Why I’m Now (Probably) an Ulta Customer for Life

When you’re a woman of color, particular if your skin tone skews more brown than beige, shopping for makeup is exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes even humiliating. Even though it is 2015, many makeup companies haven’t attempted to make many shades for us darker ladies. Even those that make darker shades make far less of those hues than they do beige, and they often get the undertones completely wrong. Many beige women of color aren’t completely exempt from the awful makeup-buying experience either. The problem here is, again, undertones. Well, really, the problem is bias.

Just a typical day of buying makeup for women of color. Let's see... there's super light beige, kinda light beige, and beige. Um... is this what passes for diversity these days?
Just a typical day of buying makeup for women of color. Let’s see… there’s super light beige, kinda light beige, and beige. Um… is this what passes for diversity these days?

This isn’t a new problem, really. Ask any brown woman about her experiences with buying makeup or using makeup artists, and you’re bound to get an earful.

Enter Nykhor Paul. She’s a South Sudanese model, and she’s gorg. She’s also dark-skinned. On Monday, she posted this (much warranted) rant on Instagram:

Dear white people in the fashion world! Please don’t take this the wrong way but it’s time you people get your shit right when it comes to our complexion! Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t have to do anything but show up wtf! Don’t try to make me feel bad because I am blue black its 2015 go to Mac, Bobbi Brown, Makeup forever, Iman cosmetic, black opal, even Lancôme and Clinique carried them plus so much more. there’s so much options our there for dark skin tones today. A good makeup artist would come prepare and do there research before coming to work because often time you know what to expect especially at a show! Stop apologizing it’s insulting and disrespectful to me and my race it doesn’t help, seriously! Make an effort at least! That goes for NYC, London, Milan, Paris and Cape Town plus everywhere else that have issues with black skin tones. Just because you only book a few of us doesn’t mean you have the right to make us look ratchet. I’m tired of complaining about not getting book as a black model and I’m definitely super tired of apologizing for my blackness!!!! Fashion is art, art is never racist it should be inclusive of all not only white people, shit we started fashion in Africa and you modernize and copy it! Why can’t we be part of fashion fully and equally?

A photo posted by nykhor (@nykhor) on Jul 6, 2015 at 9:55am PDT

 

Her message resonated very deeply with women of color, famous and not so famous alike. My pal from law school, Robinne Lee, expressed similar sentiments on her Facebook page about her frustration of dealing with on-set makeup artists who are not prepared for women of color: 

I never ever show up on a set without my own foundation and powder. Never ever. I’ve been in this business for twenty years and you only need a couple of bad experiences to learn a lesson…” (reprinted with permission from Robinne Lee) 

All over Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, black women, celebrities and non-celebrities alike shared stories of makeup artists, hairstylists, and stores that treated our blackness—our black hair, our black skin—as an inconvenience. Like nearly every other brown woman of color in this country, I have been there before. This May, when I was browsing through Ulta, looking at aisle after aisle of “30 shades of beige and two of brown, but not YOUR brown” and “our colors only come in light, light/medium, and medium. ‘MURICA!”, the frustration was just too much for me. I tweeted the following, not really expecting anything to come of it [because nothing ever does]:

So imagine my surprise when Ulta actually responded:

So, I took this open invitation, and I ran with it. Below is the part of the very long e-mail I fired off to Ulta the next day:

