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Beauty Disruptor: Darian Symoné Harvin on Beauty as Social, Political, and Cultural Capital

January 07, 2022 Carla Seipp
January 07, 2022
Darian Symoné Harvin

In the Beauty Disruptors series, BeautyMatter speaks to those breaking the mold of the traditional beauty industry, from shining a light on controversial issues to paving an alternative discourse.

For our inaugural article, we spoke to journalist Darian Symoné Harvin, a self-described reporter covering beauty at the intersection of politics and pop culture. Her newsletter, BEAUTY IRL, is a weekly dose of wit, social commentary, and insight. Consider it an immaculately curated news feed where every bullet point bears Harvin’s signature of intellect and personality. Outside of this project, Harvin has contributed to industry heavyweights such as The Los Angeles Times, Allure, Elle, and The New York Times, with subject matter ranging from the impact of colorism on the industry to the enduring beauty legacy of Tina Turner.

A woman with her finger on the pulse, she recently auctioned off an NFT of her viral Twitter post from February 2019, which began a thread of Black women posing in front of the Mona Lisa, receiving over 10,000 replies. Harvin took a break in between freelance writing projects to sit down with BeautyMatter for a frank discussion of the beauty industry, maintaining journalistic integrity, and what constitutes a defining pop-culture moment.

Can beauty exist without politics and pop culture?

No it cannot, because all of these things are intertwined within our lives. My perspective often has to do with my personal experience with beauty too. Growing up, my mother was a hair stylist; I grew up watching her do hair, including mine. That experience really solidified for me, even as I was growing up as a Black girl in my community, that the way that I presented myself—how I did or didn’t do my hair, how I compared myself to other people around me and what they were or weren't doing—related to how people perceived or treated me, and how I treated them. It's oftentimes so intertwined in this way that, now we are starting to notice beauty as a reference point for talking about bigger topics.

In the past couple of years, with Pull Up or Shut Up and the Black Lives Matter movement, that's come to the forefront. But if you look back throughout history, there are examples like the afro in the ’70s.

The afro was a political statement around self-love and self-acceptance as a Black woman. Also, it was a form of resistance, saying I'm showing up as I am, no matter what. That goes across the board—beauty and identity is actually beyond a racial component. A lot of times when we talk about beauty and identity, we talk about race, but it is also about location, socioeconomic status, all these things that make you ponder your own practices, the products you have access to, and what you define as beauty.

Whether it's present day or history, what are some of the defining moments that perhaps might not be on everyone's radar?

The Gorilla Glue story. Especially in reflecting on it, that is a perfect example of a beauty story at the intersection of politics and pop culture. It was so viral that we all watched and wanted updates. I ended up doing a live updates newsletter on it. It was less about relating to her exact experience, and more about what it represented in terms of beauty standards, and thinking about how far you’ve gone for beauty. This idea that she felt that her edges needed to be completely laid in order for her to walk out of the house. Even if you aren't going to the same extreme, we all have done something that was around trying to get your hair a certain way before you walk out of the house, in order to be presentable to the rest of the world. Even if you couldn't relate to the function of what she was doing, it was still a touch point for a conversation, it hit a nerve with people.

And then also Meghan McCain on The View. She started to appear with all of these hairstyles that were around updos and slicked-back hair, styles that you associate with, not just Black women, but Black women who grow up in the hood. Black women are a part of shaping this aesthetic that is now glorified, and it was like: What is going on, why does Meghan McCain have this hairstyle that we don't associate with who she is? When The Cut talked to her hairstylist, who is a Black woman, she mentioned that working on The View was simply a rare opportunity for her to do creative and experimental looks. But it was interesting to me how they sparked a larger conversation around hairstyles.

One other example is the comedian Mo'Nique and the comments she made around the bonnet. For me, whether Black women should be wearing bonnets in and outside of the home, and what wearing scarves on their head outside the home represents, is a conversation that keeps coming up. The reason why is because, ultimately, that is a conversation about choice, agency, and what's acceptable.

On the subject of that, how can the space of beauty journalism evolve into a more authentically inclusive space?

The first thing that needs to be tackled is looking at the landscape of needs right now. There are a lot of different kinds of people of color who want to write about beauty, especially this intersection, but the media industry makes it very hard to do so, for writers to survive and do proper reporting, to have the systems and resources that you need to put out a story. It takes a lot of energy to write a story, and oftentimes we are not even paid a livable wage to do so. There are a lot of writers who want to write about these topics, but have to take different routes for financial reasons. That is something, generally across the board, that should be acknowledged.

