By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Like a lot of women of my age, fashion sense, marital status and middling economic strata, I have conflicted feelings about Lancome. Ambivalence about makeup is rampant among my sex for all sorts of reasons -- why a nude or natural “look” has nothing to do with a nude or natural face is a good place to start -- but for the moment let’s focus on one factor of that ambivalence that itself remains eminently unambivalent: skin color. Barely prosperous black women such as myself like to imagine ourselves ideal Lancome customers, but Lancome and its department-store ilk -- Chanel, Clinique, Christian Dior -- generally do not make products for anyone darker than a paper bag. Yet I can‘t seem to pass one of those counters without pausing to look; women like me are not so much ambivalent as we are in denial. This is one of those rare instances in which I regret that race matters. I truly wish we could all wear the same foundation, not because I’m a proponent of cosmetic multiculturalism -- a mirror-compact version of CK One -- but because I like to buy nice things that announce, I Belong.
I am an American marketer‘s computer-generated ideal, a willing sucker, a discriminating but ravenous shopper for whom nothing feels more like possibility than swinging open the heavy door of a Macy’s or Bloomie‘s and, after the initial head-rush of air-conditioning, bobbing through a sea of makeup and skin-care counters. Makeup is most often a shopper’s port of entry into recreational buying, yet it is also where race immediately thwarts that lovely sense of possibility. I want foundation by the latest maker, but it‘s all too ashen or ruddy for my brown, yellow-undertoned complexion. I want that damn-near-white eye shadow that promises to contemporize and brighten any face; not mine, because the stuff doesn’t show up on my lids at all. In the end I buy a pot of clear gloss -- colorless! -- and move on, sour. I feel ripped off and want money back even though I‘ve spent hardly any. Which is exactly the point.
I know what you’re thinking: But isn‘t there makeup made expressly for women of color? Of course there is. Barbara Walden, a black woman and former actor, started her own company back in the ’50s. Then came Fashion Fair and Posner and dark-pigmented versions by mainstream outfits like Avon, right on up to the turn of this century and the more racially understated, globally cast Iman and Interface lines. Yet these triumphs seemed somehow compromised; they were not victories for black women so much as they were victories for the big, luxe companies that have long enforced a kind of beauty segregation. Iman should at least have a spot at Barney‘s, but she sells at JCPenney; we do not have our place at the table. Higher-end lines like Barbara Walden are relegated to department stores that serve communities of color, a retail species rapidly approaching extinction. (The demise of Macy’s and the tenuous status of Robinsons-May at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza are recent evidence of that. In L.A., you can find Barbara Walden and Fashion Fair at two, perhaps three shopping malls.)
For all these caveats, the black offerings certainly have their merits. In addition to providing practical alternatives, they inspire ethnic patriotism and a sense of empowerment and choice, if not buying frenzies. They highlight (excuse the pun) racial uniqueness in an age when everyone seems anxious to blunt as many racial differences as possible and get on with their lives; not even the most rabid multiculturalist would argue that black women don‘t require different makeup shades than white women. Actually, the irrefutable primacy of skin color in the makeup trade makes it a much more honest American business than, say, government contracting or commercial lending. Its separatist tendencies are insulting at times, unprogressive to those of us seeking sophisticated evidence in this century that We Belong, but it is also reassuring in its affirmation of racial differences that we’re increasingly told don‘t exist anymore.
I’m not suggesting that makeup take its rightful place alongside the civil rights movement in the scheme of social justice. But it does assume more significant dimensions when you consider that it reflects, and protects, the hard core of American beauty standards -- why else is one always able to find lipstick in a million variations of pink, blush in the same variations, concealer meant to graduate those dark under-eye circles to the same shade of pale as, er, the average American face? Most makeup cooperates with a certain pallor, proceeds from it: Light colors are for everyday, intense colors for evening or more exotic occasions. Those of us who already have color, meaning we are more exotic than everyday (not as good as it sounds), obviously decry this logic, but the fact is that we often have very different intentions when it comes to makeup. Denied beauty affirmation and primping rights for generations, women of color are more apt to take glamour literally. We may yearn for the acceptance conferred by Lancome, but not necessarily its aesthetics. Not for us the minimalist look, the subtle-eyestrong-mouth balance of power -- power as we‘ve known it has extracted the price of our restraint for too long, and it can go to hell. What better way to send it there than with palettes conceived with us and our liberation in mind -- sunset-orange lips, russet cheeks, glittery gold eyelids that show? What more resonant way to say I Am, which after all is more fundamental than I Belong?
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