Last weekend, Hannah Harris was concerned about a tropical storm that was predicted to hit her hometown of Plantation, Florida. The 20-year-old is used to storm warnings after a lifetime of living in towns with unpredictable weather — “I feel like there’s always a storm coming in Florida, and the day before the storm hits, the meteorologists are like, ‘Never mind, it made a left!” — but this particular week, Harris was hoping to photograph some of her favorite Black-owned beauty products for the Cut. The problem? She shoots outside, on a ladder, with colorful canvases taped to the side of her parents’ house and without any professional lights. “It’s a fight with the clouds most days,” she says. If they block the sun, she has to sit and wait for them to pass.
Since June of 2020, Harris has dedicated time to photographing her hands holding beauty products and posting the photos on her Instagram account @BrownGirlHands. The main goal is not to highlight the products — though with almost 8,000 followers, Harris is conscious about the brands she features — but rather, as her account name suggests, to highlight the beauty of Black hands and, more intentionally, the lack of Black hands featured in beauty campaigns and across brand social accounts and online shops.
It all started with a manicure appointment with her mom. “I got yellow nails, and [my mom] was like, ‘Oh my gosh, your nails match your mango Glossier Balm Dotcom. You should take a picture and send it to them,” Harris remembers. “I was like, ‘You can’t just send Glossier photos. That’s not how it works!’” But the conversation reminded her about a Medium article she had read by beauty reporter Jessica DeFino weeks before. “Where Are All the Brown Hands?” DeFino asked: “There are more than 13 billion individual, non-Caucasian hands on the planet at any given moment (give or take a couple hundred million). Still, every time I comb through the Instagram content of the biggest nail care brands in the business, attempting to find images for a monthly nail art column, I wonder. Where are they?”
Harris had a similar question. “I had always wondered, Where’s the Black representation in beauty? When you’re growing up, you want to see yourself reflected in the media and on social media, so I had noticed the lack of Black and brown skin, but I didn’t know what to do about it.” The best thing she could do, she thought, was to go to college and “infiltrate the industry from the inside.” In 2018, she enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design to study business of beauty and fragrance.
Then it clicked: She could start an Instagram account showcasing her own hands. Her first post featured her yellow nails and her Glossier balm set against a beige wall during golden hour. The following posts show Harris holding everything from Cadence’s capsules to Supernal’s face oil to Humanrace’s enzyme exfoliator against a series of colorful backdrops.
“It’s not complicated at all — Yana Sheptovetskaya of Gel Cream has been doing something similar for years,” Harris says. “It’s a really simple idea, but it’s turned into something so much bigger than that.” She has now founded Brown Girl Hands Studio, where she has taken product shots for Versed, Supergoop!, Rare Beauty, Glossier, and more brands looking to diversify their imagery.
“Racism isn’t always very obvious. It’s these microaggressions that you experience in your day-to-day life that people don’t always realize — they’re indirect, subtle, and sometimes unintentional. And oftentimes, when we focus on diversity, we focus on the big things, like how many foundation shades a brand offers or the models walking down the runway. But the little things also stay with you,” Harris says. “Hands are an example of that. It’s not something everybody notices, but I think it’s one of those things that if we can tackle, we’re really getting down into the nitty gritty of fixing a broken industry. As a brand, you’re showing that you’re not just putting on a show on the front end but really putting in the work to make sure that your ‘support’ goes underneath the surface and behind the scenes.”
At the root of @BrownGirlHands is Harris’s fight to “see and be seen,” maybe for the first time ever. She often thinks back to an article she read where a social-media editor claimed Black hands aren’t “aesthetic enough,” and as a result, don’t get enough engagement and likes. But she also acknowledges that the Instagram account has automatically branded her as an activist, too.
“Candace Marie, the founder of Black in Corporate, posted on Instagram the other day: ‘Not all Black people want to be activists.’ But that’s the default. People think like, ‘Oh, yeah, if she’s Black, then she’s obviously advocating for all these things.’ But sometimes you do just want to live and make things pretty because they are,” Harris says.
