Meena Harris: Beauty Is a "Tool of Empowerment"

Meena Harris knows the power of words. This is evident in the fashion-meets-social-justice T-shirts she creates with her company Phenomenal, in the children's book she writes (the fourth of which debuts in 2023 and sets out to reclaim a new word for every letter of the alphabet — shh, you heard it here first), and now, in her newly announced partnership with Ulta Beauty called Beauty&.

As the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, not to mention a former lawyer, you may be thinking: why this project? And yet, that's precisely why she says she signed on — to help spread the message that only you should get to choose what fits where in your life.

"Whether it's makeup or language, there is great power in using that as a tool for self-empowerment, for self-expression, for creative expression," Harris tells POPSUGAR. "I feel lucky that I'm now in a profession where I get to define beauty on my own terms and put out what I think are beautiful things into the world."

Plus, Harris's relationship with beauty goes way back. "A little-known fact is I used to do freelance makeup in college, way back in those early MAC days," she says. "It was something I did on the side for student fashion shows or here and there. I looked at makeup as a blank canvas and creative outlet, and in some ways, I still do."

The Beauty& campaign, then, became a fun way back to Harris's beauty origin story. Alongside a limited-edition T-shirt collection, the retailer's first-ever podcast, and a $200,000 donation to The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing mental health resources to young adults, Harris says her partnership with Ulta Beauty is about "doing whatever the hell you want on your own terms and finding your own inspiration in that."

Meena Harris quote
Illustration by Michelle Alfonso

It's a manifesto Harris learned early in life, having grown up under one roof with strong, purpose-driven women. "My family was the first place I was exposed to feminism and activism and thinking about underrepresented communities as is the mission of Phenomenal, and I believe this Ulta Beauty campaign. I often joke that the idea of men in power was pretty foreign to me until I got exposed to the real world." (She was raised by her mother, Maya, with the help of her grandmother, Shyamala, and her aunt, Kamala.)

When she was exposed, Harris noticed a theme: "Certain definitions that are used in society have historically been used to diminish, cut down, and belittle women and girls — or are used in ways that benefit or are simply not for cis, heterosexual, white men," she says. "It's a shared universal experience for unrepresented groups and women where, you could be Wonder Woman with all the confidence in the world, but we are still subjected to societal beauty standards that are sexist, that are racist, that are not aligned with who we want to be and what we want to do. That's what this campaign is all about: reclaiming words and spaces."

These days, the focus of her work is to pay that message of self-love and empowerment forward to the next generation — starting with her kids, Amara and Leela. The first key is visibility and access to these tools of empowerment, whether it's through lipstick, a TV show, or something as simple as a T-shirt.

Then it's about taking care. "My girls have a different hair texture than I have. They have very curly hair. Mine is very long and thick, but it's a different care process. I've been teaching them: you've got to moisturize your hair because that's taking care of your hair. We're putting it in braids to protect it, or wearing a bonnet at night or sleeping with a silk pillowcase, because that's taking care of your hair. It's about wellness, sure, but it's also the joy in taking care of your body. Moisturizing, putting on lotion, creating a ritual they can keep coming back to."

Harris adds: "In my home, we don't define that as beauty. We define that as power."