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Message in a bottle

The beauty business has long been criticized for creating images that aren't inclusive, but some companies are pushing back against that reputation. Caitlin Agnew captures the industry's activist movement

The July 2017 cover of Allure, featuring Halima Aden.

On the cover of its July 2017 issue, U.S. beauty magazine Allure featured Halima Aden. With her hand held high in a rock 'n' roll sign, sporting a black Nike hijab and a smile that displayed her metal braces, the 19-year-old, Kenyan-born Muslim model was a unique new cover star, and the response online was mostly positive. The cover is just one example of the way some traditional beauty players have used their heft to shape conversations surrounding personal identity and social expectations.

As some of the biggest advertisers and image-makers in the world, cosmetics brands are often criticized for their legacy of largely homogenous portrayals of aesthetic ideals. There are some outliers, though, who have been pushing for change from within for decades, and in recent years, the shift towards a more diverse representation of faces in marketing initiatives has finally gained momentum – thanks in no small part to social media.

CoverGirl’s James Charles became the first Cover Boy in 2016.

Some recent examples: In 2016, CoverGirl signed 17-year-old YouTube star James Charles as its first-ever cover boy; Redken's 2014 campaign featured Lea T, the first time a transgender model fronted a big beauty campaign; and Nars, L'Oréal Paris and Marc Jacobs Beauty have all released campaigns featuring models over 60 in the past few years. This progress has been slow since tides began to shift in 1992, when Revlon hired Veronica Webb and, in doing so, became the first major beauty brand to feature an African American model as its face.

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In 1994, when M.A.C announced its Viva Glam lipsticks, with 100 per cent of sales of the product going to the M.A.C AIDS Fund, the launch was met with resistance to both the association with the AIDS crisis and to the campaign, which was fronted by drag queen RuPaul. "A lot of our retail partners didn't want him in the store because they felt a lot of customers would be offended," says Frank Toskan, who co-founded M.A.C in Toronto in 1984 with partner Frank Angelo. "It was basically just ignorance that we were up against."

A 1990s Urban Decay ad that asks if pink makes you puke.

It's this same industry homogeneity that Urban Decay confronted when it launched in 1996. With early ad campaigns that featured slogans like "Does pink make you puke?" and product names like "Roach" and "Acid Rain," Urban Decay's approach to makeup was a subversive departure from the status quo of prestige beauty brands, and was often misunderstood by their retail partners.

By presenting its retailers with an ultimatum – "We used our success to say, hey you want us here, you gotta take all of us, not just part of us," says Toskan – M.A.C brought unconventional imagery into mainstream department stores. Similarly, Urban Decay intended for its customers to make a statement. "The idea behind it has always been, it's not about making yourself prettier, it's about expressing yourself," says chief creative officer and founding partner Wende Zomnir. "It's really about telling the world who you are, not about subscribing to society's notion of what you should be."

Both M.A.C and Urban Decay are examples of how cosmetics brands have become institutional actors that help reshape society, says Ela Veresiu, assistant professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business. "They do have the power to, if not completely reshape our understanding of racism, diversity and inclusivity as societies, at least to get people talking about these issues and to get people to realize inequalities exist, that differences exist and ask how we can best address them as a society."

Despite the efforts of some forward-thinking brands, the industry still has a long way to go towards achieving healthy and inclusive representation. The website The Fashion Spot studied 207 fashion ad campaigns from spring 2017 and found that only 24.5 per cent of major campaigns featured people of colour. And a visual comparison published by graphic-design company Canva in 2016 showed a striking similarity in the faces featured in beauty ad campaigns, right down to the distance between the models' eyes.

Dove’s 2017 #RealBeauty Pledge featured 32 women ranging in age from 11 to 71 from more than 15 countries.

Beyond the overall homogeneity of traditional ads, there are also many examples of well-meaning campaigns and editorials that miss the mark, igniting a maelstrom of criticism in online think pieces and on social media. Most recently, Vogue's August 2017 cover featured Zayn Malick and Gigi Hadid wearing each other's clothes as examples of gender fluidity. Following a wave of criticism, the publication apologized for muddling "the impact that gender-fluid, non-binary communities have had on fashion and culture." In the UK this past spring, personal care brand Dove felt the heat when it launched a range of body washes that came in bottles of different shapes and sizes meant for different body types. Consumers and media alike criticized the Real Beauty campaign for encouraging women to categorize themselves by body shape.

Consumers are using social media as a catalyst for change in the industry, and a platform to voice frustrations with brands that come across as inauthentic or uninformed, says Veresiu. "It's helped give a voice to marginalized populations and to consumers that don't fit into the previously ideal body type and beauty image," she says, adding that beauty brands have a responsibility to promote imagery that's representative of reality, from skin tone to gender identity to body type, because of their ongoing history of fostering unrealistic standards of beauty.

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Kiera Yasmeen will star in Annabelle's upcoming ad campaign.

Montreal-based makeup brand Annabelle is one brand that's placed a priority on inclusion. The company recently tapped Kiera Yasmeen, a 22-year-old Toronto-based model, to star in its upcoming ad campaign. Born in Canada to parents of Scottish and Trinidadian decent, Yasmeen's combo of curly auburn hair and freckled, caramel skin are a far cry from the Christie Brinkley-types typically seen in beauty ads. "I'm most grateful for being able to see girls and guys who have similar features as me booking beauty campaigns or fashion campaigns, because it's about damn time," she says.

"What's interesting about social media is it really has taken the idea we started with, which was the democratization of beauty, and it made that a reality," says Urban Decay's Zomnir, 21 years after launching the brand. The overall perception of makeup, she adds, is that it has finally shifted from being about seeking an unattainable ideal of perfection to one of self-expression. "It's not like a quirky idea anymore," she says. "It's a normal idea."

Visit to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.

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