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Cheekbone Beauty: Championing Indigenous Culture through Color Cosmetics

January 22, 2023
January 22, 2023
Cheekbone Beauty

Cheekbone Beauty isn’t afraid to take a stand. In July of this year, the brand launched the #GlossedOver campaign to draw attention to the fact that 73% of Indigenous First Nation water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination. The company released a line of unsellable lip glosses with shade names such as “E. Coli Kiss” and “Luscious Lead,” begging the question that if we don’t accept toxins in our cosmetics, why is nothing being done about them being in the water of these communities?

Beyond compromised aquatic infrastructure, there are additional burdens and barriers facing the Indigenous community, from financial to social. The 476 million Indigenous people alive today represent 5% of the world’s population but, as the UN’s State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples report states, make up 15% of the world’s extreme poor and one-third of its rural poor groupings. That same document shows that Indigenous workers in Latin America earn half the income of their non-Indigenous counterparts, resulting in social and economic barriers that make liberation from these circumstances even harder.

Recent literature has shown the link between addiction and trauma, whether intergenerational or present day, potentially explaining the disproportionately high rates of substance abuse recorded among the Indigenous community. From segregation to racially motivated hate crimes, the Indigenous community certainly has, and continues to, face trauma on an unfortunately all-too-high frequency. Rates of alcohol misuse among Indigenous teenage boys (49%) and girls (35.7%) are more prevalent than in non-Indigenous communities, which reported figures of 38.6% for young men and 21.9% for young women.

Jenn Harper, who hails from the Ojibwe nation and is of Anishinaabe descent, has been witness to these statistics firsthand. Her grandmother survived the Canadian residential school system, an effort by the Canadian government to assimilate Indigenous children  that has since been denounced as cultural genocide, and Harper herself battled alcoholism, entering sobriety in 2014. During this very vulnerable chapter of her life, makeup provided a means of self-care. Following a dream of seeing Native girls joyfully dancing while covered in lip gloss, Harper, with only $500 in the bank to start her business venture, felt compelled to lay the groundwork for what was to become Cheekbone Beauty, launching the company in 2016 in St. Catharines, Ontario.

She acknowledged that “the world did not need another cosmetics brand, and it didn’t need any more lipsticks,” but it did need Indigenous representation. The company was a side hustle while Harper was still working full-time in sales and marketing for the food industry. After her brother, who had a passion for championing others in the Indigenous community, passed away from suicide shortly after she launched the company, the founder became more determined than ever to push her mission forward.

In 2019, Harper pitched Cheekbone Beauty on the 14th season of Dragons’ Den, receiving investment funding post-show as a result. Today, the brand’s lineup includes the Sustain range of lipsticks, complexion pencils, eye pencils, mascara, and brow gel, as well as Mattifying Moondust face powder. Every lipstick shade from the Sustain range is named after the words “land,” “earth,” or “ground” in different Indigenous languages, including Lenape, Navajo, and Inuktitut. 

“The actual foundation of our brand is that we want to always be giving back more than we're taking, leaving things as we found them, and always thinking about the broader scope of things.”
By Melanie Isho, Executive Assistant, Cheekbone Beauty

The brand’s core concept focuses on passing down knowledge for future generations and positively impacting the narrative surrounding Indigenous people to one of individual empowerment in the process. It incorporates the Seven Grandfather Teachings—which put forward the character principles of respect, bravery, love, honesty, truth, humility, and wisdom as concepts by which Anishinaabe people should aim to live by—and Biinad Beauty Standards, “biinad” being the Cree word for “clean.” Products are developed according to the clean standards set forth by Credo, Sephora, and EWG, with vegan and fair-trade formulations in compostable, recyclable, and recycled, as well as biodegradable packaging.

“The actual foundation of our brand is that we want to always be giving back more than we're taking, leaving things as we found them, and always thinking about the broader scope of things,” comments Executive Assistant Melanie Isho. “Our Indigenous roots are so important to the company. Embedded in everything we do is that it's not just about lipstick, lip gloss, bronzers, and blushes. It's about what we can do for the world that we all have to live in and leave it better for the next generation.”

The company’s sustainability principles are informed by the Iroquois people’s Seventh Generation Principle, which states that one should leave behind enough resources for the next seven generations. Another guiding light is that of Two-Eyed Seeing, a teaching developed by Chief Charles Labrador of Acadia First Nation and put into practice by  Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni First Nation. It refers to one eye seeing with Indigenous teachings, while the other sees with the strengths of Western knowledge, resulting in a perspective that fuses the emotional, physical, spiritual, and logical.

One case in point is eschewing the Black Friday frenzy and instead embracing a slower approach to beauty buying by offering a Conscious Consumer sale, which spans the course of an entire month to help customers make more mindful shopping decisions. Every year, the brand partners with other Indigenous companies to create the Give Box, with portions of proceeds going to a charitable cause such as One Tree Planted. To date, Cheekbone Beauty has donated over $150,000 to enterprises like Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) Women’s Shelter, and the Navajo Water Project. In 2022, the company received B Corp Certification.

Isho explains, “It's less about donating to organizations that are about suicide prevention or alcoholism, but more about, how do we stop those things from being a thing in the first place? How do we get so far back that we're treating the root cause instead of the results?” Cheekbone Beauty aims to do its part in this challenge by educating others on generational trauma and the injustices to the Indigenous community. Openly sharing Harper’s personal struggles, showcasing vulnerability in a bid to help others, is a brave testament to that mission.

The brand’s social media presence features content like dance teacher and regalia instructor Deanne Hupfield performing a powwow dance, and spotlights other Indigenous brands through an annual gift guide. “One of the things that we, as a company, work towards every day and with everything we do is showing that there is more than just that settler-focused beauty in the Western world, specifically,” Isho says. Its audience numbers on both Instagram (159K) and TikTok (25.2K) are growing daily. “People want to know more about other cultures and have the means of finding it, so being a conduit for that is super important to us. We want to inspire the people in the industry, but also inform the people who are outside of it. That combination of inspiration and information is how you not only grow a brand like ours, but also make a broader understanding of what beauty can and should be,” she adds.

While Indigenous identity is at the heart of the brand, it’s also about using those stories to empower individuals of every creed, race, and ethnicity. Current initiatives include The Cheekbone Beauty Scholarship, a $2,500 grant for Canadian and US post-secondary Indigenous students, financed in part through the proceeds from sales of the limited-edition Jodi lip gloss. “There is no one group that we are trying to make feel beautiful. We want to create products that work for everybody,” she states. “We want to be cultivating an environment both externally in our social media, and also internally in our company, where you don't feel like you're being judged or put in a box. We want to be a brand where people can express themselves, however that looks.”

From the tragedies-turned-triumphs that marked the beginnings of the brand to its impressive dedication to impacting cultural and social change, Cheekbone Beauty is an emotional testament to the power of beauty, and a poignant reminder of the wisdom, legacy, and rich culture of the Indigenous community.

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