Secondly, there's so much talk around what brands and beauty media can do to be more inclusive. We often advocate for bringing more racial diversity into companies. In addition to that, I really urge people to broaden their scope of what they are listening to, watching, and taking in, so that they can expand their own experiences with beauty, but also their interaction with the world. Knowing and understanding how to connect with people of varied experiences is something that is really lost. The simple ability to see things outside of yourself, to be able to understand when something is relevant, even if it has nothing to do with you, is an experience that comes from reading.

This also ties in to my experience as a news curation editor. So much of my job is around following people and communities that are not like me. This is ultimately where trend forecasting comes in, this idea of being able to see when something is on the rise, what conversations are popping off before they become mainstream. That general experience has helped me to find the stories and people that I want to write about.

"No matter what, beauty is the one thing that you have to show up for. Ultimately, beauty is about choice and agency."
By Darian Symoné Harvin, founder, BEAUTY IRL

Within the beauty world, there's such a massive influx of new brands and launches happening on a daily basis. How do you go about the new curation process, is it about what resonates most with you?

My curation background is in the knowledge, not just the skills, but the takeaways, which is why I'm able to hone in, report, identify, and lean into beauty at the intersection of politics and pop culture. I have the technical skills to curate things, and my newsletter BEAUTY IRL is a really good example of that, because I am giving you my take, but linking out to different people and websites. I am keeping in mind the byline and platform, can I expose people to a new outlet.

So much of what I do as news beauty editor has allowed me to define beauty and beauty coverage for myself. I think that because of this, I've included a lot of people who I think are practicing self-care and wellness in this genuine way. I like to include stories about spirituality, or talk about women's health, because I'm realizing that all of these topics are at the intersection of politics and pop culture. And they relate to beauty in this way where the products are byproducts.

Also, if we're looking at the brands that are proliferating or B Corp certified, there’s this desire for the bigger picture.

Those are the brands I'm most attracted to. I like brands that give me something to talk about, that are taking risks. Glossier did product placement on Verzuz, this music battle that started very organically on Instagram Live between two really big-name producers, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. Essentially, they turned this into an entire franchise where hip-hop figures or groups in a similar era were battling each other on Instagram Live with their songs during quarantine. It turned into this big show that's now live and streamed on Apple Music. For one of the shows with Monica, Glossier was a product placement in the background. This is a show where the demographic is definitely older Black people, specifically for this episode, women that are on the older side of millennials and above. I was very intrigued to see Glossier do that because this is not a space where you would normally see the brand, but I could understand what they are trying to do. It lets me know that they understand the importance of having this demographic of Black older women.

I actually wrote about it for Allure. I don't know how they felt about that story from a brand perspective. I often feel that brands are afraid of having those kinds of stories written about them. It wasn't positive or negative, it was just this happened and these are things we should also be thinking about, here's some other factors at play. A lot of brands are very afraid to get into that water, but that's how you get my attention.

Topicals is another great brand. They made these velour tracksuits, that lets me know they not only understand their demographic, but are looking to be a part of culture in this way that it is about a mindset. It is about looking to talk back to culture. Hoping to be part of the conversation and talking back to culture are two different things: people who are looking to start conversations that add to a community versus just looking to attract a certain type of person. It's actually understanding that a lot of this is not about you. It's about creating a platform where other people feel seen and heard, and you so happen to create a product.

Are there any other names that you feel are driving beauty's future?

There are a lot of people who aren't in beauty, but who are driving it. There are a lot of Black trans women right now driving Black beauty. I think of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, MD Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Leiomy Maldonado, and Junior Mintt, who is a trans woman, drag queen, and has her own makeup line that is really beautiful. I love the packaging. In addition to that, Lizzo and Cardi B. I'm seeing a lot of Black female artists using the video space during a time where we stream everything, to take risks, do really creative looks, and collaborate with their hairstylist to put together extravagant and imaginative looks.

Alok Vaid-Menon is someone who is driving the beauty conversation, just by nature of them talking about their human experience, and being so open with presenting themselves fully as who they are. People try to shame them for embracing their body hair, and Alok turns it into a lesson on gender nonconformity. They are on this podcast called Man Enough, which is a great example of the beauty politics conversation. I'm super into people aiming to live at their fullest expression, pushing and challenging beauty standards and what we define as beauty.

