Exclusive Editorial: Who's Allowed To Look Natural?

Dewy skin, wispy fluttered lashes, a light wash of warm eyeshadow, a subtle but glowing highlight, full bushy brows, a flattering warm-toned nude lip. What was the image that popped up in your mind from that description? Were they Black, white, Asian, Latino? Did they have dark skin or lighter skin? More than likely you had a white person in mind, because that’s the demographic who wears it the most. This is the demographic of models that many makeup artists seek out to execute this look on, and because of this subtle reinforcement of only encouraging certain people to wear this type of makeup, many Black women are stuck wearing heavy and outdated makeup.

This new beauty movement and makeup trend puts an emphasis on femininity and natural beauty, yet no dark skinned women are to be found in its inclusion, and that is the crux of the issue at hand. On the surface it’s obvious that racism is a factor but upon further investigation it ends up becoming a mixed bag of racism, specifically anti blackness, and colorism.

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When I first got into youtube and makeup about 8 years ago I noticed the glaring discrepancy between the sort of makeup white/nonblack/lighter skinned Black women would wear and the kind of makeup dark skinned women wore, and unfortunately it’s still apparent today. When I’m looking for makeup inspiration from dark skinned women on youtube, I deliberately search for natural looks but the makeup is often anything but. The intentions are in the right place but the execution is still always off for some reason; heavy base makeup, carved brows, blinding highlights, sharp contours, and dramatic lashes still tend to be present in these “natural” looks for darker skinned Black women. I grew increasingly frustrated and continued to wonder why dark skinned Black women, youtubers and makeup artists alike, seem to feel almost uncomfortable with wearing sheerer, more minimal makeup.

In my opinion, many popular makeup artists are guilty of perpetuating this concept that dark skin and Black features are something to be hidden, chiseled, and carved away into oblivion, creating an end product on the client/model that resembles something totally different. Black women have soaked this up subconsciously and it reflects in the way many Black women tend to do their makeup. While scrolling through different makeup artists’ IG pages to see their approach and versatility in makeup looks, I’ve noticed that they tend to use heavier makeup looks on darker skinned Black women while giving everyone else a more natural makeup look and using less product, which allows their features to shine through still.

This is a problem because everyday women and makeup enthusiasts often copy what they see in the media, their makeup looks are inspired by various public figures and celebrities. For makeup artists to treat darker skinned Black women as if we aren’t allowed to be naturally beautiful and are required to wear heavier makeup sends out a message that we need to basically cover our faces in order to be pretty and acceptable to society.

Doing this tells Black women that Blackness is something to be covered and transformed, it’s no different than Black people being brainwashed into thinking straightening our hair on special occasions and wearing weave for work are the appropriate measures to take to get by in life while being deemed as beautiful as our white and nonblack counterparts.

Some of my absolute favorite makeup artists such as Nam Vo, Patrick Ta, Hung Vanngo, Nikki Wolff, and more that I have been following for years and often draw inspiration from have been extremely guilty of this and it is perpetually disappointing to see the lack of diversity in their portfolios and skillsets. These high-profile makeup artists tend to have a limited clientele, as 98% of their clientele are white people or non-Black people of color with lighter or pale skin. Their portfolios and Instagram pages are incredibly white so it begs the simple question of why? Do they not have the range to work on dark skin? Do modeling/talent agencies and brands not believe that dark skinned Black women are capable of embodying that natural look? Do we not deserve to be naturally beautiful as well? Do we not have the features that appropriate to be accepted into the standard of natural beauty when it comes to makeup?

This is where the colorism aspect of this issue arises, as the main phenotype for Blackness is having dark skin, which is often coded as masculine regardless of gender. I do think to an extent, the makeup artists who are guilty of this harbor racist, colorist ideaologies that shows in their makeup work without even realizing it, because people can definitely exhibit racist ideologies without actively realizing it. The difference of technique by these artists when it comes to dark skin—often using heavier makeup and sharpening our features—indicates to me that they most likely believe that dark skinned Black women do not have the appropriate features to pull off that signature natural makeup look because they believe us to be more masculine by nature. The obvious use of drag techniques used on darker women confirms this to me as well, since drag makeup has historically been used by men to create exaggerated makeup to mimic feminine features as to erase the masculine features that are already present.

