Beauty in Colour

I love makeup. I really do. I think I could be accurately described as a “girly-girl” (at the risk of perpetuating traditional gender roles). I went through all the rites of passage as a self-described beauty lover: I collected lipsticks, I obsessed over every new makeup release, I even ran a fashion blog while I was in high school.

I am often asked: “Why is the way we look important?” Society tells us that vanity is superficial and shallow. I suppose it can be. But vanity is an aspect that permeates every moment of our daily lives: we get advertisements on our devices telling us that we need to look this way or that way, we have dating apps where people are required to swipe yes or no purely based on physical attributes, and we have a beauty and fashion industry that dominates our shopping.

We cannot deny that the way we look is very important to us – for reasons superficial or otherwise. Now, I am going to make a disclaimer. I will not be addressing the way society has imposed these vigorous beauty standards, which are arguably artificial to our makeup as people. I will start by assuming that makeup and fashion is important – to individuals and society – because they are partially determinative of social attitudes, especially pertaining to women of colour.

Let me spend a moment briefly describing how I look. (I swear this has a purpose and not just vain self-indulgence.) I am ethnically Vietnamese. I have long, black hair that falls straight around my narrow, oval face. I have tan, olive skin. My eyes are dark brown and they are framed by thick, dark eyebrows. My eyes slightly angle upwards, and I have a subtle shadow of double eyelids. My lips, which happen to be my favourite feature, are big and shapely: I have a sharp, defined Cupid’s bow on my top lip and a full bottom.

Growing up, my lips were a cause for teasing by classmates. I don’t even remember what they found funny about my lips but I remember classmates throughout much of my schooling laughing at how “fat” they were. They also made fun of the colour of my skin. I used to be much darker than the average Vietnamese girl; I often heard classmates laughing at how I looked “black”. Though I never understood what was so terrible about looking “black”, I always felt so embarrassed and I despised the way I looked. I was also called “Mulan” for my eyes – and while it may appear to be a compliment to be compared to a Disney heroine, it was definitely not intended nor taken as one. It meant I didn’t look white and I wasn’t beautiful.

Of course, things have changed a lot since then. I see girls on social media declaring their intention to get lip injections. Men and women tan to achieve my skin colour. I often have white men approach me and tell me that they “love Asians” and that they find me beautiful. I once had a man ask me what my ethnicity was and after I reluctantly told him I was Vietnamese he exclaimed: “I knew it! You know, I think Vietnamese women are the most beautiful of Asian women.”

Throughout my life, there have been many instances where I felt like my Asian physical features were a source of fetishisation. I’ve met many men with this fetish in a wide variety of places: from the train to the line at the coffee shop. I don’t entirely blame these people for ‘yellow fever’ – it’s an epidemic. Nowadays, it’s almost trendy to be a person of colour and being Asian is viewed as ‘exotic’. I don’t mean to assign such a special snowflake feel to myself; the truth is that I share the same face with millions of other women. I look Asian.

I went from being teased for being Asian to being sought after for being Asian. You can see why I don’t take these recent developments to be improvements. Why does being a person of colour mean you forfeit your right to being a person independent of cultural stereotypes? I blame this entirely on the beauty industry and the way beauty standards have evolved.

It is beautiful to have ethnic features: the tan skin of an Asian girl, the big lips of a black girl and the full figure of a Latina. But you must be ethnically white. Women of colour aren’t endorsed for these features and are exoticised. They are seen as a measure of beauty on an ethnically-exotic canvas, but not beautiful themselves.

I don’t entirely blame these people for ‘yellow fever’ – it’s an epidemic. Nowadays, it’s almost trendy to be a person of colour and being Asian is viewed as ‘exotic’.

The exploitation of ethnic stereotypes is rampant within the makeup and fashion industries. This is where you get such items as “Oriental dresses” or “Asian-inspired makeup”. I once observed an online boutique selling a traditional Vietnamese áo dài as a “Vintage 90s Azure Oriental Tunic Dress”. The dress is traditionally worn with long wide leg pants and Vietnamese women wear áo dài on special occasions: on Lunar New Year, when they visit the temple, when they get married, when they graduate … The point I am trying to impress upon you is how important this garment is to Vietnamese women: it forms the pinnacle of their cultural and social lives. On the website, however, the white model was posing suggestively, naked from the waist down.

Asian women have traditionally been fetishised by Western cultures. Popular depictions like Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels or musicals like Miss Saigon have further propagated this archetype of Asian women as exotic sexual fantasies. Depicting the traditional áo dài on a Caucasian woman dressed and posed to look exotic and sexy only reinforces these racist stereotypes. This particular dress did not celebrate Vietnamese culture – it exploited its stereotypes for profit.

