Seventy years ago, skin bleaching ads promised to transform “ugly sun-tan face shadows” into the “delicate fairness of complexion that every woman desires.”

Seventeen years ago, beauty education failed to consider non-White populations.

And last month, footage of a professional make-up artist applying the wrong shade of foundation to a dark skinned model went viral on TikTok.

Hair and make-up artist; Marnie Gerber has worked for the likes of Foxtel, Stan Sport and Neale Whitaker. She believes this history of colourism in Australia’s beauty industry begins with education.

“When I did my hair and make-up course, we did not learn anything about faces and hair of people of colour. I had to work it all out for myself using the Internet. Models with darker skin have told me awful stories in the past, where make-up artists would say they did not have the foundation to match their skin tones and could they please use their own. This is so discriminatory!”

This year, findings from NielsenIQ revealed US Black consumers spend approximately $7.42 billion, 80 per cent more than their white counterparts on beauty and skin products each year. Yet, 72 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed there is a gap in beauty offerings for black consumers.

There are similar attitudes in Australia, with the Spectra of Beauty Report, commissioned by Allergan Aesthetics and released in April this year, rating the beauty industry a C+ for diversity.

While 68 per cent of the 2,250 Australians surveyed thought the media portrayed their ethnicity well, Nathalie McNeil, the associate vice president and general manager at Allergan Aesthetics reports: “It has never been more important than now, for our industry to take meaningful steps to genuinely include and represent the true beauty a diverse population brings.”

Chadwick model Annie Rose Gittany. Photo: Yasmine Alwakal.

One such example is 19-year-old Lebanese model; Annie Rose Gittany who has been photographed by high-end brands from Meshki to AJE Athletica and Vogue Australia. She believes the fashion and beauty industry can feature performative, tokenistic inclusivity.

“Right now, the trend is multiculturalism, but they don’t actually want to be multicultural,” she told Central News.

“I find what’s always represented is the extremes, even for culture. You see white and you see black. You don’t see brown and that is why I can’t grow here. I’m the only Lebanese model in Sydney.”

In her three years as a model, Gittany has been called an “Amazon woman”, “Indian” and had her ethnicity questioned or ridiculed numerous times.

She is told she looks too hairy, too dark to be Lebanese. And, she says she is told this only by white industry professionals.

Emily Zhou’s fashion designs. Photo: Emily Zhou

Emily Zhou, an up-and-coming designer and third year Fashion and Textiles student from the University of Technology Sydney has had similar experiences growing up as an ethnic minority in Australia.

“I think being of Chinese background and growing up in a white, Western society, I never felt represented when I was younger and always had some feelings of inferiority,” she says.

Zhou believes that multicultural beauty, through an international lens, is only made “cool” or “trendy” when Western society capitalises on it.

In 2013, Katy Perry’s Geisha-style performance at the American Music Awards was simultaneously praised by The Guardian as “it could have been a lot worse. There were no fake accents or eyelid jokes. This wasn’t blatant ‘yellowface’” and criticised as “needing to be called out” by The Atlantic.

Seven years on, Dolce & Gabbana’s Shanghai promotional video of a model attempting to eat towering mounds of spaghetti, pizza and cannoli with chopsticks – warranted an apology from the designers.

In Sydney, Gittany says: “There’s this stigma brands don’t want to book anyone past the Anzac bridge. If you’re beyond there they don’t want to know about you. When I say I’m from Parramatta, they have never heard of it.”

This attitude has encouraged Zhou to look beyond colonialist perspectives in her fashion practices.

“No matter what, I always use an Asian model to present my collection and garments to provide the representation I wish I saw as a younger child,” she says. “I’ve even done a project focused on the centralisation of fashion and need to decentralise it…”

I’m a mum you know, I’m an aunt. I have children and nieces that I want to grow up in a society where they don’t feel like they are any different or have services that don’t provide to them.

But Gerber adds it’s not as simple as working with models from diverse backgrounds.

“There is growing representation in the modelling industry. It is very slowly happening, but it is happening,” she says.

“I wish there were more Indigenous Australians modelling and acting so we could have more of them in our ads. Sometimes the pool is very small with models and there are just not enough people out there.

“I am involved in the casting process sometimes and it is just so hard to find people.”

