supplied

Gurunathan took after her South Indian father; was “blessed with his melanin”. When she was small, her grandmother warned her not to play in the sun because it might darken her skin and reduce her marriage prospects. From Malaysia to Paraparaumu and that’s when the bullying began — “in 1995, let’s just say it was severely lacking in diversity”. She says she experienced verbal and physical abuse “simply for existing in my brown body”. And it was the catalyst for years of internalised racism.

“I went into a sort of survival mode where I attempted to erase anything about myself that wasn’t Western enough. My accent was the first thing to go. Then I banned food in my lunchbox that would potentially remind everyone I was different.”

Imagine being the literal “black sheep” at high school in an era when every girl wanted to be Britney or Christina and every boy wanted to date their doppelganger? Gurunathan’s mother said she could wear makeup, but when she went shopping at a Wellington department store, the sales assistant said “we just don’t stock much in that range — it’s not very popular”. On television, Pākehā friends saw people who looked like themselves, finding themselves in New York apartments and coffee shops with cute names. Gurunathan had Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart cartoon character from The Simpsons, who wasn’t even voiced by an Indian actor.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to other brown millennials who went through what can only be referred to as a ‘white fishing’ phase. We would dye our hair blonde, wear blue- or green-coloured contacts and choose makeup shades that would deliberately lighten our faces . . . I, and many others, were just so desperate to feel like we belonged in a society that constantly made us feel rejected.”

Capitalism, says Gurunathan, “has always been a s*** show for anyone who doesn’t fit the normative, Eurocentric beauty standards”.

From the outside looking in, she was a success story — a beautiful participant in high-profile, populist media endeavours. But in those rooms where she was the only person of colour, Gurunathan says she was constantly asking herself, “Do I eat a s*** sandwich today and cater to everyone else’s white fragility and bias? Or have I got the emotional capacity to speak up and challenge the systemic racism at play?’

“From the age of 21, I’ve worked in and out of the entertainment industry, both in front and behind the camera,” says Gurunathan. “I’ve seen and experienced it all. The racist microaggressions, the racial bias and sometimes just good ol’ fashioned blatant prejudice.”

And now we’re at the heart of it. Flip through a fashion magazine and consider the faces. How many of them look like you? In the last Census, more than two million people living in Aotearoa New Zealand identified with a non-European ethnicity. Around the world, there is a demand to “decolonise” the beauty industry — to dismantle the ideals that celebrate and elevate a single, white-tinted view of the world. But what does that really mean? L’Oreal, the biggest beauty company in the world, now offers 45 foundation shades. Pick a brand, any beauty brand, and you’re likely to find campaigns that traverse colour, age, gender, size and physical ability spectrums. Didn’t we already fix this?

Gurunathan says she is absolutely certain brands have employed her browner skin to deflect the otherwise all-white appearance of an event (“we do have the lovely Jessie”). Lately, she’s seen small shifts. But, “the same one or two black or brown faces repeatedly get used across so many different campaigns. It screams ‘lazy’ to me”.

The face of the beauty industry is changing, but the women I spoke to want to know about its DNA. They want the browning of its advertising campaigns reflected in boardrooms, laboratories, marketing departments and media outlets.

“When the rooms where all the important decisions are being made are full of people who all look the same, have a lot of similar shared, lived experiences and common interests, how do you think that influences the decisions being made?” asks Gurunathan. “Unconscious bias, and more importantly, unconscious racial bias comes into play. Until these workspaces are diversified, there will never be any real tangible change.”

Of course, looks don’t matter. Of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And one day, maybe, that might actually be true. Right now, being “beautiful” is indisputably valuable. Looks have currency.

“We have a very strong looks-based culture,” confirms Professor Virginia Braun from Auckland University’s school of psychology.

Consider Donald Trump: “When he was running for president, a lot of the concern, anger and distress about his candidacy focused around mocking his appearance and his position outside of what we might see as appearance norms and beauty standards. It was normative to mock him for being orange or having small hands. All that feeds into part of a discourse where we as a society care about looks. Looks matter. And we might say they shouldn’t and so on — but they do.”

Auckland University professor Virginia Braun. Photo / Babiche Martens
Auckland University professor Virginia Braun. Photo / Babiche Martens

Braun says while beautiful women are sometimes dismissed as non-intelligent, for the most part “benefit accrues” for people whose physicality aligns with what is held to be culturally attractive. And, if the only bodies you see represented and valued don’t look like yours, “you are, by proxy, excluded. It’s part of a much wider, systematic marginalisation. It’s not necessarily the most harmful thing, but it is not inconsequential and it is impactful”.

