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Raquel Savage, a Miami-based, board-certified sex therapist, was recently invited to be a hair model for Carol’s Daughter, a natural haircare, body, and skincare line. This event, an expo showcasing Carol’s Daughter and other products for CVS sales reps, took place on March 30th. From 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., Raquel was to model for the brand, which would test products on her hair but not cut or color her locks. All Raquel had to do was come to the Westin Fort Lauderdale on that day wearing all black with freshly washed hair. She was looking forward to the opportunity. It was another way to collect a check and promote herself.
At first, Savage knew that something was amiss from how messily her natural hair was handled. When she was reached out to for this opportunity, she assumed the stylist, who was also black, knew how to do her curly hair, which was to style while wet. But instead, her hair was styled while dry. After Dark and Lovely and Carol’s Daughter were used on Savage’s hair, she was prompted to go to one of the Westin’s ballrooms, where besides the aforementioned lines, Shea Moisture, NYX, Wet n Wild, Maybelline, and Coppertone, among many others, were present. Downstairs, that feeling of something being a bit off escalated, as the majority of people present, including CVS ambassadors, were white. Savage, along with another light-skinned, curly-haired woman, were a part of L'Oréal’s multicultural booth, which included Dark and Lovely, Dessange, and Carol’s Daughter.
However, according to Savage, the booth’s multiculturalism proved to be more of a dilution of blackness than anything else. Carol’s Daughter, a popular haircare line for natural-haired black women, showcased an ad with a racially ambiguous, fair-skinned woman. Aside from the colorism aspect of its advertisement, Savage was struck by the obfuscating language that stylists used to describe Carol’s Daughter products: “The two stylists marketed the products, specifically Carol’s Daughter and Dark and Lovely, saying all textures of hair can use these products. They said the textures that work the best for these hairs are curly to wavy to very curly, as opposed to saying it’s for ethnic and women of color. Sometimes he would say ‘coily’ or ‘textured’ hair to try to imply that it’s for women of color. A couple of times, he would say that it’s not about race. He said he doesn’t like to look at the racial and ethnic backgrounds of someone, but rather what the hair needs.”
When Savage went over to the Shea Moisture booth to talk to its representatives — one white woman and one light-skinned, racially ambiguous woman — the latter woman told her Shea Moisture is not a “black” company, but rather a multicultural company that is very diverse. The transformation of marketing natural haircare lines is a strong testament to what black consumers gain and lose when their beloved products became a part of larger corporations — “mainstream” can be a loose euphemism to erase blackness altogether.
Prior to the transition, Carol’s Daughter hosted a wide range of ads featuring African-American women, such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Mary J. Blige. They were the main customers. In fact, in 2011, when Today ran a profile of founder Lisa Price, the headline was “Carol’s Daughter delivers beauty to black women.” A brief search on Carol’s Daughter’s website shows that these black women exist, but the more racially ambiguous ads that took center stage at this expo seem to be less of a coincidence and more of a marketing strategy.
L'Oréal bought Carol’s Daughter in 2014, and since then, natural-haired black people have worried that the products would change in order to appeal to the white masses. Price founded Carol’s Daughter in 1993; the line began as a hobby making all-natural hair and skin products in the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment. Her husband would deliver them to family and friends. This two-person operation grew into 10 to 12 people working inside of Price’s home. Eventually, Carol’s Daughter expanded to be sold at places like Sephora, CVS, Target, HSN, and Ulta. In a 2012 interview with Ebony, Price said, “I feel like being in my business, being an African-American woman is a plus. It doesn’t hurt or hinder me... The only time it’s a negative is when you have to get people to recognize that, ‘yes I’m an African-American woman, yes my core customer is African-American women, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use it too and benefit from it.’”
What Price says is, in fact, true. It can be difficult to get other women to use a product that caters primarily to black women. However, if black women feel de-centered, is the promotion worth it? It was right around the time of this interview when Price’s double-sided message did not sit well with fans of the line — particularly with one of its biggest spokespeople, Solange Knowles, who parted ways with the organization after a 17-month-long stint. In an interview with Lurve magazine, Solange said of the dissolution: “I was constantly fighting for the right message to be heard," she said. “The message that, the way we wear our hair is a personal choice, there’s no right or wrong way; one way doesn’t make us more intelligent, or more superficial, and everyone makes that choice for very different reasons.”
