In Conversation With: A Black Woman, Working In The Beauty Industry

Today I have a very important version of my interview series to share with you. After working in the beauty industry for a time now I have been privy to the discrimination that people of colour face on a daily basis in the beauty industry. So, my first thought when I saw brands jumping on the Black Lives Matter movement was ‘you can’t have this one too’. I reached out to the people I know personally who have been left traumatized by their experience in the beauty industry, to see how they felt about the movement. After many discussions the realization dawned on me that the same brands that left many people of colour feeling rejected by the beauty industry had the ability to go on and support this cause without any backlash because supporting Black Lives Matter is now the mainstream thing to do. However, people of colour still can’t share the experiences of what they’ve been through in fear that they may never get hired again. The injustice of that fact was enough for me to promise anonymity to anyone who wanted to share their story through me.

The interview today is to give those people a voice without the fear of backlash. The below is the real experience of a Black woman who has worked in the beauty industry for the past year. The difficulties she has faced and how she plans to go forward.

One of my aims with this interview series is to let people into the beauty industry, to see what it’s like when you get into it. I couldn’t think of a more important interview to share with someone reading this, who maybe in their early teens, wanting to work for a beauty brand and wants to know what it’s like if you’re not white or middle class.

How many years of experience do you have in the beauty industry? 

I have been working in the beauty industry for about one year. I started off with a brief stint in a super small beauty brand and then moved onto another slightly larger London based company. 

Was it difficult for you to get your first job in the beauty industry? 

I wouldn’t say it was particularly hard for me to secure my first real job within the industry after graduation. But the build-up to getting that job I feel did required me to have a lot of focus to be able to market myself appropriately when it came to job hunting. I did many freelance roles, internships, and placements during university prior to landing my first official job in the beauty industry. 

What kind of education did you have prior to working in the industry?

I took a relatively traditional educational route, attending college and then university where I obtained a First Class degree in Media & Communications. During that time, for the first time, I was exposed to the complexities of cultural and identity studies and theories, allowing me to cultivate a deeper understanding and interest in representation. I was able to fully comprehend the lack of diverse representation of black and other minority groups as well as analyze the foundation of false narratives and stereotypes perpetuated by modern media.This led to my interest in examining diversity and representation in the beauty industry.

Did you feel as if you got the chance to utilize your skill set in your job role? 

I felt that I was able to utilize some of my skills but many times found myself feeling stifled or even stunted. It was hard to find the balance of serving my purpose within my job role while trying to exercise the opportunity to develop further in avenues I found beneficial to my personal growth. I felt as though there were plenty of possibilities to branch out and be of service in areas that aligned both with my personal development and that of the companies’ needs, but instead I was given tasks or roles that didn’t take advantage of my range of experience or skill set or allowed me to properly learn and develop. Even after moving on from my initial roles and having demonstrated some of that experience. I would often feel this mist of pressure to agree to tasks, and I did so thinking they would lead to other opportunities closer suited to what I wanted to do in the future but soon realized that was not the case or at least the atmosphere in which to thrive.

Did you feel comfortable in your work environment? 

The short answer to this is, unfortunately, no. At the time of applying for jobs, I had this idea that smaller more dynamic business models would provide an alternative work environment, in contrast to the larger more corporate companies which I had worked for in the past. I was hoping for a more unique, close-knit or more intimate space to thrive, learn and work with your colleagues, but for me, that wasn’t exactly the case. In fact, the smaller nature of the business made me painfully aware of work-life dynamics, which become easier to dismiss when the workspace is much larger and there are hundreds of employee interactions and relationships you’re not privy to. Things felt more personal, and the dismissive tone of company conversations were painfully transparent and somewhat isolating. Even with the smaller body of people in the company, which was quite compact, communication felt limited and almost discouraged, which nurtured somewhat of an echo chamber. The obvious assertion of power was unnerving and fostered a room of anxiety. At times I felt I was all too aware of how ‘other’ I was, especially in a smaller group of people. I often wondered whether, if I looked more like them, would I have had a better experience, or have been more comfortable? The lines between simply speaking up and being heard became strangely blurred with crossing the line or speaking out of turn, leaving me to retreat and distance myself. 

Did you feel like your opinions were respected?

Honestly, not very often. Again, I felt this disconnect in communication. It became hard to articulate my feelings when I voiced my opinions, as at times it seemed meaningless to do so as they were often overlooked. I found it hard to find my place and comfort in voicing any concerns but tried to persevere in doing so anyway. I was constantly in fear of being too forward or breaking the rigid status quo or this sort of social contract designed by the false sense of camaraderie in the workplace.

Do you feel you were treated differently to other members of the team who weren’t BAME? 