The academic (whose research focuses on health, sex and gendered bodies) says there have been shifts in how beauty is being depicted, but “it still remains dominated by a kind of monocultural norm. We’ve started to see more diversity in terms of models and ethnicity, but what are the parameters? What faces and bodies get included? Many of the people who get to positions of representational power or influence still maintain a conventional beauty, or are easily recognised within our cultural norms as ‘beautiful’. If you think of the full diversity of human faces, beauty is still very particularly defined. What we haven’t really seen is a complete exploding of that idea.”

Braun cautions: "It's very easy for social change movements to be commodified and commercialised and wrapped up in capitalism . . . it's easier to produce a different range of foundations than it is to dismantle structural racism."

Lucy Slight had been Viva’s newest beauty editor for less than a fortnight when I sent her an email that might have been incomprehensible in the earliest years of her career: Is the beauty industry racist?

"I'm white, I'm thin and my hair is straight-ish, wavy-ish, brown-ish. I've always seen myself on television and in magazines. Things have always been targeted to people like me, and I had never really thought about that when I was younger."

Today: "Everyone deserves to see themselves. Everyone deserves a seat at the table. Previously, they just haven't been given that."

Slight believes the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests were pivotal to the current beauty industry changes and conversations. Formed in the United States in 2013, the movement hit mass global consciousness when George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by a police officer who kneeled on his neck.

Demonstrations erupted around the world and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag saturated social media. One study, in the week after Floyd’s death, recorded 3.7 million posts per day on Twitter alone. If it feels like a giant, sickening leap to conflate a man’s murder with a conversation about lipstick shades, then welcome to our complicated, connected new world. Trend-conscious consumers rely on digital feeds to tell them what to buy and, more pertinently, how to live. Suddenly, in May 2020, there were just too many posts about racism to ignore.

"It was the push everyone needed," says Slight.

(Still not convinced of the links between social media and social change? As I’m typing, Auckland influencers are posting about fragrant candles, fashion shows, Christmas meal kits — and “women, life, liberty” protests against the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in custody after morality police arrested her for not complying with hijab laws).

Slight: “When I got my first magazine job, 15 years ago, it was very white. Everyone we put on the cover was white, we were told brown people didn’t sell magazines. In terms of traditional media, it’s still quite white — but when you look at social media and influencers, that’s where diversity is coming in. Now, I see PR companies actually starting to pay attention to other voices.”

Viva beauty editor Lucy Slight. Photo / Babiche Martens
Viva beauty editor Lucy Slight. Photo / Babiche Martens

In 2022, beauty writers have to think harder, says Slight.

“I can’t just put a whole bunch of beige foundations on the page. I want to include brands catering to all skin types. We have to give readers options, but also hold the brands accountable. If the PR person says “Oh, there are five colours in this range” then we make the call about whether we should be featuring that brand. Because, actually, that’s unacceptable.”

And, on that note: “My days should be numbered. There should be more people coming through and doing the jobs that I’ve always done. We shouldn’t just be hearing from the same people over and over again.”

The industry has been racist, says Slight. “For sure. The images have always been of white people, and I think it definitely still skews that way, which is not a reflection of society. And until it is a reflection of society, you could say that’s racist — but I think it’s moving in the right direction.”

You’ve probably read stories like this before. Calls to action are not new (witness the 2011 Viva report at the start of this story) but there is a sense that, this time, it might be different. Digital and social media means more platforms for more voices. It also feels like the “why” of this debate is finally being heard — because decolonising beauty is not just about matching a foundation to your skin tone.

In 2020, Atutahi Potaka-Dewes won the Miss Rotorua beauty pageant. She is Māori (Ngāti Porou, Te Arawa) and Samoan, with a big body and big, curly hair. If you watched television reality show Gowns & Geysers, she was the oasis of calm at its centre. She is also, as random strangers are blithely happy to point out, not your average beauty queen.

“You think I don’t know these things? You’re lucky I’m 30 and happy with myself. If you say that to a 15- or 16-year-old girl, who is still navigating her life . . .”

Former Miss Rotorua Atutahi Potaka-Dewes. Photo / Babiche Martens
Former Miss Rotorua Atutahi Potaka-Dewes. Photo / Babiche Martens

When people don’t see themselves in shop fronts, magazines and advertising campaigns it impacts their mental health, says Potaka-Dewes.

“The mannequins are slim, they’re, well, white — and so you don’t even walk into the shop. You don’t feel good, you don’t go out much, you stay home and you start to sit in this bad mindset. You become depressed. You don’t feel good about anything you do, you’re so unmotivated. There really is a lifelong effect that can come from something as ‘simple’ as not seeing yourself on the page of a magazine.”

