(A Fine Line)
I Worked In Beauty For 20 Years & Age Representation Is Still A Work In Progress
But there are bright spots on the horizon.
Beauty editor? I’d never heard of such a thing when I graduated from Vassar in 1990. I spent about ten years trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, before entering the world of magazines: I taught tenth-grade English, worked for a lobbying firm in Washington, DC, started an Interior Design certification program, but nothing stuck. I finally moved to NYC in 1998, with no job leads and no plan. I’d grown to love NYC while in college and although I still wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do, I took the leap and prayed the parachute would appear. It did. A year later, in December of 1999 I landed a job as the beauty and fashion writer for Essence Magazine, and since then I’ve had a front row seat to the evolution of the beauty industry, especially as it related to age representation and diversity.
The first time I ever saw an Essence Magazine was on my grandmother’s coffee table. I was in elementary school. My grandma read Essence, but so did my 18-year-old cousin at the time. Now as a Black woman, working at a magazine dedicated to Black women, I understood that our notions of beauty were not necessarily in line with those in the mainstream, or mainstream publications. Essence’s cover subjects ranged from political figures and corporate heads, to models and celebrities. They were every age and every size. We were never youth-obsessed, but rather celebratory of our unique spectrum of beauty.
Essence existed to uplift all Black women — not just those in their 20s — and although our beauty section drew readers in and was certainly considered essential (because Black beauty wasn’t being addressed as thoroughly anywhere else at the time), the magazine’s features were the meat and potatoes of the brand. Who wanted to read these real-life issues, like creating generational wealth or fighting systemic racism in public schools or addressing the discrepancies of missing Black women in the media? Black women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and so forth. Inclusivity was in the brand’s DNA.
In many ways the beauty industry today has finally begun to catch up with Essence’s underlying principle of inclusivity, which was often an after-thought elsewhere. Black beauty brands like Fashion Fair and Iman Cosmetics have always had the shade ranges for women of color, but now you have the LVMH’s of the world signing the likes of Rihanna — who insists upon a proper shade range for foundation colors at Fenty Beauty — setting the bar for other brands to reach.
In 1999, I think I knew three Black women that worked in beauty at mainstream publications and they were in mid-to-entry-level positions. Three. Today, you can find women of color at practically every reputable media outlet, and at every level. Under-represented women understand the importance of representation, so, in addition to addressing the most pressing issues in black women’s lives, we made sure that we showcased a range of skin tones, sizes, and ages so that our readers could see themselves in every issue.
But to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that this boost of mainstream beauty representation is truly about actual inclusivity or just about saving face and keeping customers. It’s most likely a mix. But today, unlike 1999 when I began, there are so many more choices when it comes to beauty. If mainstream Brand X doesn’t recognize me or understand what I need, I can absolutely find a Brand Z that does. It’s no longer about drugstore beauty vs department store beauty. Now women just find the YouTuber or Influencer whose hair is just like hers or whose skin tone is a perfect match and learn from her. And in many cases the brand these influencers swear by is made by someone who also looks just like them.
In the same way influencers have joined the editorial landscape, independent beauty brands have infiltrated the more traditional beauty market. Of course, we’re still buying CoverGirl, Pantene, Clinique, and CHANEL, but I think women today are just as excited about e.l.f cosmetics, Glossier, Mented, Kosas, Pat McGrath Labs, and Augustinus Bader. It’s also amazing to see women of color representing luxury brands, like Zoë Kravitz and YSL, and Yara Shahidi and Dior.
In terms of age, I do think there is a change happening in Hollywood where we’re seeing a wider spectrum of age and diversity on the red carpet. It's refreshing to see real beauty through the likes of Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda, JLo, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, Viola Davis, Penelope Cruz, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, among others, rather than just twenty-somethings. That wasn't the case ten years ago. These women are over 45 and they just look great, period, not "for being over 45.” I see this shift reverberating well beyond Hollywood, to how we all feel about aging and glamor, painting it in a much more positive light in 2022 than 20 or even ten years ago.
Speaking of improvements around beauty and age, it’s also quite refreshing to see so many new brands that address hormonal beauty concerns; Pause Well Aging, Better, Not Younger, Womaness, Dr. Zenovia Skincare, SukiEra and Rosebud, to name a few. I believe all of these brands were founded and are owned by women — no surprise there.
I’ve interviewed at least five of these founders and although they came from various backgrounds within the beauty industry, they were all responding to a lack of something in the beauty and wellness industries, as it relates to hormonal changes. They'd all experienced perimenopausal symptoms and were annoyed at the lack of products and solutions available. This particular hormonal trend is still relatively new, so the verdict is still out on their staying power, but I do think, in general, there is more of an appreciation these days for more targeted and artisanal beauty brands.
So, has the beauty industry arrived at some “We Are the World” moment? Absolutely not. Yes, things are better, but it isn’t nirvana. The beauty industry is in sync with American culture, so, like beauty, there have been some definite improvements — Biden has more women in his cabinet than any president before, we have a Black, female VP (and perhaps a Black female Supreme Court justice on the way), but we still have a long way to go.
Women do not have full agency over their bodies (in every state, that is) and equal voting rights for all is still a dream. I’m not stressed about any of this — the arc of progress is long, however, the beauty industry would benefit from having more women of color at the proverbial table, and women of all ages. Beauty wants and needs are ageless, so it would be helpful (and profitable) if the industry caught up to that fact and addressed women over 40 with the same vigor, in all beauty categories, as they do women ages 18-35. We’ll get there. I still have faith in the universe and that alone is beautiful.