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An analysis of 27,000 Instagram images show that fashion’s BLM reckoning was mostly bluster

Bárbara Abbês for Quartz
Published

At the end of May last year, as protests exploded over police killings of Black Americans, numerous fashion and beauty companies went online to post their messages of support for the Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as to pledge their own commitments to change.

Instagram was a preferred channel for these declarations. It’s become a vital way for companies to connect directly with audiences, and its photo-based sharing has made it particularly powerful for fashion and beauty brands. Companies published statements expressing solidarity, posted black squares for Blackout Tuesday, and collectively acknowledged a need to do better.

But this temporary pause in marketing was probably the most noteworthy piece of their reaction as far as Instagram goes. A Quartz analysis of the skin tones in 27,000 images from the feeds of 34 fashion and beauty brands, representing a selection of companies across different segments of the industries, found while many did increase the diversity of skin tones in their Instagram images, the increases were often only marginal.

Measuring diversity of models on Instagram

Our data did not try to analyze the images by the race of models in them. Racial classifications can be subjective and vary by culture, while individuals may self-identify in various ways. Racial diversity is itself important, but we limited our focus to skin tone specifically.

It’s also important to note there is no single, clear standard for what sufficient diversity looks like. And in the past several years, companies have made noticeable efforts to cast more diverse models.

Even so, our analysis shows that light skin still clearly dominates, raising the question of whether the imagery fashion and beauty companies produce is as inclusive as it should be, or if the pace of change matches the urgency expressed during last year’s protests.

Here, for example, is what the data looks like for Dior, a brand with 34 million follows on Instagram. Each circle shows the skin tone of a person appearing on the brand’s Instagram feed in 2020. We excluded posts without people, black and white images, and photos with extreme filters or coloring that obviously changed the complexion. The imagery itself can include shots from advertising campaigns, photos from events such as runway shows, and content created specifically for Instagram.

It can be difficult to find a pattern, or to determine the actual diversity of skin tones represented in a brand’s feed as they appear chronologically. Arranging the skin tones depicted from darkest to lightest complexions, however, the comparative lack of darker shades is immediately apparent.

When we split our data into two periods—before the protests and after—it’s clear that only a few brands significantly changed the diversity of skin tones on their Instagram feeds. For some, like Dior, the median skin tone slid towards darker tones, but almost imperceptibly.

Diversity trends in different industry segments

By segment, there were some noticeable differences in the median skin tones on brand Instagram accounts.

Beauty brands

Beauty companies generally posted images with the lightest mix of skin tones—perhaps surprising given that they most directly deal with the variety of complexions in the world. L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, increased its share of darker skin tones, though almost imperceptibly, and still had the lightest mix of images both before and after its June 1 post against racial injustice.

Though it improved little, Sephora’s median skin tone was darker than most other beauty brands’ both before and after the protests. It’s also an example of the valuable steps companies can take beyond their Instagram posts. Last June, it signed the 15% Pledge, an online campaign asking large retailers to commit to allotting 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. Other big retailers such as Macy’s have signed up since. (Bloomberg recently reported that retailers buying from more Black-owned and Black-founded businesses is one trend that has persisted since last June.)

Luxury fashion

Luxury companies represented a range, with some of the lightest and darkest medians in our study. Balmain and Burberry in particular stood out, with Burberry’s Instagram imagery before last year’s protests already included more dark skin tones than its peers.

Celine, which has been criticized before for a lack of diversity in its runway shows, had by far the lightest median prior to the protests and showed no change. It also had a relatively small data set to draw on. Its Instagram includes a large share of black and white images, which we excluded from our analysis.

Mass-market fashion

The mass market was the group with the darkest median skin tones in our data set. Old Navy, owned by Gap, had the lightest median skin tone by a wide margin both before and after its statement on Instagram last June saying it would not stand for racism, inequality, or exclusion.

Victoria’s Secret, meanwhile, moved toward the middle of the pack after starting from one of the lightest medians. The company has been working to rebrand itself as more inclusive.