Our vast and diverse culture had been reduced to a single umbrella term: oriental. In the past, oriental was the term used to reference people who live in the East, and was used by the British to degrade and belittle Eastern people. The modern equivalent of the word oriental would be to describe Asian people as gooks. Today, you wouldn’t design a dress and call it a “gook dress”, yet historically ignorant terms like oriental are overused in the fashion industry.

Being Asian is not a fashion statement; it is not a wearable accessory. “Asian” refers to an entire culture – an eons-old line of people with a rich and beautiful history. To reduce an identity to a shallow prefix is insulting. This is where objectification also comes in: some men reduce women of colour to a collection of ‘exotic’ physical features purported by modern beauty standards.

Rihanna recently released a makeup line called Fenty Beauty that boasts 40 different foundation shades. Rihanna has said that her aim was to create makeup that women of all skin tones would feel comfortable wearing. Since then, the conversation about racism in the beauty industry has become popularised on social media. People are finally becoming aware of the inherent discrimination in the beauty industry.

The reality is the beauty industry does not acknowledge the unique beauty of women of colour. Why is it that we only now have Fenty Beauty? Why is it that in the past, black models have been told to bring their own makeup to runway shows because the makeup artists won’t have foundation that matches their skin colour?

I think I can speak on behalf of other people of colour and say that it’s difficult to shop for makeup if you’re not white. Colours never turn out how you expect them to. Foundation caters to Caucasian women with pink undertones. I use the third-darkest shade in my current foundation brand and I am nowhere near what you would describe as “deep” in skin colour. I hate switching foundations simply because I dread the ordeal that will come with colour matching.

Foundation forms the base of our makeup. It is designed for what is arguably one of the clearest defining features of our face – our skin – and yet the beauty industry does not acknowledge the existence of darker skin colours. This tells us that the beauty industry wants to sell ‘beauty’ and it views women of colour as unattractive.

I know what you’re thinking: do you have to be so painfully socially conscious about something that arguably doesn’t exist anymore with the release of Fenty Beauty and the recent social media recognition that the makeup industry has been discriminatory in the past? My reply to that is: yes, I do have to be so very painfully fussy about this. Why? Because I’m sick of settling. I’m sick of politely laughing – “oh, haha!” – when someone tells me that my makeup looks “super Asian”, as if that’s a bad thing. I should not have to compromise on or apologise for something that affects me and only me.

Discrimination in the beauty industry directly affects social attitudes concerning women of colour in the real world. Women of colour face discrimination very differently to Caucasian women, and it is important to acknowledge this. This fact in itself is not divisive; it is a simple recognition that race provides very different mediums of experience. Identifying the subtle differences in experience when it comes to people of colour is crucial to our understanding of sexism on the whole. To ignore these differences shows a lack of social recognition of ethnic agency and ignores the fact that the beauty industry and social beauty standards reduce women of colour to their physical appearance.

Discrimination against women of colour hurts the equality of all women: it validates objectification, fetishisation and degradation – all of which are foes to the feminist cause.

This is true for white women too, of course – there is a long-established history of society determining the worth of women based on their appearance. But eradicating discrimination against women of colour is imperative for all feminists. Whatever your ethnicity is, women will never be truly liberated until we recognise and address the discrimination that women of colour face. Discrimination against women of colour hurts the equality of all women: it validates objectification, fetishisation and degradation – all of which are foes to the feminist cause.

Rihanna’s makeup line will not alter deeply-entrenched societal attitudes – it is not simply about providing women of colour more options when it comes to beauty. Meaningful equality can only be achieved through complete social change. This needs to stay a continuous conversation until all makeup brands start catering to women of colour as well. The ongoing battle for equality will not be over until we can stop heralding makeup brands like Fenty Beauty as pioneers for catering to skin colours that match a majority of the world’s population. It should not be such a shock to see dark makeup in stores. The facts don’t lie: makeup for darker women is in high demand. Fenty Beauty sold out of its darker shades within days of release. We can no longer accept the excuse that there is too little market demand.

It is our responsibility, as feminists, to change the way society thinks about beauty. The first step to changing the way beauty is perceived in society is to embrace beauty in all colours and appreciate the different forms of beauty that women of colour offer. However, it is also important to remember that our appearance does not determine our character. To reiterate the age-old cliché: beauty ultimately comes from the inside.