I wouldn’t say I was treated differently entirely because of the colour of my skin but I definitely didn’t like the way I was treated. I do feel there were many factors that could have contributed to that, whether it was because of my skin colour or my position. So I guess I would say, I don’t actually know. As a POC you come to terms with the fact that you will never really know because racial bias can come in the subtlest of forms, so much so, that you yourself are not really sure, because it is embedded in almost every interaction you have. I think that can really contribute to this low self-esteem or self-worth when you are the minority in your workplace. You can never really put your finger on why you feel out of place, and the truth is you feel on the outs all the time, not just because of small microaggressions in the office, but because of the systematic structure of society that perpetuates racial bias. Therefore, you and everyone else is already conditioned to identify you as ‘other’ from the get-go. And I guess that’s the problem or even power of white privilege, it’s this comfort you have that is not afforded to someone like me. It’s inherent in our social conditioning whether you think you’re racially biased or not. It’s not just how you treat people, it’s how you think, or how you’ve been treated vs how you’ve internalised BAME people being treated. So POC will always ask themselves, is this happening to me because I’m part of the BAME community? And unfortunately more times than less, the answer is yes. Even if the problem wasn’t intended to come from a place of racism or racial insensitivity, it doesn’t matter because it’s systematically designed to.

For example, paying the BAME members of staff lower. You essentially do so, not because you want them to feel the racial bias because the pay is something that is not usually openly discussed. So, there is a chance that they won’t find out. You do that because you can. Because you ‘feel’ they don’t deserve more, and because they probably won’t understand or know their worth, and you instinctively know that.

Do you think the companies you have worked for produced/made products or services that catered to you? 

Yes, I believe they did. But I don’t think they carried many products that specifically catered to black skin. I just think that by chance, there was a crossover in usability. However, I did notice a little more focus on product development with Black consumers in mind, after another Black employee entered the team, which was wonderful to see. I did think in general there could have been a lot more focus, interest and research into what Black consumers needed and were looking for, as well as any gaps in niches they could have filled. They marketed themselves as inclusive, but for me, I understood that to mean they had a few token black models on their social media and campaigns rather than actively ensuring they were engaging with Black consumers.   

Did you ever feel as if the company you were working for was racist? 

Again, I think it goes back to the previous question (7). It’s hard to tell where some unsavoury interactions stem from exactly, even as a POC. I wouldn’t rush to say that any of the companies I have worked for in the beauty industry were racist exactly. But something was definitely off with the way people were being treated in general. I noticed that the BAME employees held the lower positions, meaning lower pay and that they were subjected to this inflated sense of ego from some of the more superior members of staff. Which in itself is a major problem which I believe contributed to feeling like there was racial bias. It almost felt to me that the POC weren’t taken seriously meaning it was easier to dismiss them and their ideas and treat them poorly. But I do feel that if you held a lower position at the company you would probably feel very similar regardless of race. 

How has working in the beauty industry affected you? 

Honestly, I do feel a little traumatised. I felt this pressure to fit in, to filter a lot of who I am, in the hopes that I would feel more comfortable. I met some great people on that journey and for what it’s worth I did learn, just not much of what I wanted. Instead of feeling like I gained some experience that would propel my career, I developed an anxiety disorder that instead might negatively affect how I engage with professional and work-life settings in the future. I revised a valuable lesson that as a POC you have to work a lot harder and have thicker skin. I think the beauty industry is generally a more difficult industry to thrive in, but adding the realization that minorities are exactly that – a minority. You will feel alone and like you’re an outsider in so many situations and that’s not OK. Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge the strides that the beauty industry has taken to be more inclusive. But as an insider, I can tell you it’s simply not good enough and it has taken us far too long to get to this point. The #PullUpOrShutUp challenge only reaffirmed what I already knew. BAME, especially black people are not truly integrated into the beauty industry to the extent you might initially believe, or how the industry would want you to perceive their diversity. It’s upsetting that companies think that only having 10 per cent or less (on average) of their HQ workforce be black, isn’t a problem. Does this not restate that your proximity to whiteness or racial ambiguity can present more opportunities or carry you further in your career? Not to mention the lack of understanding and products for darker complexion POC.

Do you still want to work in the beauty industry?  

Yes, I do. No matter the hardships and discomfort I have felt in the past, this only proves the need for more diversity in the beauty industry. This is not a new reality for me as a black woman. Things are just harder for us, I feel this way on a daily basis. So I was foolish to think that my knowledge and mutual love of beauty and female empowerment would be enough to feel secure in my place in the industry. I will continue to hold myself to the high standard society has set for me, simply because that is my only choice. I can only move forward, learn from the lessons I have been taught and grow where I can. But I must do so by respecting myself as a black woman, by refusing to take any mistreatment and stand up for myself where I can. I do this so that one day, black women can not only access this space a little easier but so they also feel comfortable in a place that has been denied to us for so long. It’s not just allowing BAME through the door, it’s allowing them to occupy that space with the same respect, comfort and fairness as their white peers.

If you would like to share your story please email me at scienceandskincare@gmail.com.

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