Premium/contemporary fashion

Among the companies in this category, Polo Ralph Lauren, which has long had a loyal audience in hip-hop, was the brand with the greatest variety of darker skin tones prior to last June.

Its median changed little, actually growing slightly lighter, through the rest of the year, while the Ralph Lauren company was also trying to address shortcomings around diversity in its corporate offices too.

Other companies showed greater efforts to increase the diversity of their Instagram models, including Reformation, which was accused of racism in the workplace after it publicly stated its support for Black Lives Matter in a May 31 Instagram post.


For Quartz members only, explore the data for all 34 brands we analyzed: The data behind which fashion brands are keeping their Instagram diversity promises


Why it matters what brands post on Instagram

The images brands post on Instagram are one means among many they can use to promote equity for Black people. Other important steps for companies include reexamining hiring policies; promoting inclusive—not just diverse—work environments; increasing the share of Black leadership; and making sure there is also Black talent behind the camera, in roles such as photography and styling. Sometimes the first step is just measuring diversity to begin with and being transparent with the numbers, as the New York Times found in a recent survey of the fashion industry.

But the images companies produce and publish are noteworthy themselves. They shape ideas of beauty, which have typically been commanded by a white, thin ideal.

“It matters what a brand chooses to present because there are people following them that need to see themselves in their branding and in their imaging,” said Amity Paye, senior director of communications and interim chief marketing officer for Color of Change, an online racial-justice organization.”If we don’t diversify what is presented as beautiful, then our cultural standards stay the same. The fashion industry really has an outsized role to play here in presenting beauty in all of its diversity to the world.”

“Branding connotes who the brand considers of value,” Afua Addo, deputy director of programs and training at Perception Institute, a consortium of researchers and advocates focused on combating bias, said in an email.

The brands we examined had nearly 600 million followers combined. While there is likely quite a bit of overlap in these followers, that reach is significant.

Instagram is also the venue brands themselves chose for sharing their messages. All the companies in our analysis posted black squares or expressions of support, ranging from text statements to more conceptual posts, such as Louis Vuitton’s May 31 video of a Black rider on a horse. Increasing the diversity of the models they present in this same channel is arguably a simple step they could take toward following through.

How diverse should the imagery of fashion and beauty brands be?

As for what a company’s distribution of skin tones should look like, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Not all companies in our analysis may share the same goals for diversity. Some are based in the US and others in Europe: Should they try to reflect the local population? Or the diversity of their customers? Generally speaking these are global businesses and may have audiences and offices around the world.

Paye said it’s a question that comes up frequently as Color of Change speaks with brands. The organization has partnered with the Black in Fashion Council, a group working to advance Black people in the fashion and beauty industries; talent agency IMG; and model Joan Smalls on a campaign calling for change in fashion.

Ultimately, Paye said it’s up to each company to determine its own levels of representation. What’s important to remember, she adds, is that representation is a statement of who a company values.

Several companies in our analysis followed patterns similar to Dior’s, including Prada, Tommy Hilfiger, Glossier, and L’Oréal.

Other companies made more marked increases in the share of darker skin tones in their images. Calvin Klein, Urban Outfitters, and Gucci were among those showing the greatest changes. Change is also relative. Kate Spade published more images with darker skin tones after it posted a black square and a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. in June. Its feed, however, remained lighter on the whole than several other brands’ feeds were prior to the protests.

At a handful of companies, mostly in the luxury group, the median skin tone got lighter after the protests. These include Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Dries Van Noten.

Calculating the skin color from an Instagram post

You’ll notice the analysis above looked at median skin tone in brands’ Instagram feeds. It’s not a perfect measure, and again, there is no absolute standard for what an ideal median is.

It is, however, a useful way to look at how the skin tones changed, and can offer some insight on how brands compare to one another. It also reveals trends that might not be evident just by looking at a brand’s imagery. The distribution of skin tones in the Instagram feed of Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, for example, looks more balanced than many other companies’ as it includes a number of darker-skinned models. But the median still indicates a high proportion of very light models, showing how skewed the industry as a whole is.