Kumar featured on the cover of Vogue India, 2022 (Photo: Lena C. Emery) and Vogue Australia, 2021 (Photo: Zimmia Kumar)

Zinnia Kumar, a colourism advocate, ecologist and international fashion model with a 1.2 million Instagram following has long studied the science of eugenics and believes diversity isn’t as straightforward as positive versus tokenistic.

She often shares the historical prevalence of skin bleaching in her South Asian culture. How her grandmother, while just a teen, was forced to marry because of her dark skin. Her lighter skinned sisters were afforded the time and luxury to wait until their 20s to marry.

That is why Kumar believes “the issue with the fashion industry lays behind the scenes with the people who run it. When you think of those in the C-suite in New York, London, Milan, Paris and Australia – they are mostly middle-aged white men.”

Most changes regarding ethnic diversity in the industry, she says, are front facing.

“Marketing featuring ‘diverse’ models is actually created within a Eurocentric lens,” she adds. “They select black or brown models with white features or white racial privilege. Globally, statistically, there is no change for South Asian, South-East Asian and Middle Eastern models since 2016 in the global high fashion market.”

This is reinforced by Diversity Council Australia’s Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling project, which works to overcome the “double jeopardy” women face from their gender and cultural background in leadership roles.

Online, the #curlygirl movement has garnered over 4.5 million posts on Instagram and is making up for the ways the existence of curly-haired women have been previously invalidated.

Online influencer; Jessie Massoud. Photo: Jessie Massoud, Instagram

Jessie Massoud, an online influencer with over 50,000 followers and a self-proclaimed #curlyhairgirl says she has suffered a million failed haircuts.

“I’m always told to tame my hair – that it’s really frizzy or fuzzy, even though that’s just curly hair… especially for school photos, that it was wild and needed to be tamed more,” she says.

And while social media is helping people embrace their natural curl patterns, she also admits: “There’s a big misconception about only particular cultures having curly hair. Often online you can get slammed for catfishing or culture fishing.”

In NSW, all hairdressers must complete mandatory training through TAFE’s Certificate III in Hairdressing.

Multicultural salon owner, Chrissy Zemura believes increased education about afro and curly hair must be included in the curriculum to increase white-washed knowledge. Two years later, her petition has raised over 40,000 signatures. Still, change has not been achieved.

 For Karen Murton this comes as no surprise. Working in the industry for over 41 years and training up 39 apprentices through her salon, Murton says:  “To be honest, I’m not a massive fan of TAFE and I think the syllabus is really antiquated. I think it doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to real life in the salon.

“For instance, you have to do six scalp bleaches to pass a certain assessment. I don’t understand if you’ve done one, and it’s done well, why you would need to do six? Finding models who want scalp bleaches is really difficult!”

When contacted, TAFE declined to comment.

Cynthia Simango. Photo: Embrace for Every Curl

At the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, Zimbabwean nurse and educator Cynthia Simango’s Embrace for Professionals hair education course is designed to bridge industry gaps for current or prospective hair and make-up artists.

“I genuinely am one of the only people who are actually advocating for thorough curly hair education which includes all… [hair types] and actually investing the time. It’s not being done at TAFE, it’s not being done anywhere, so I am doing it.”

While she acknowledges that online, curly hair normalisation is improving, she adds: “The movement only includes white people, neat curls. It’s taking away from black people curls.

“There is no 4C included, no tighter curls. If you’re at the end of the spectrum, you get taken out the equation.”

Last month, two sisters, Amayah and Safhira Rowe from Highview College in Victoria were expelled for violating their school’s uniform policy. They refused to tie their hair back because they said it caused them too much pain. Both were wearing African braids.

“I’m a mum you know, I’m an aunt. I have children and nieces that I want to grow up in a society where they don’t feel like they are any different or have services that don’t provide to them, whatever aspect of their hair they have,” Simango says.

Despite this, Kumar believes the beauty industry, like any system, must go through a period of transition, instability before equilibrium is achieved.

While this might be seen as positive or tokenistic, Kumar truly hopes that Australians realise right now, “all we are seeing is the rainbow marketed tip of the iceberg. The actual problem, the completely white, submerged larger section remains silently concealed underwater.”

Main image by Yasmine Alwakal.