Photos: H&M, Rex Features and River Island

OPINION

Why are brands being rewarded for diversity they’re not putting into action?

There’s little to be gained from celebrating companies doing the bare minimum, says Yomi Adegoke

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By Yomi Adegoke on

The past few years have undeniably seen a diversity boom in all industries. Across fashion, beauty and film, even the most stubbornly bigoted of brands have begrudgingly embraced whatever skin their consumers come in, be it brown, wrinkled or stretch-marked. But it’s also become increasingly clear that, at times, acceptance is only skin-deep. For years, many feared that diversity would simply be implemented as a marketing ploy – and in many cases, they have been proven right.

That’s not to say there has been no improvements – that would simply be incorrect – rather, there is more effort made to look as though change is taking place than effort is being made to change the status quo. Take fashion, for instance. Plus-size models have now become synonymous with representation in adverts, their inclusion often alluding to developments that haven’t yet taken place. In 2016, Ashley Graham fronted the campaign for H&M’s limited-edition Studio Collection – but the brand’s press release stated "plus-size will be sold exclusively on hm.com” and not in the stores. This year, clothing company Madewell attempted to board the body-positivity bandwagon by recruiting well-known curvy model Stella Duval to advertise their jeans, which they claimed went up to a US size 20. On further inspection, the jeans appeared to be mislabelled – the “size 20” actually measured up more like a size 14. . Alexander McQueen was praised for including two curve models in its runway show, despite not producing clothes that women can buy if they are actually plus-sized. And while River Island was loud and proud about its “Labels Are For Clothes”, campaign celebrating diversity and its RI Plus line, which boasted sizes ranging from 18-28, it was much quieter when, just 18 months later, it removed all plus-size clothing from its UK stores. As diversity remains in fashion, so does the industry’s habit of doing little more than pretending it matters.

By making plus-size models mascots for flimsy attempts at inclusion, companies are lauded for just appearing to do work that, once you scratch beneath the surface, they’re not actually doing. It’s shoving years of disillusionment and distrust down the back of the couch and being extolled for cleaning up their acts. But perhaps we’re the real fools, expecting what we see in adverts to accurately reflect what we’re being sold. Brands only caring about how things look as opposed to real change is hardly breaking news. Still, the apparent commitment to catering to “real people” and reflecting society accurately is in itself a rejection of the faux, which is why intentionally misleading us feels so sleazy.

Perhaps we’re the real fools, expecting what we see in adverts to accurately reflect what we’re being sold

Sure, things have undeniably improved, in some cases. After Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty caused a representation renaissance in make-up, 40 shades of foundation became the bare minimum required to claim a diverse line. Dior, Lancôme and CoverGirl all extended ranges to match, and Tarte has nearly doubled its Amazonian Clay Full Coverage Foundation, from 25 to 40. Revlon announced its creative director Linda Wells was launching a new line called Flesh with 40 shades, while Estée Lauder attempted to oudo them all, with Double Wear Stay-In-Place Makeup expanding from an already impressive 42 items to a whopping 56. And yet a trip to your average British high street still leaves a great deal to be desired. In terms of distribution of products, very little has changed in retail spaces. Women of darker skin tones are struggling to find their shades of foundation in stores – diversity is prioritised in the marketing for optics, but making sure that the consumer gets what they need still remains an afterthought.

There’s not much point making darker shades available online if black women can’t go in-store to swatch them in person – campaigns are currently creating awareness for products that some of us can’t buy in person. In 2016 when Maybelline launched its Dream Velvet foundation there was uproar, as only six of the 12 total shades were available in UK stores, and every single one was for fair skin. Jourdan Dunn, the face of the campaign, couldn’t have walked into a shop on the British high street and bought a shade that matched her. Two years later, despite lines being extended further than ever, it’s likely that this is still the case.

Our loathing for older women remains just as rife, but “anti-aging” has simply been repackaged under a less obviously problematic epithet. American skincare brand Drunk Elephant now prefers the more politically correct “pro-skin” while Neutrogena has opted for “anti-wrinkle”. Neal’s Yard urges users to “age well” while magazine Allure has banned the term altogether. The exact same cynical goops and serums are still being shifted, just with “woker” labelling.

Meanwhile, the success of films such as Moonlight, Black Panther and Hidden is used to pave over the fact that according to data, Hollywood has made no progress in on-screen representation over the past decade – women of colour are still statistically excluded from leading roles and men occupied more than twice as many roles as women last year. Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler and Ava Duvernay are constantly peddled as proof that everything is now good, for good – even though minority film directors remain overwhelmingly under-represented in Hollywood, according to a 2018 report. The results of showed just 16% of films released in 2017 were directed by women and only 10% came from film-makers of colour – the lowest level it’s been since reporting began.

When diversity is touted as making business-sense only, brands will of course take a business approach. They cut corners to save time and money, and we are expected to exhale with relief at a distant past that is, when you look more closely, still present. While several small battles have been won, we cannot be distracted by these victories. Change is always slow to come, but it is even slower when what’s left to do can’t be heard over self-congratulatory back-patting for bare minimums.

@yomiadegoke

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Photos: H&M, Rex Features and River Island
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