The Politics of Beauty

Sarain Fox and Sephora bring Indigenous representation to beauty branding

Lena Orlova, Contributor 

Her eyes are the colour of glacier lakes, gleaming behind storefront windows. Sarain Fox has made it mainstream in Sephora’s “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign. Fox lays her tracks across many platforms — both artistic and political — making her mark as a voice of Canadian Indigenous culture. She is a multidimensional woman: an Anishinaabekwe activist, actor, dancer, Morning Star and Truthteller. Modelling for a beauty brand isn’t her first public venture nor her last one.  

In Sephora’s new ad, we see politics and make-up come together for a cause. At face value, the words beauty brand brings to mind literally that: face value. Powders and lipstick. Gloss, gleam and spark. The powerful machine we call the cosmetic industry assembles these products for perfection. If we think about it, how much of our concept of beauty is primed by beauty brands? Historically, blemish-free faces held monopoly on female representation. In consequence, we come to believe that beauty is contingent with the endowment of these faces. The faces do not speak, they showcase a product. These mannequins stand for corporate profit, silent on expression of character.  

“We Belong to Something Beautiful” stands for something else. To celebrate difference and incorporate diversity, Sephora has created a campaign that incorporates Canadian Indigenous culture, with Fox as its representative. A two-minute introductory video on Sephora’s website brings context and personality to the picture. The Indigenous changemaker passionately speaks of her core value of belonging, elucidating how her heritage has shaped her sense of rootedness and community. She speaks to historical silencing of the Indigenous expression, bringing attention to the present mode of her resistance: her voice. Using the beauty brand as another stage for her message, she then smoothly concludes with a personal re-definition of beauty. Beauty is in connection, in showing up as yourself. Beauty is truth. It is a politically progressive step for increasing Indigenous representation in media. It also casts a wider net for an audience that does not identify with the Western-European colonial concept of beauty. 

Arguments exist illuminating the inauthenticity of such efforts to incorporate authenticity. The sceptic’s eye sees the corporate responsibility movement as just another public relations stunt to increase profit or perform risk management. Where there is a wider spectrum of ethnicities, there is greater risk of being caught under scrutiny of not being diverse enough. Corporations perform spectacles for activists. They pretend to promote social responsibility while the stakeholders, the real decision makers, continue to be driven by self-serving motives. Here, the fear is that increasing Indigenous representation is a mock attempt at social change, without an underlying intention to do more than attract customers. 

There is a grain of truth to the counterargument against corporate responsibility movements. For true social change we need more than a marketing campaign. Our perception of the Indigenous community requires a shift in perception. This ethnic group, for decades and in majority, has been depicted in the media by non-Indigenous writers in ways that support cultural stereotypes of superstitious, warrior-clad hunters. Sephora’s project breaks this thread—inviting an Indigenous person to tell their personal narrative.  

Fundamentally, the campaign aligns with the core of the cause for authentic Indigenous representation. No matter how limited the medium of communication may be through the mouth of a corporate giant, the campaign provides a platform and an opportunity for open dialogue between the Indigenous community and the modern audience. It is a space for Indigenous people to be seen in the context of their own self-defined beauty.   

Self-definition is empowering. Empowerment is the new fashion. 

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