Then there’s the added pressure of feeling like a spokesperson for an entire community. “There’s no way that I can possibly represent every single Black person — there are so many ways to be Black and to celebrate Blackness,” she says, adding that the pressure can be especially high when working with brands. “If you’re the first Black photographer a company is working with, you feel responsible for leaving the door open for everybody else behind you. So if you mess up or if you drop the ball somewhere, you worry they’re not going to give someone else like you a chance because they’re going to remember that you screwed up. My mom always says, ‘You’re gonna have to work twice as hard to get half as far as anyone else.’ And I’m only 20! I haven’t even graduated yet. Sometimes I just want to enjoy life a little bit and go on vacation.”
What she’s now trying to learn is “excellence over perfection.” She puts it simply: “Everything can’t be perfect, but it can be brilliant.”
Read on for seven of Harris’s favorite Black-owned products, from the best buildable orange lipstick to the “perfect” tinted moisturizer.
“I’ve tried Topicals’ Like Butter Mask before, and this is essentially the same thing in mist form and for the body instead of your face. I like the brand a lot because a lot of their products target conditions like eczema, and I’ve had eczema my whole life. The first time I tried one of their products, my skin the day before and my skin the day after looked totally different. There was a dramatic increase in moisture and change in tone. I even took a before and after photo on my forehead, and I had a whole breakout one day, and the next day, it was all gone.”
“I eat like a 5-year-old, and I eat very few vegetables. So taking Golde’s latte blend is me trying to be somewhat healthier for that ‘glowing from the inside out effect.’ I like to mix it in with my smoothies since it tastes like chocolate. Personally, it’s also a really good probiotic for me. My digestive system doesn’t function very well on its own, and this is a great help.”
“The Skin-Enhancing Tint is the perfect tinted moisturizer for Black skin and skin of color. I didn’t see a difference with a lot of the tinted moisturizers that I tried in the past. Like, I couldn’t tell if I had put it on or not, and you want to see somewhat of a difference, but you also want your skin to look like skin, right? Ami Colé gives you that perfect balance because it has a really soft finish. It doesn’t look like you’re wearing a ton of product, but it still evens out your skin tone and makes you look a little bit more put together. It’s also easy to blend — you can use your hands; I don’t own makeup brushes.”
“The first time I bought these eye masks, it was definitely because they are cute. But I’m also in college, and sometimes I don’t sleep or get as much sleep as I would like to, so I love to put these on while I’m getting ready if I have something big to go to. They’re a great pick-me-up and make my eyes look more awake. I did try to freeze them once for a cooling effect, but they cracked, so I don’t recommend doing that.”
“I like orange beauty products — orange is a great summer color, especially if you live in a hot place — but it’s really hard to find an orange lipstick. Fenty’s ‘Tang Thang’ gives you a subtle, sun-kissed look. It looks way more orange in the tube, which probably scares people, but it’s super sheer and you can build it up as much as you want.”
“Showers are my favorite activity — I shower twice a day sometimes — and if you want a spa-type of feel in your shower, I recommend the Spirulina Botanical Bar from Redoux. Asia Grant, the founder, does a great job with her products’ scents, and this bar smells like eucalyptus — some people have a eucalyptus plant in their shower, but this is a great way to add that experience to your shower without the actual plant. [Laughs.] Plus, it leaves your body really soft.”
“I wear my hair in braids for the summer, and anyone who wears braids or wears a weave knows that your scalp can get itchy since you’re sweating. Pattern’s applicator is really good because you squeeze and run the tip through your hair. You can feel a little tingle as you apply it, and it hydrates, too — after the first time I used it, when I took my braids out, my hair looked a lot better, too. My mom was like, ‘What have you been doing?!’ The bottle says it has peppermint, rosemary, and lavender, but it mostly smells minty to me.”