The beauty industry allows us to further our self-expression. But it has a problem: it's failing to include people with disabilities.
Take any photograph of Mexican artist Frida Khalo and you’re confronted by her vibrant cheeks or bold lip. Despite being diagnosed with polio as a child and enduring further impairments from a car accident, alongside her art, make-up was a form of self-expression for Khalo throughout her life.
Kahlo’s image presents us with the creative potential of make-up. Despite common assumptions, it’s not just a tool to remove blemishes or smooth out skin tones. Rather than being a vehicle for uniformity, the beauty industry is often the opposite: it provides people with the tools to adorn, embellish and find new, elaborate methods of self-expression.
However, the industry has a problem. It is failing to represent people with disabilities.
In June 2020, Gucci Beauty’s collaboration with Ellie Goldstein, an eighteen-year-old British model who has Down Syndrome drew attention and sparked grandiose praise for what was generally deemed to be a bold and inclusive move. Such praise, yet approximately 14.1 million people in the UK live with a disability - that’s over 20% of the population. Should it really be considered ‘bold and transformative’ to create beauty products marketed by a wide and representative range of people?
Fashion seems to be ahead of the beauty industry, with brands such as Nike, Savage X Fenty and Tommy Hilfiger introducing inclusive products for people with disabilities. Yet for the beauty industry, disability inclusion seems to be a mark of goodwill, rather than a necessity. It’s naive - and frankly morally precarious - to associate something as socially imperative as inclusivity with innovation. At a time when society has been socially, politically and culturally encouraged to reflect upon how it listens and engages with minority groups, it’s inexcusable for brands not to step up to this long-overdue change.
In 2019, the Dove #ShowUs campaign served as a poignant reminder of the work that still needs to be done. The campaign revealed that 70% of people do not feel that they are represented in beauty advertising. It featured 10,000 photos of women and non-binary individuals redefining beauty on their own terms. Asides from the campaign’s engagement success, it illustrated the extent to which the concept of beauty is homogenised, consequently alienating those with marginalised identities.
Disability can be uncomfortable to discuss. Brands are scared of saying or doing the wrong thing. But it’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Brands have a responsibility to let people, wherever they sit on the ableness spectrum, have control over how they market/promote their products, i.e. who they choose to represent their products and in which contexts they place their campaigns. They cannot limit themselves to sweeping conversation, tokenistic campaigns and images. Representation only serves its purpose if the products being created provide meaningful impact to everyone’s everyday experiences.
There are some beauty collectives, however, that are taking a step in the fight for accessible beauty experiences. Kohl Kreatives offers more than just a brush. Their easy-to-grip brushes for people with motor impairments enhance comfortable make-up application. Guide Beauty Cosmetics was founded by Terri Bryant, a former Dior make-up artist after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. By gaining insight into how current products fail to meet their level, Bryant creates products and tools that have a grip-friendly packaging design.
Not all disabilities are visible, as many exclusionary practices stem from the fact that we cannot see them. Alongside other established brands like L’Occitane, who feature braille on 80% of their products, Shiseido has partnered with Google in Japan to create Brail Nails: the first nail art collection that uses technology to make the decorative form more expressive for people with visual impairments.
It’s important to remember that there is no monolithic disabled experience. So, for the beauty industry making a sweeping set of products to gain the token of ‘diversity’ is simply not good enough. Intersectionality is essential for authentic representation and meaningful connection with the disabled community. Creator Jiya Day, also known as @bbjiya, has quadriplegia cerebral palsy. She began creating make-up videos to educate and empower her community on TikTok, but through her video ‘Intersectionality’, she began to open up about her experiences of being a black, bisexual woman with a disability. Jiya uses her platform to educate, and provide an important message: ‘“I know that ableism isn’t talked about as much as racism and homophobia, but it’s just as destructive”.
Another scheme representing the intersection of disability and sexuality in culture is Drag Syndrome. Founded by artistic director Daniel Vais in 2018, it’s the world’s first collective of drag queens and kings with Down Syndrome. It provides a space which centres beauty, art and self-expression at the centre, rather than disability.
There are still more stories to be heard and told. If we are to move forward and create more authentic narratives, brands have to decentre themselves from the conversation and put a representative range of people to the forefront of their campaigns. They need to craft space in which to forge meaningful discussions; this must come from a systemic inclusion of disabled voices. By bringing more stories of people with disabilities into mainstream discussions - through their use of platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, as easy examples - we can develop ways to relocate the conversation from the boundaries of the billboard (although these can also become more representative, yet by their nature are more limited than other forms of marketing).
Xian Horn, a beauty advocate with cerebral palsy asks us all to be “vocal in supporting companies and agencies that are seeking to cast those with disabilities and encourage more companies to join them”. This kind of change requires everyone, not just brands. We have some limited power to do good, such as in who we follow on Instagram and where we spend our money. We can’t ignore this problem; we mustn’t allow certain groups to be left out of conversations. In turn, hopefully, consumers and brands will build a fairer industry, providing equal choice to the fifth of the UK population that has been overlooked for far too long.
Everybody deserves the right to practise the rhythms and rituals of bodily care. Beauty routines remind us of just that - by providing us with sensual, visceral experiences that make people feel good. Make-up is a form of art. It must be accessible to all. By recognising and embracing this, only then can we get to the heart of the very beauty of inclusivity.