Our focus on skin tone rather than race has some obvious limitations as well. Different racial groups can share the same skin tones, so the analysis misses more nuanced racial differences in representation, even though racial diversity is critical in itself.

Measuring skin tone isn’t completely objective either. Some brands use filters or studio lighting that can alter how the skin color appears in images. Accurately determining a subject’s skin tone can also be tough if it is brightly lit or has dark shadows, and in each image, it’s possible to select a number of colors to represent the skin tone, meaning any individual color in our dataset has some uncertainty.

We left out images in which faces were too small to determine an accurate color. We only analyzed the first image of multi-image posts, and we looked at the placeholder picture for videos. We also excluded companies from our analysis where it proved difficult to assess a large share of their images, such as H&M, Saint Laurent, Fendi, and Balenciaga.

Still, taken as a whole, these distributions were revealing.

Colorism in fashion and beauty

Even without explicit data on the race of people in the posts, the results showed a preference for lighter skin tones. It suggests a bias known as colorism that has pervaded fashion and beauty and carries its own implications.

Addo said the high concentration of light skin tones showed companies “are not fully committed to relinquishing Eurocentric standards of beauty and are only able to celebrate proximity to whiteness, which is not the same as celebrating difference.”

“When we talk about diversity of imagery and showing people what we consider beautiful, you’ve got to be specifically anti-racist, meaning you have to show Black women who are darker skinned,” Paye said. “That is a way of being anti-racist that goes beyond just filling a quota of Black womanhood.”

Gap Inc., the parent company of Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, says it is aware of the need for more inclusive representation across the spectrum of skin tones and was working on the issue before last June.

“From my vantage point, it’s a really important thing that we talk about skin-tone diversity,” said Bahja Johnson, head of customer belonging at Gap Inc. and co-founder of its Color Proud Council, a team focused on ensuring inclusivity across the organization. Much of the conversation in the industry has centered on race, which is crucial, she said. But it needs to go deeper into considerations of skin tone, too, “and it’s not always easy for teams to talk about that,” she added.

Members of the council work with teams from product to marketing at Gap’s brands to make sure they’re having conversations about inclusivity, addressing matters such as models being “white passing,” a term Johnson says team leaders within Gap Inc. may not have heard of before and might not have in mind. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Gap and Banana Republic were among the brands with the highest proportion of darker skin tones in their Instagram imagery.

Old Navy, however, noticeably trailed well behind its sister brands and others in the mass market. “We always have opportunity and we will continue to dig in with the brands to ensure that teams are really clear and have the tough conversations about it,” Johnson said.

Quartz reached out to every company included in our analysis. LVMH, owner of Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Celine, declined to comment on the record, as did Chanel, Versace, and Polo Ralph Lauren. Many others did not reply.

Estée Lauder, which owns MAC and several other brands, said while it felt Quartz’s data did not fully reflect its efforts around diversity and racial equity, it was “receptive to any feedback” that helped it achieve its aim of representing all its consumers.

Several brands pointed out their efforts to increase diversity and inclusivity within their organizations and in their imagery. Tommy Hilfiger said while it has stood for inclusivity since its founding, it recognizes it can do more as a brand and launched a new program last July. Reformation and Everlane said they’re actively trying to make sure there is better representation of Black models as well as other people of color in their marketing.

Sephora and L’Oréal, which owns brands such as Maybelline and NYX, noted they try to present a full spectrum of skin, hair, and body types. Sephora has also devised an action plan based on its recent study (pdf) looking at racial bias in retail.

What brands do next matters

The public declarations companies make on issues such as racism and inequality matter. But even more important are the actions they take to follow through.

Companies wield a great deal of power in consumer societies. Their actions can directly shape culture, and what they do has repercussions in consumers’ lives beyond sales or brand images.

“People can’t be a trend to flaunt whenever it’s socially impressive. You can’t just put Black people or people of color on Instagram pages and pretend that the industry is actually diverse,” Paye said. “We need action on all levels to actually create a more just society.”

More reporting on colorism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fashion and beauty industries

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