UK beauty editor Funmi Fetto discusses the relationship between women of colour and the makeup industry – and how the conversation is changing.
Writing the title of Funmi Fetto’s book – Palette: The Beauty Bible for Women of Colour – makes me feel a bit emotional. It also makes me think about how 16-year-old me would feel reading it – looking through the book while wearing pink-based foundation, straightened hair, with very little self-esteem, and finding products that would actually suit me.
The highly respected Nigerian British beauty editor began her career as a freelance fashion writer, and is now in a position to dramatically alter the beauty industry. Currently the executive editor and beauty director at Glamour and a columnist for UK paper The Observer, Funmi previously spent years working at British Vogue, and recently released her book, speaking to those who have largely been left out by the industry.
Spotlighting products across skin, makeup and hair categories, Palette features commentary on how each item works and what type of complexion or hair type might benefit most from it. This alone sets it apart from most beauty writing and reviews, which often talk about ‘nude’ like it means the same thing to everyone.
Skincare in particular can be a tricky area for women of colour. “I think that for a long time we have had it told to us, whether through actions or quite specifically, that being lighter is better,” Funmi explains. “Not just in black culture but certainly in Asian culture where there is this sort of stride to be more white in terms of beauty, and using certain products to sort of lighten skin is quite prevalent.”
Funmi isn’t wrong about light skin being aspirational in Asian cultures. While in Sri Lanka last year visiting family, I was shocked by the models on billboards. All of them had skin my colour or lighter; significantly lighter than the Sri Lankans being exposed to them. How can you shop for beauty products when no one on the packaging looks like you?
“A lot of people who just want to brighten their skin end up using certain products which lighten their skin, and it’s a completely different thing,” says Funmi. “Brightening, that’s not a negative thing – that’s just making the best of your skin and getting rid of the dead skin cells. The way you do that is not by lightening your skin and using those products; it’s through liquid exfoliators. It’s still celebrating the melanin in your skin, but not debasing or destroying it.” She recommends retinol, topical vitamin C and daily sunscreen as staples for people of colour trying to work against hyperpigmentation and other signs of ageing.
Palette is designed to help navigate issues that specifically plague anyone with more melanin – with tips on buying products in colours which actually enhance our features, and therefore avoiding brands which, according to Funmi, “aren’t particularly inclusive”.
She says these brands “weren’t listening” to the conversation; the global movement of acceptance reinforced by social media (which allows women of colour around the world to connect easier than ever before), and the overwhelming success of makeup lines such as Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, because, if nothing else, the beauty industry is a business.
However, Eurocentric beauty standards in the industry are still so pervasive that it can be hard to find products that don’t either overtly or insidiously prioritise lightening the skin, thinning the nose and straightening the hair. “You could say we’ve been trying to assimilate into whiteness, in many ways because that has been the way out, the way to find favour and the way to be successful, for a long time,” says Funmi.
Those outside historically exclusive expectations of beauty are often dealing with a legacy of colonisation and displacement, and conversations with Funmi veer easily into differences in the approach that women of colour and white women have. “Back in the day, you dabble with nail art and you’re seen as quite ghetto, and it’s seen as inappropriate in a certain space,” she says. “But when a white girl does it, it’s seen as cool and edgy.”
Black women in high-profile positions like Funmi’s are influencing incredible change within the beauty space, which cannot happen fast enough. Years spent navigating these conversations and working within an industry that has usually thought of women of colour second (if at all) has led to Funmi’s book which puts WOC front and centre.
I’m looking at Palette as a hopeful sign that things really are getting better, and as a message to any other young people of colour wanting to dabble in makeup, with the advice and experience of someone who looks like them. This is what so many of us want and deserve.
And if it doesn’t come fast enough, we’ll just keep loving ourselves in the meantime; an approach Funmi is embracing. “There are a lot of young girls right now who are so comfortable in their own skin,” she says. “Quite literally in the colour of their skin, and I think that’s beautiful.”
This feature originally ran in Fashion Quarterly Issue 1 2020 (on sale now). Pick up a copy now for more sustainable style inspiration.