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?
But it is possible to say, in our own voice, both things. In the pages of a recent Weekly, a style maven remarked that the most inspired and inspiring tableau she had seen recently was a youngish black woman getting her nails done at a swap-meet salon on Slauson Avenue. The woman was a courier, dressed in UPS duds and sensible shoes — and “she had this makeup, I know she meant it to look natural, but it looked like Divine’s. And she had this gigantic hairdo, and was getting these long nails printed gold with rhinestones on them . . . It was so cool.” She took work and glamour equally seriously — I Belong and I Am. Her appearance posed absolutely no contradictions in her mind. She was, of course, entirely out of touch with the Lancome-luxe trend of makeup as mute button, as an agent of irony, as a subverter rather than a supporter of beauty: The pages of W and other magazines have lately been featuring models with greasy faces, eyes done up in what looks like aerosoled graffiti, lips so undone and underdressed you can see the cracks. This is in keeping, I suppose, with the anti-fashion mood of fashion that has gripped the ‘00s as we have moved steadily away from excess and proper glamour since the ’80s. Black women have paid little attention to all this grappling with the existential and political meaning of beauty and sexiness — we‘ve been victimized by exactly that, and don’t care to repeat the experience. We‘re still fighting for popular regard as those elusive, highly evolved beings called “ladies,” and so prefer to look pretty rather than post-punk; for us, beauty still is the revolution. We don’t go in for the psychological teasing that makeup colors have become — Coy, Naughty Feather, Trailer Trash, etc. — remaining content to call a red lipstick red. Black lines like Barbara Walden and Fashion Fair might throw in an adjective like Hot or Sizzling or Cherry, but rest assured that if you‘re looking for coral, you’ll find something in that name. We want to clarify, not complicate, beauty; soften, not sharpen, its edges.
But this is an era of sharp edges. In public repose, without any makeup at all, scuttling from one shoe rack to the next, black women are statements, political declamations. Makeup can‘t help in this regard (neither, for that matter, can shoes). It does get confusing at times. In this age of diversity campaigns and fashionably minimized expressions of wealth, Allure magazine recommends that the more hip and adventurous American woman look to the black makeup lines for real options. Makeup artiste Kevyn Aucoin says the typically saturated colors favored by black brands can be diluted with gloss or water and used very effectively on any skin tone! Though of course this is but a pleasant diversion from the staple pinks and beiges, something cheap to try if you ever make it to Penney’s, or the Baldwin Hills Robinsons, or the makeup aisle of a demographically accommodating Sav-On. Me, I‘m still looking for something expensive to try.