For decades, women of color have called for makeup that reflects the full spectrum of skin tones. With a new generation of inclusive products and brand founders, the market is finally catching up. Untitled (Putting on make up), by Carrie Mae Weems, from the artist’s Kitchen Table Series, 1990–1999.
I was born in 1937, bred, toasted, buttered, jellied, jammed, and honeyed in Harlem. Now, when people introduce me and they try to say that, they get it all mixed up. But that’s who I am. I still put my foundation on with my fingers and I blend, like I was taught in charm school when I was sixteen, even though everybody’s using a sponge now and watching tutorials.
Back then, there was really only one woman making cosmetics for black skin. She was based in Detroit, and her name was Carmen Murphy. We would press and curl our hair with a hot comb and an iron so it was straight, like a white girl’s, and we would buy Carmen Murphy’s foundations direct from one of the instructors at the Ophelia DeVore School of Charm. If we couldn’t get it, we would go downtown to buy Max Factor from a shop in the Theater District where the makeup artists used to buy pigments for the actors on Broadway. And we would just keep mixing one, two, or three different shades until we got the color we wanted. You can imagine my surprise when I went to Sephora the other day for my granddaughter, who is eighteen, and every cosmetics company seemed to have a range of shades from black to black-brown to “maple”—a far cry from what we had when I started modeling. You had to take care of yourself because the options were so limited.