This perception of masculinity and colorist mindset leads them to believe that dark skinned Black women don’t fit their aesthetic and won’t be able to fit the mold of their soft, whimsical, and feminine brand. This makeup style is heavily editorial and places an emphasis on softness and femininity, the latter being something that dark skinned Black women are never really allowed to be no matter what we do. The light vs. dark binary when it comes to skin color is obviously present in the makeup world, as the rule of thumb for makeup artists seems to be that the lighter the skin, the less makeup they can wear and get away with. The darker the skin, the more that needs to be covered up.

I have to say that many Black makeup artists, high profile or not, are guilty of this as well because antiblackness is present in everyone and no one is immune to it. That’s how pervasive it is. Just as I pointed out earlier how many Black women youtubers have adopted drag techniques and heavily incorporated them into their daily makeup routines, many Black makeup artists these days have done the same. It’s one big hamster wheel that makeup artists and makeup enthusiasts continuously run on, getting inspired by each other’s makeup looks and techniques that are rooted in the damaging belief that more makeup = more beauty for Black women.

At one point I myself believed that to an extent, especially when coupled with wearing my natural hair. Being dark skinned used to make me feel way more masculine than I wanted to be and that multiplied whenever I wore my ‘fro out. I would wear makeup everyday, a full face that was borderline drag makeup. I barely recognized myself after taking my makeup off and looking in the mirror at night, and it made me hate myself for a short period because I knew deep down inside that I was using makeup to create a whole new face that didn’t resemble my own in the slightest.

Thankfully I grew out of that phase but because I had that experience and began to embrace more minimalistic makeup and techniques, I consistently began to encourage Black women to lighten up on the makeup application and stop trying to hide themselves and instead work with what they have because I know what it’s like to use makeup as a crutch when you hate or dislike your features. As quiet as it’s kept and as much as many Black women don’t want to admit it, there is definitely an ongoing, widespread issue of self-hate when it comes to our beauty and our relationship with makeup. Highlighting 75% of your face with an NW35 concealer and using a lighter foundation everyday is not normal nor is it flattering, truth be told.

I became more interested in skincare and began using skin tints and tinted moisturizers instead of medium/full coverage foundations. Swipes of concealer with my finger to help diffuse my dark circles (but not completely) instead of thick triangles under my eyes that had to be blended out with a sponge. Dewy skin that was a result of my skincare routine and cream highlighter. A little mascara and neutral lipstick. That became my routine, still is, and I love it way more than the heavy makeup I was doing before.

It felt amazing to take my (minimal) makeup off at night and still be able to recognize my skin and my features once it was gone. I was heavily inspired by the movement that had risen in around 2016 that placed importance on skincare and encouraged women to be more minimal with their makeup. When I urge women to wear less makeup it’s not meant to be in a paternalistic and patronizing “love yourself queen” manner, but rather it’s because I know how makeup can effect one’s psyche and self-esteem in a negative way and I want to steer women away from that. Especially dark skinned Black women, we have enough propaganda in the world trying to convince us that we’re ugly and undesirable. We don’t need to be feeding into it and convincing ourselves of it as well.

Wearing makeup is how I enhance my beauty and indulge my femininity but it’s almost as if certain makeup artists want to rob Black women of their ability to do that, painting their faces in such an unflattering way that it hardens our features and takes away from our femininity. My makeup inspiration folder is filled with white and non-Black women because nobody wants to do these natural and editorial makeup looks on dark skinned Black women and there are probably a ton of women who look like me that think they won’t be able to pull off those looks since no one wants to use them as models and employ that technique on them, so they continue to bury their faces in layers of makeup instead. Makeup has become yet another avenue where others try their best to craft dark skinned Black women to fit their idea of perfection and beauty when it comes to us while lighter skinned and nonblack women are allowed to be messy and undone, and that goes for all areas of life. We need to look perfect and fit the standard of what it is to be beautiful in other people’s eyes, otherwise we are not worthy to them. Hate to see it.

