Beyond Caramel


Far be it from me to sully the frivolity that I’ve spent an entire academic year creating in this, my hallowed column space. Conversations about Cornel or the plight of Af-Am at Harvard are reserved for a more earnest forum. No, when talking about race-based issues in the twenty-first century, I can’t help but rant about something a bit less important, a bit more…well, glam-ish.

My trusty copy of Glamour open to the techniques and products page, I plan to take advantage of the free advice being dished out by the make-up artist to the new “it” star. As I skim the advice I become excited at the prospect of looking a bit more like a supermodel…or at least a knock-off MTV VJ for an evening.

There is the general advice about how to apply blush or how to keep make-up looking fresh all night long. But after those secrets have been shared, the suggestions get specific because we all know that different colors and effects look good on different types of people. What irks me is the geological pace with which beauty products—from lipsticks to eyeshadows, blushes to foundations—change to meet the demands of the marginalized non-white community: i.e. me.

I wouldn’t label myself particularly vain, but I try as hard as the next gal to look decent for a black tie event or a hot date. Hair: big. Clothes: elegant…or at least seductively tight. Breath: casually minty. Now for the make-up, the frosting on the cake that makes the average person look extra special for an extra special occasion. Finding the right make-up for my skin tone—somewhere between exotic, African-American, dark cocoa and kinky-headed Negro black—is, to be sure, an exhausting process. It’s not about finding just the right shade, but about finding a cosmetics line that produces and regularly distributes anything even remotely resembling the right shade.

I flip to an extended ad for Almay products that promises to reduce wrinkles that I don’t have and provide mega SPF protection that I don’t need. For those who don’t use make-up regularly, foundation is the base upon which any make-up job rests. It’s supposed to be the color of your skin and when applied evenly, cover up those unsightly blemishes that we all wish we had fewer of.

There is a color palate that lets readers know exactly which shades this face paint-goop comes in. The first three hues—indistinguishable to the human eye—are for three separate shades of Caucasian skin. They are called “pale,” “buff” and “naked”. Not exactly the color I see when I’m naked, but whatever, no need to get testy. My eye rapidly scans the color chart to find that the “darkest” color listed is a pinkish-sandy brown called “caramel.”

Now, at about age seven I realized, with much chagrin, that my skin tone did not fit in the usual “pale” to “caramel” range that most make-up lines feature in their ads. One would assume that with the advent of honey-hued Halle Berry in almost every Revlon ad, make-up companies would do a better job of advertising foundation and other make-up products in a wider variety of colors. But it seems that caramel is pretty much the only sweet to make it main stream…I suppose the big wigs haven’t developed a taste for dark chocolate.

Glamour doesn’t do the greatest job of giving skin-tone specific beauty advice. I mean, it does if your skin tone is somewhere between Swedish pale pink and J-Lo bronze. I suppose if I want to learn which dark-people lipsticks or blushes to wear with a particular outfit, I could refer to the make-up artists who are dishing out advice in the dark-people magazines. And there are “special” make-up lines made especially for black people with invitingly dark shades that start somewhere around caramel and only get better from there. I use these products…provided the store that I happen to be in when I think about buying them carries the “special” lines. But I don’t want to have to buy “special” mags or go to “special” stores usually found in “special” neighborhoods to ensure that the “special” beauty products will be in stock.

I’ve been increasingly comfortable in my skin ever since my mother did what any good mother of a future Glamourpuss would have done when her teary-eyed seven year old daughter complained that she wasn’t as pretty as her favorite blond-haired, milky white baby-doll. Mother threw said doll in the trash, made a fun ceremony of it, really, and bought this mildly vain, mildly sensitive and starkly black soul a cadre of beautiful black dolls (and a few Hot Wheels, Tonka Trucks and GI Joes to make sure seven-year-old me didn’t get too girly). I don’t expect the make-up industry, or the world for that matter, to be as comfortable with me as I am, but it would be nice if they (ahhh, the comfortably vague “they”) made more of an effort to inch a bit closer in that direction.

Antoinette C. Nwandu ’02 is an English concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.