In response to your request to me on Twitter …, here is the recurring problem I have in Ulta’s stores … :
As is evident by my signature line, I am a woman of color. Now, it’s hard enough being a woman of color and trying to find makeup. Most brands, unless they are minority-owned, simply just don’t make enough colors for women of color. So I’m not going to fault Ulta for not carrying more colors if the brand itself doesn’t carry them. However, if a brand carries a more diverse line of makeup, I would expect that your stores—particularly those in diverse neighborhoods—would. I can’t tell you the exact demographics for … However, just looking at the schools zoned in the areas near this particular Ulta, this neighborhood is about 40% non-white. Looking around, I can tell you that there is a heavy population of black, Hispanic, Indian, Vietnamese, and Filipino. Although there are huge variations of colors within those communities, we tend to have a lot of tan-to-brown people. So I would expect that for brands that actually carry makeup in brownish colors, Ulta in our neighborhood would have them.
No, it doesn’t. I have requested several times. I have been in the store when other customers have requested more colors (and have been told, sometimes mistakenly, that the brand doesn’t carry them. I’ve looked online, this isn’t true). I’ve even had people who work in the store complain to me that they can’t find colors for themselves either. So, obviously, this is either a management or corporate problem. And, from what I can see on Ulta.com, this is a corporate problem.
Yesterday I was looking for Dermablend. From their color match system, I know that my concealer color is Cocoa. Looking at Ulta.com, “Cedar” and “Cocoa” (the only two brown concealers) are listed as “online only,” which means none of your stores will carry this. Similarly, every brown color of Dermablend’s Cover Creme except for the very darkest brown, which is a good 8 shades or so darker than the darkest beige you carry (which means you’ve missed pretty much every tan or brown woman who isn’t extremely dark with red undertones—a description which actually matches exactly no one I know), is listed as online only. I looked for the color of Smashbox Photo Filter Powder Foundation that matches my tone per Smashbox’s website. That, too, was available online only. You used to carry Iman (a brand for women of color) in stores. Now it’s online only. The Smashbox Try It Kit: BB+Halo comes in a “Dark” variety, and Ulta doesn’t even bother to carry that one online (but Birchbox does, and so does Amazon.com…).
Basically, everywhere I look in the Ultaverse for colors that might fit me, Ulta has deemed that these colors are “online only” and not fit for store shelves—if it carries them at all. While I love very much to shop online, the one thing I loathe buying online unless I absolutely have to is makeup (foundation and powder, at least). This is for obvious reasons. I mean, how do I know that a foundation or powder is going to actually work for my skin without trying it on? Is it really necessary to have space for 25 shades of beige but only 1 shade of brown (if any)? This is ridiculous and biased. It’s also demoralizing. …. I shouldn’t feel like a second-class citizen when simply trying to buy powder foundation.
I’m sure your response will be that these colors just don’t sell and that’s why you can’t stock them in store, but how could they if, based on experience, women of color don’t actually expect to find colors in your store? Honestly, I didn’t even go looking for foundation/powder yesterday …, since every time has been a disappointment. But I looked anyway, and, as expected, I was disappointed.
You may not realize this, but blacks have the most purchasing power of any single ethnic group in the United States. Combine us with Hispanics, Indians, and certain Eastern and Southeastern Asian groups, and are you really prepared to say that our purchasing power isn’t worth a little bit of effort to make some room on your physical shelves to make our shopping experience more pleasant? I really like Ulta’s branded products, but I can’t continue this game of purchasing in store and then having to go home to complete my makeup purchases online. And I know a lot of other women who feel the same way.
In closing, I would like to add, I would greatly appreciate it if you took the time to give me a thoughtfully crafted response rather than a canned “Thanks for your input. We’re looking into it.” In addition to it being insulting to the intelligence, the fact is, you guys reached out to me after my small 140-character rant on Twitter. I obviously took the time to send you a detailed response of the problem, and I would appreciate some reciprocity.
Regards, [Pop Culture Mom]

Honestly, I really expected that all I might get out of this very long, soul-bearing e-mail was a bit of catharsis. So imagine my surprise when the next day, I received a voicemail from the Ulta corporate office.

Now, my phone number was never on the e-mail. However, I’m an Ulta rewards member (and, despite my difficulty finding makeup in-store, a platinum one at that), and the Ulta Guest Services Manager [shout out to Ron!] was able to get my phone number and purchase history from my account. The message let me know that my e-mail had been received and was being taken very seriously and let me know that I could expect a response after the Memorial Day holiday. I was also given a direct phone number in case I wanted to talk before I had gotten a complete response.

After the holiday, Ron and I touched base to schedule a call to discuss his findings in more detail. Honestly, even though Ulta corporate had reached out to me and was clearly making a concerted effort to keep the lines of communication open, I was not expecting much to come from the call. So when Ron started out by telling me that the various corporate heads he had spoken with to inquire as to why there weren’t many products available in store for women of color had responded that they also didn’t understand why that was the case in this day and age and saw it as a problem, I was shocked. But then when the blame shifted to the corporations manufacturing the makeup, my shock waned, and I expected another conversation reciting business as usual. But I shouldn’t have, because Ron continued to surprise me.