I had the pleasure of talking to my dear friend and one of my favorite makeup artists, Sage White, about this to get more insight from a makeup artist’s perspective but specifically a Black one who works in the industry. Sage has made up the faces of Kehlani, Duckie Thot, Maliibu Miitch, Ari Lennonx, and many more.

We’ve followed each other for a while now and I’ve fallen in love with her makeup style because of how glamorous yet natural she makes her clients look. You can tell they’re wearing makeup but it never looks obvious, overdone, or unflattering. “My signature style, as dramatic as it sounds, is ethereal glam. I like for makeup to look natural, in the sense that you can tell the client is wearing makeup but you’re not sure where their skin ends and product begins.” The skin on Sage’s clients is always smooth, even and glowing, not matte and cakey. The eyebrows are done in their natural shape instead of carving out a whole new shape with a ton of concealer and brow pomade. It’s perfectly done but not overly so.

She sites 90’s supermodel glam as her main source of inspiration for her signature makeup style in conjunction with K-Beauty, as the latter focuses on having healthy skin that’s perfect but still looks realistic at all times. We talked about the lack of natural and natural glam makeup looks that are done on Black women, especially dark skinned ones, and we were both in agreement that representation in this style of makeup is extremely scarce. “It’s absolutely not a coincidence. I was actually creating a moodboard for a client and realized I could NOT find these same looks on dark skinned Black women. The technique is also different as well. White women are allowed a more airbrushed, effortless application while Black women are expected to be heavily contoured.” She went on to say, “I literally save inspo on my page when I find it because it is such a rarity on the explore page.”

Makeup has always been a tool used by women to help further feminize and soften the features, even when using certain drag techniques. But when you over do it on women in comparison to men who do drag, it starts to look clownish and exaggerated because you’re already a woman so not much extra work is needed with the makeup. After years of watching so many different makeup tutorials from Black women, I’ve seen firsthand how often dark skinned Black women tend to overdo their makeup and make themselves look hardened and unflattering, the end result causing them to look like a completely different person. Not only that but I’ve seen the way makeup artists do Black women’s makeup and it’s poorly done sometimes because it’s so thick and heavy. Take the makeup on set of Love & Hip Hop for example. It looks awful both in day-to-day life and under those set lights, which tells me that nobody has any business wearing their makeup like that in any setting.

I can’t help but cringe at the women’s makeup because of how obvious it is that they’re wearing makeup. I can see the foundation sitting on their skin as their pores stick out like a sore thumb, the exaggerated texture in their skin because the skin prep and foundation application was inadequate, the painted on Instagram brows, the extremely dry matte lips, extremely heavy lashes, etc. Reality tv makeup in general seems to be overdone and looks to me as though many artists have brought IG Makeup, which is really only meant for overly edited photos in my opinion, to real life and it doesn’t look flattering in motion. And unfortunately I think a lot of Black women are emulating those looks with the belief that it is the epitome of beauty since it’s on television and celebrities are embodying that look, but it’s not.

“I’ve learned so many techniques from drag queens but I feel at times, when artists use them too heavily, it transforms Black women into caricatures of themselves because of the nature of those techniques.” If you look through Sage’s work you can see how she lets each of her clients look like themselves, never applying too much makeup to the point where they look unrecognizable and exaggerated in anyway. She uses makeup the way it should be used, as a form of artistry but also as a tool to enhance people’s natural beauty, maintaining individualism even when executing her signature look.

“I’ve stuck with this style for so long because I know that makeup is powerful, which can be a catch 22 at times, because you don’t want to feel like you need it but this industry holds us Black women to a different standard. So I want my clients to know when they come to me, they’re going to be an enhanced, angelic (or villainous if that’s how they feel) version of themselves.” Sage’s skillset and deep understanding of the politics of beauty and race provides her an edge when it comes to her makeup artistry that many others don’t have. This awareness combined with her skillset allows her to effortlessly bring out that duality and versatility when it comes to Black beauty, never being a one-trick pony with her art and clientele.

She has range in her clientele AND skill which is why I love and respect her so much as a makeup artist. All tea, all shade, and definitely all offense but a lot of makeup artists could learn several things from Sage. I personally believe that you’re not a true makeup artist until you learn how to work with all skin tones and you do so on a regular basis, not just sticking to people with white, flawless skin because it’s the easiest base to work with. If you only know how to work with one kind of face and one shade of skin, how talented are you really?

