Inclusivity Issues Are Prominent in All Industries—Even at Women-Centric Companies

Fashion and beauty brands sometimes make products that don’t consider all hair, skin and body types

three different pictures of women; on the left is a woman wearing a beige headdress; in the middle is a woman laughing while wearing a striped dressed; on the right is a woman modeling in lingerie
Even companies that cater to women have issues being inclusive enough. Sources: Fenty Beauty, ModCloth, ThirdLove
Headshot of Brittany Hodak

Industries viewed as catering to men have long faced accusations of excluding women. In the past year alone, the esports industry and professional sports leagues have worked to overcome the perception that their advertising and marketing dollars are aimed squarely at men. With women making up 49 percent of Super Bowl LII’s viewership, those questions took on additional significance: Why are we acting as if women aren’t interested?

Surprisingly, however, women-focused industries grapple with the same issues of inclusivity. Despite welcoming women via their branding, these industries often still have sizable gaps when it comes to both access and representation. Women-oriented arenas like fitness, fashion and beauty tend to tailor their offerings—and their marketing—to specific members of their demographic. Knowingly or not, they exclude whole segments of the female population.

Some of this might be blamed on who are running these companies. “The Glass Runway,” a study coordinated by Glamour, McKinsey & Company and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, found that only 14 percent of the top womenswear brands are run by women CEOs. While women enroll in fashion schools in disproportionately high numbers, they’re ultimately hanging out on the lower and middle rungs of fashion companies and not in decision-making roles where they can influence what makes it off runways and into stores where real women shop.

There’s a difference between being inclusive of women and being inclusive of all women, and forward-thinking companies are working to overcome this disparity.

Wealthy and healthy

Though women-oriented industries often feel more celebratory of women’s issues than others, they’re not always celebrating the broader group.

The average gym membership costs up to $50 per month, with initiation fees and other charges bringing the annual total to $800. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found in 2018 that women’s income was 51 percent less than men’s, including time without any income. Like others working with a limited income, this means that women have an increased chance of suffering from obesity and other health problems.

But that socioeconomic disparity doesn’t apply to women equally. The boutique fitness movement has been highlighted for its lack of diversity, and many big fitness brands have a higher percentage of white clientele than they should given the country’s racial makeup. Fitness marketing is generally “fit people talking to other fit people.”

Organizations like Black Girl in Om and Gixo are working to create inclusive spaces in the women’s fitness realm. Black Girl in Om’s casual classes regularly sell out, and its founder, Lauren Ash, explains that segments of the population don’t feel comfortable in standard gym or studio settings, which were originally intended to be safe spaces. Gixo’s founder, Selina Tobaccowala, says she established the on-demand fitness app to accommodate women who need to get healthy but face high gym fees, gym deserts or packed work schedules) that don’t enable them to hit the gym. With instructors able to work virtually with users on accommodations, the app hopes to address a broader range of fitness levels as well.

Stylish and sizeist

Often lamented for its unrealistic body standards for women, the fashion industry both encourages women to look a certain way and to regret not having yet achieved it. Its aspirational marketing is part peer pressure, part money-making endeavor; by making articles of clothing accessible to only certain segments of the population, fashion brands gain exclusivity and a premium price.

Sizeism within the industry—including comments from leaders of a variety of large labels—implies that style is reserved for those of a certain size. With the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education finding that the average American woman wears between a size 16 and a size 18, brands are losing in volume what they’re gaining in premium prices. The Telegraph noted that even an Ashley Graham Vogue cover wouldn’t change the industry’s problem.

A few brands are on the ground trying to do what a magazine cover can’t. ModCloth doubled its plus-size inventory, and ThirdLove, which famously took on Victoria’s Secret in The New York Times, launched 24 new bra sizes last year in an effort to accommodate a much bigger proportion of the lingerie market. More than 1 million women are on the brand’s waitlist. Anthropologie also launched its size-inclusive collection this spring, with co-president Hillary Super saying the brand “should be a place where all women can come and have an exceptional experience and feel like the very best version of themselves.”

Beauty and the beast

For decades, the beauty industry’s assumptions were made clear by its labeling. With makeup in peach tones bearing names like “nude” and “flesh,” it was obvious that brands defaulted to addressing a specific portion of their audience. A lack of recognition about different shades wasn’t its only issue, too. Products made for one skin or hair type or set of facial features along with ads bombarding women with Photoshopped images plagued the industry as well.

Beauty brand Dove gained lots of coverage with its “Real Beauty” campaign, aimed at increasing body positivity and encouraging women to define beauty on their own terms. It’s taken its efforts a step further this year, introducing its “No Digital Distortion” mark. The mark, which will appear on its static ads and photos, will signify that the images haven’t been doctored to achieve false beauty standards. Rihanna’s Fenty makeup line is aiming for inclusivity as well, setting a new standard with 40 basic foundation shades. Likewise, mainstream publications like Vogue and Glamour are featuring black women with natural hair.

Though women-oriented industries often feel more celebratory of women’s issues than others, they’re not always celebrating the broader group. Inclusivity is an issue in every industry. Like everyone else, people in positions of power and decision-making authority tend to gravitate toward the images, messages and products that feel familiar.

While increasing diversity at every level of the fitness, fashion and beauty industries will be the ultimate game changer, individual brands are working to change the standards we all live by. Stopping unintentional exclusion is the first step to inclusion, and it honors all women by acknowledging we’re not the same.

@BrittanyHodak Brittany Hodak is co-founder of The Superfan Company.