This was one of many fissures in the beauty brand from 2010 to 2011. As NPR reports, five out of the seven Carol’s Daughter boutiques had to close, and Carol’s Daughter LLC had to file for bankruptcy. In 2011, in response to a multiethnic ad that included Solange, Selita Ebanks, and Cassie, Carol’s Daughter investor Steven Stoute said of Carol’s Daughter’s direction — or redirection — “What we’re doing now is moving into a polyethnic space. We want to be the first beauty brand that truly captures the beauty of the tapestry of skin types in America… We believe we’ve put together a shoot that celebrates many different ethnicities, to become a mirror of what America’s really becoming… They will serve as cultural ambassadors in bringing forth this acceptance that the definition of beauty is now colorless.”
This colorless utopia is what Price echoed in her Ebony interview, when responding to Carol’s Daughter wanting to be more mainstream: “I don’t really think of it as appealing to a ‘mainstream’ audience to be honest, because with the way our world is changing, people are going to identify less and less with the color of their skin. It’s just something that’s going to end up happening in the next 20 to 30 years.” Although L'Oréal had a history of buying other black haircare lines, such as Softsheen, black women weren’t sure if Carol’s Daughter was selling out. As it stands, because the line still thrives, the partnership was a success. In 2016, Carol’s Daughter tapped Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco and model Nazanin Mandi to be a part of the brand. Its growth and distribution expanded, according to Ad Age, to 25,000 stores in that same year. But at what cost?
Shea Moisture is another brand that has had to grapple with this dilemma. Beginning in 1991, Richelieu Dennis, founder and CEO of the company, along with Nyema Tubman and Mary Dennis, created Shea Moisture. The line was created to honor Dennis’s grandmother, who sold shea butter products in Sierra Leone starting in 1912. Shea Moisture has grown from selling not only haircare products, but also soaps — its initial product — and lotions. Like Carol’s Daughter, Shea Moisture is also sold in CVS and Target, as well as at Bed Bath & Beyond, Walmart, and others. In an essay for NBC News, Dennis said that the company ethically sources shea butter from 14 women’s cooperatives in Northern Ghana, which invests in more than 6,500 women entrepreneurs. In turn, Bain Capital, one of the world’s largest private equity funds, has a minority stake in Shea Moisture.
When Savage modeled at the hair expo, she recounted how the stylists divulged that both Carol’s Daughter and Shea Moisture are changing the formula of their products so that they are less heavy and of more use to white customers. This change is not entirely a surprise; there have been rumors on forums such as Lipstick Alley and sites like Hello Beautiful that the products have changed. In 2015, Nikki Walton, founder and head of content for CurlyNikki.com, wrote a blog post questioning if Shea Moisture changed the formula of its curl-enhancing smoothie because glycerin, not water, was its first ingredient.
This change began to feel even more like a breach of trust between Shea Moisture and its original clientele when the brand launched its Break The Walls campaign, which featured a black woman observing the difference between the beauty aisle where a white woman and blonde, curly-haired child stand and the ethnic aisle. The walls collapse in order to demonstrate the merging of the two concepts. Although the goal was to demolish racial barriers within the beauty industry, bloggers such as Tyisha Scott were skeptical of how a “just for us” beauty can now be a free-for-all. Further criticism came Shea Moisture’s way when it included images featuring white children. The team tweeted a response to the backlash: “We came across an image of a little girl with a puzzled expression that we imagine our #SheaFamily has when they run out of product, so we shared it with you. No ad. No agenda.”
After Raquel Savage shared her experience at the hair expo on social media, her tweets set off a firestorm full of disenchanted African-Americans whose distrust of both Carol’s Daughter and Shea Moisture had worsened. When Savage thinks of her brief modeling experience, she says, “In hindsight, I should’ve asked more questions. I felt like I was [taking] up space for a kinky, curly person who was black and dark, not a light-skinned, biracial, curly-haired woman. Black companies are selling out to appease the masses and appeal to whiteness. It’s not like there aren’t a ton of options for white hair. There’s a huge market for that already.”
There are a series of questions at play here and all of them are inextricably linked to capitalism, which is never going to reward a company for catering to a strictly African-American market. Ideally, a market for black-oriented hair products can be seen as both mainstream and black-centered, not two labels that run directly opposite from one another. As a company expands, what or who gets erased in the process? Is it possible to maintain a loyal clientele of black consumers the more mainstream a company becomes? Can you have black models in advertisements and reference black people in sales pitches and still be considered mainstream? Judging from Savage’s experience — one that has left her so traumatized that she refuses to model again — this, along with the appeal to be colorless, mainstream, and broad, is one that will leave many black people, the formerly loyal customers, as casualties in its wake.
Update: Shea Moisture has since responded to this article in a Facebook post saying, “We share the same concerns, disappointment and angst that our community has every time our support helps to grow a business and it forgets its roots. Rest assured, we will never forget our roots and we will always hold up our community.” You can read the brand’s entire statement here.