I appreciate Sage’s background knowledge when it comes to contours, angles of the face, and how features vary depending on race, and it certainly shows in her work. Many makeup artists have their signature look that they do on everyone but they sometimes fail to take into account that everyone has different features, it’s never one size fits all.

“Black women tend to have rounder noses and flatter bridges so it doesn’t make sense to try to overly contour a bridge or overline naturally plump lips, which is usually the case with drag makeup. And also why I think these techniques, on dark skinned Black women, can read masculine is because the artist is not taking into account the different facial dimensions, undertones, and contouring needed to bring out the soft features that Black women have. I want Black women to feel soft and delicate and not like I’m trying to make them someone they’re not or like I’m contouring away their natural features.”

Makeup artistry is something that I hold near and dear to my heart because like Sage said, I understand the power that it holds with its ability to transform and embolden one’s confidence and the way they see themselves. I do want to state that this post is not necessarily a cry for acceptance and another case of begging for representation from people that don’t care i.e. makeup brands like Too Faced and Tarte, because makeup artistry is a bit different than that and I actually believe it’s way more influential than the brands themselves. As I’ve said before, we live in a society that highly values celebrity culture which means the average person is emulating these people that are of a higher status with more money, visibility, and followers left and right. It’s not the worst thing in the world because we all draw inspiration from other people from time to time, but it becomes a problem when that inspiration is actually an image that has been crafted by people with an ignorant, damaging agenda, not understanding their complicity and heavy involvement in an issue that is bigger than just makeup.

Because of this, I probably will never change my stance on makeup artists, Black or not, being inexperienced and not completely deserving of that artistic title if they have yet to master an array of skin tones and features as well as understanding the social and political power of makeup. I may or may not ever be a makeup artist but I do expect those who refer to themselves as such to have the experience and skillset to match. I have high respect for many makeup artists such as Kevyn Aucoin, Nick Barose, James Kaliardos, and Pat Mcgrath not only because of the work and creativity that’s involved, but because of how diverse their clientele is and how aware they are of the nuances that come with the landscape of makeup, and I don’t think that’s ever something to be taken lightly. Especially when race plays a major role in beauty and there are makeup artists out there who are perpetuating negative aspects of it everyday without even being aware of it.

The beauty industry as a whole is racist and I’m not entirely convinced that anything will majorly change regarding that any time soon, but what I do know is that Black women are marching into the makeup industry in droves creating their own makeup brands and showcasing their skills as makeup artists, forcefully occupying space in the makeup world that is rightfully ours. There is a bit of a revolution taking place in that aspect and I hope it trickles down into the way the average Black women does her makeup and engages with the pleasure and politics of beauty.

I do think it’s time that Black women, especially dark skinned Black women, open their eyes to the implications and messages that we end up internalizing by way of various media outlets (television/film, youtube, Instagram, etc.) everyday, and reexamine their relationship with beauty and makeup. Unlearn the belief that you need several layers of makeup and concealer to look beautiful, unlearn the idea that you need to look like everyone else on Instagram to be seen as beautiful and be accepted, unlearn the idea that you cannot be beautiful with less makeup. Unlearn the idea that you need to look like the next famous person and emulate their beauty. To continue falling victim to these ideas is to believe that your Blackness and unique beauty is a burden that prevents you from being beautiful when only the complete opposite is true. I genuinely want Black women to fully embrace natural makeup and to use makeup as a tool rather than a crutch for insecurities. There’s no need to continue being clones of each other.

Black beauty is ever-evolving and to me, it’s not in the best place right now but the road to transforming that and making Black beautiful again starts with the willingness to unlearn everything we’ve been taught to know and learning better ways to approach beauty that doesn’t encroach on our Blackness. That includes being fully aware of the powers that be who continuously feed the monster of antiblackness and the smaller ways in which we continue to be programmed into believing that there is only one standard of beauty that doesn’t include dark skinned Black women. Keep your eyes peeled and continue to create your own standard of beauty that centers yourself and no one else.