L’Oréal and the case for diversity politics

by Sana Karim

“I deeply regret the content of the tweets I made in 2014, and sincerely apologise for the upset and hurt they have caused”.  British hijab-wearing model and beauty blogger Amena Khan, who had to step down from L’Oréal’s hair care campaign after she received backlash for posting “anti-Israel” tweets back in 2014.

Earlier this month, when L’Oréal Paris UK hired British beauty blogger Amena Khan to be the face of its new hair care line, Elvive, the cosmetics company—the largest in the world—was celebrated for choosing a model wearing a hijab to front a hair campaign. According to a study published last year, 78.2% of all the models featured in spring 2016’s fashion adverts were white.  In a breakdown of the statistics, 8.3% of models featured in ads were black, 4% were Asian and 3.8% were Hispanic.  So when a South Asian, Hijab wearing model was selected by one of the largest beauty brands it was a moment to celebrate.

“How many brands are doing things like this? Not many,” Khan told Vogue UK at the time, noting that just because you don’t see someone’s hair doesn’t mean that they don’t take care of it. “They’re literally putting a girl in a headscarf…in a hair campaign.” It was an important step towards representation on the brand’s part.

But less than two weeks after that Vogue UK interview, Khan found out that L’Oréal Paris didn’t want her voice after all.  She was asked to step down after tweets in which she condemned Israel from 2014 were unearthed.

L’Oréal UK released a statement: “We have recently been made aware of a series of tweets posted in 2014 by Amena Khan, who was featured in a U.K. advertising campaign. We appreciate that Amena has since apologised for the content of these tweets and the offense they have caused. L’Oréal Paris is committed to tolerance and respect towards all people. We agree with her decision to step down from the campaign.”

This is not the first time that L’Oréal Paris UK has severed its relationship with a model because of personal views expressed on social media. In September 2017, the company dropped British transgender DJ and activist Munroe Bergdorf, who was the face of their YoursTruly True Match campaign. Bergdorf, it seems, had expressed controversial views on race and privilege.

“Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more,” she wrote in August on Facebook. “Most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour.”  The post was deleted shortly afterwards.

Like with Khan, L’Oréal Paris released a statement explaining their diversity policy upon firing Bergdorf:  “We support diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion. […] We believe that the recent comments by Munroe Bergdorf are at odds with those values, and as such we have taken the decision to end the partnership with her.”

Beauty brands claim to celebrate diversity but they often want to pretend that that diversity doesn’t come with diverse political views.  These brands cannot have the privilege of being both apolitical and committed to diversity at the same time.  Big brands don’t want to risk controversial stances, but their models are making political statements on social media anyway.  Khan was chosen explicitly because she was not  just another pretty face.  After making history in casting a Hijab-wearing model in a hair campaign – L’Oréal also showed how big brands claim to champion diversity – but use diversity politics on their own terms.

The writer is a fashion blogger