Potaka-Dewes’ beauty queen experience put her in the literal hot seat of the decolonisation debate — she was a brown woman, frequently having her hair and makeup styled by white artists. She recalls they would name-drop the brown celebs they’d worked on.

“Okay, that’s great — but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know what our skin needs, or what our hair needs. Because you’re really combing my hair and you’re applying shades that don’t suit my colour. You’re painting my face and I can tell you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to my indigenous features. I don’t know what you’re contouring there hon, but why try to create cheeks when there are no cheeks?! My hair looks frizzy. The makeup is caked on and my face is orange. To me, subconsciously, it’s telling me I need to cover something up, to change my features.”

Every interview for this story began with the same questions: What does beauty look like to you? Who or what informs the societal definitions of that word?

Siposetu Duncan is very clear there is no “ultimate standard” of beauty. The South African-born and Auckland-raised influencer is the co-founder of Things In Common, a talent agency whose mission includes “supporting black creatives to break glass ceilings and encourage brand diversification”. Duncan says, growing up, she saw natural African physical features — “big lips, big bum, darker skin complexions and black hairstyles” — mocked.

Now, “I have seen many examples of these same features copied or imitated — portrayed as the ‘ideal’ look by celebrities and on various forms of social media. Unfortunately, the people we commonly see in these spaces are not black; they are predominantly white European ‘looking’ people — like the Kardashians/Jenners — who have had alterations to their physical appearance that then sets a new standard of beauty.

“It’s quite confronting to say, but it’s true. The black community is not recognised in this, although this type of beauty comes from us. In order for us to decolonise beauty, we need to acknowledge firstly the source of the beauty — and then to embrace it completely as ‘beautiful’.”

(Appropriation examples abound. As I was working on this story American model Hailey Bieber was being called out for her TikTok post of her autumn go-to “brownie glazed lips” — brown lipliner topped with gloss and a look that one commentator for Allure magazine pointed out has been “known, used and celebrated in communities of colour for decades, rebranded as a new trend for white people to try”.

Siposetu Duncan, co-founder of creative agency Things In Common. Photo / Babiche Martens
Siposetu Duncan, co-founder of creative agency Things In Common. Photo / Babiche Martens

Duncan says the beauty industry is making a conscious effort to embrace racial inclusivity.

“However, sometimes I feel this inclusivity can be fake. We can see when the appreciation for black beauty is genuine and positive — and when it is just slapped on in order to appeal to a wider audience because a brand wants to capitalise from it. We don’t just want to see a wider variety of products, and black models in ads. We want to see inclusivity embraced in the leadership positions of their companies, we want to see it in their teams that make the big decisions.

“It’s 2022 and, at the jobs I attend, they want a Black person as their model but they can’t provide the makeup artists or hair specialists who know how to work with my textured hair or skin complexion. More education needs to be provided in these spaces. The ‘multicultural’ New Zealand can no longer use the excuse that ‘we don’t know where to find the people for this . . .’”

Duncan says she’s personally witnessed more ignorance than racism, but “diversity and inclusivity should now be a given, it should be the societal norm in the beauty industry, not a ‘special effort’ made to appear diverse”.

And, while she says it’s not the customer’s job to “decolonise” the industry (“a customer is a follower . . . it comes down to the leaders”) there are questions we can ask companies — and ourselves.

“How diverse is your company’s leadership team? In your friendship circles, how is diversity portrayed? Why have we excused these matters for so long? Who are your influencers? Where does your source of inspiration come from? Have you created a culture of inclusivity, or are you just doing it because it’s ‘trending’?”

Fashion and beauty social media influencer Jess Molina. Photo / Babiche Martens
Fashion and beauty social media influencer Jess Molina. Photo / Babiche Martens

Filipino social media influencer Jess Molina suggests customers take special note of brands and shops that promote a “for everybody” message.

“Really reflect on who they count as everybody. Often I see marketing campaigns centred around being inclusive and they only go up to a size XL or have a limited shade range — be wary of brands claiming inclusivity because more often than not, it’s just optics.”

Molina, a 2021 New Zealand Fashion Week ambassador, says if globalisation has broadened the definition of “beauty”, then social media has democratised it.

“All of a sudden, bloggers were being invited to fashion weeks and we didn’t rely on a magazine to show us what was cool. Anyone with a social media account can have a voice, and that voice has informed consumer behaviour.”

Decolonising beauty, she says, means unlearning everything.

“Everything we’ve been taught about beauty, what we have come to believe is ‘normal’ or what’s been accepted — and then rebuilding that, away from a colonised lens.”

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