Among other things, Ron explained to me that Ulta’s old corporate model could not allow for stores to be diversified, and the result was that every single Ulta store carried what was basically the national average in terms of sales. So the Ulta store in, for example, Sandy, Utah carries exactly the same merchandise as the store in Atlanta, Georgia, even though the demographics of those cities are vastly different [Sandy, Utah is, by the way, 86% non-Hispanic white per Census data; Atlanta, on the other hand, is 36.3% non-Hispanic white and 54% black]. And because this nationwide data is collected based on a country where the vast majority of people are white and where non-white people (particularly those that are either darker than “honey beige” or don’t have pink or blue undertones) don’t actually expect for most cosmetic stores to service them, you can pretty much guess which way the data skews. [And, unless you’re bathing in a sea of privilege, you can also see where the problem lies.] But Ulta is now in a position where it can customize its offerings by region. So in areas like mine where dark people of various ethnicities abound, come early 2016, we should expect to see more of our hues offered not just “online” but also in-store.

Ron also informed me that this “bigger and better” Ulta extends not only to their technology and inventory tracking but also to their ability to court more diverse brands and put some pressure on those brands who haven’t caught up with the times to join the rest of us in the ultra-diverse 21st century. That pressure has apparently worked on some brands, and a few are now expanding their offerings to add several new shades. There were more details, more happiness to share about Ulta’s coming changes to accommodate its customers of color. But the bottom line is that Ulta isn’t just giving lip service; it clearly cares about customer satisfaction—all customers, not just the beige and pink-undertones ones. And as if all of these changes and all of this time spent meaningfully addressing my concerns wasn’t enough, Ron also arranged for the Prestige Manager [since my purchase history is primarily of those cosmetics they consider their “Prestige brands”] at my local Ulta store to meet with me one on one and introduce me to some of their newer lines and colors that might work for me better. The P.M. totally hooked me up, and I have found a new foundation to love. Her name is Becca (one of Ulta’s newer offerings), and, miracle of miracles, there are several shades of brown with various undertones available.

The sad fact is, beauty woes are just one source of the microagressions that daily confront people of color with white privilege in this country. It may not seem like a privilege to buy makeup, but when you’re a person of color denied the simplicity of that experience that others feel, it is evidence what a loss of privilege it is for makeup purchases to become an ordeal. For anyone who would respond, “Well, then don’t buy makeup” (ignoring the flippancy and ignorance of such a comment), the simple fact of the matter is that for many women, buying makeup isn’t really an option. Yes, it would be great if we lived in a perfect world where sexism didn’t make work life easier for women who wear at least natural looking makeup or if women were imbued with so much self-confidence that we didn’t feel the need to wear makeup ever. But this isn’t reality. Additionally, when we live in a world where models and actresses of color feel compelled to bring their own makeup kits to their jobs—a job necessity that is automatically provided for their paler skinned counterparts—or otherwise risk re-inviting the feelings of despair and embarrassment experienced after someone has half-heartedly attempted to do their hair or makeup without putting in any real effort to account for different skin tones or hair textures. It is absolutely galling that someone would think this is equal, fair, or trivial.

This world is diverse. This country is diverse. On most continents on this planet, you can find people ranging from the palest of pale beiges to the darkest of dark browns. There are many different hair types and shades. It shouldn’t be asking too much for professionals be able to do their jobs for every person who might sit in their chairs, and not just the white ones. And it isn’t “baiting” to require that stores selling beauty products be able to service the clientele present in the areas where they chose to setup shop.

 

Note: Ulta did not ask me to write this post, nor is this an advertisement for Ulta. However, I’d be lying if I said that, given their stated commitment to improve diversity, I’m not interested in ringing the bells and sounding the alarms that Ulta is a store women of color need to add to their rotation. I will always be of the firm belief that the same way we should buycott those brands who have absolutely zero interest in tolerance and diversity [I’m looking at you, Almay, Simply Aryan], we should similarly reward those who do.

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