There's a lot of conversation about men and their relationship to beauty and products, but oftentimes when we talk about the nonbinary or queer experience within beauty, brands will be gender neutral, androgynous, they'll feel like they're for men and women. But I want brands that explore gender, what does it mean to be a trans woman and wear this lipstick, and the individual experience of that. Beauty is actually an amazing avenue to explore what gender means. I don't want to see that watered-down, or laid-flat product with simple black-and-white packaging. I want to see gender expressed.

Are you seeing any trends bubbling up at the moment?

We're going to start to see more POC-founded brands that are for everyone. There's often this mindset that Black-owned brands are only for Black people. Now, we’re seeing more brands that their foundation is the passion, influence, and culture of the Black diaspora. Uoma Beauty is one, Ami Colé is another. I love to see that. They are creating products with that liveliness and fullness in mind. I'm also seeing this done within Southeast Asian communities, where creatively they are referencing elements that come from their cultures to create brands.

"In my experience, real improvement and change happens at a grassroots or local level. Beauty brands should take a look at themselves less as a brand and more as a collective."
By Darian Symoné Harvin, founder, BEAUTY IRL

In your newsletter you write: “Nothing can compare to that sensation of applying lipstick or using a new conditioner. In today's world that holds a lot of power.” What makes that sensation so powerful?

This is ultimately the main driver and motivation for me doing what I do. No matter what, beauty is the one thing that you have to show up for. Ultimately, beauty is about choice and agency. I can't hand you a lipstick for you to try through the computer screen. Beauty is one of the few things that we'll always have to physically present in order to partake.

Do you have any thoughts on the partial backlash against terms like anti-aging and nontoxic beauty, which obviously have a bit of a negativity bias to them? Does the industry need to have more of a consciousness around language?

When I hear the word anti-aging, I actually think about my desire to hear and learn from women who are older than me. It's so insane to me because if anything, I'm constantly looking to talk about the process of getting older, and how drawn I feel towards women who have embraced that, who are taking care of their skin, using preventative products, and also their health. It makes me think about this deep desire I have to hear from older women, for conversations to feel more intergenerational, and for us to continue to see older women honored and glorified for their experiences and how that is displayed through the way that looks.

With non-toxic, it has been carelessly used as a marketing tactic that consumers are now super privy to. I'm waiting to see what the next thing will be. Right now, a lot of the discourse and content I see on social media around sunscreen doesn’t feel productive. Obviously we should be wearing sunscreen, both for medical and preventative reasons, but I've also found that we have shunned people that have not been wearing sunscreen their entire life or currently don't.

It's a really confusing world. This goes back to what we had talked about too with the pace of the industry and in-depth research. One bit of a study will get picked up, and then that's repeated continuously, and then two years down the line it's disputed. Both sides of the conversation have certain implications, but, as one of my university professors said, capitalism loves fear.

It sure does. Capitalism can drive fear, by way of the term anti-aging or nontoxic. Ultimately, that is what I don't like to see as being a driver within beauty.

What could the industry be doing to improve? Are there any initiatives that you wanted to point out for people to support if they want to make a positive change?

In my experience, real improvement and change happens at a grassroots or local level. Beauty brands should take a look at themselves less as a brand and more as a collective. Figure out who your community is and how you want to serve it. This would be a far bigger emphasis on connecting with our environment and the people around us, how your brand is an element of a bigger culture at play.

Social media has been a powerful tool for drawing awareness to brands that aren’t serving the wider community, but when it comes to beauty press, It's almost like people are afraid to say something negative and you're self-censoring. Especially if you have a larger corporation and advertisers, it’s a yin and yang between who the sponsor of your content is and what you actually want to say. Having that channel of the newsletter, it's great to be able to be honest about things and address them.

That's honestly such a symptom of beauty's relationship with PR, this pressure. By nature, I want to collaborate with people and believe in the best intentions in everyone, but I also want to take a step back and say, as much as that is my desire, I want to tell the truth and the reality of the situation. To show that the world is far more complicated than what we like to let on. I let that desire lead the way, because, ultimately, I'm not here to serve brands. I'm here to serve the same people who they say that they want to serve: consumers.

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