The ugly whitewashed face of persistent racism

Aishwarya Rai.png

There was a time in American life where only white women appeared in fashion magazines and advertisements. A woman of color showcasing a brand new car or expensive clothes? You’ve got to be kidding.

And although women of all skin tones are now fashion models and celebrities, the idea that real beauty is “white” hasn’t gone away. Just take a look at the cover of this month’s Elle magazine.

Aishwarya Rai, Indian actress and former Miss World, graced the front of December’s Elle magazine in India, looking considerably paler than her actual self. She practically blends in with the photo’s ivory background. Even though Rai’s been called the “most beautiful woman in the world,” apparently Elle didn’t think true beauty could come in brown.

It’s not the first time Elle has committed such a racist faux pas.
“Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe was chosen for last October’s cover,
appearing quite a few shades lighter
than her distinctive dark chocolate
brown. While Elle claimed it was just the bright lights that made
Sidibe’s skin appear whiter, most people didn’t buy it.

Jorge Rivas at Colorlines magazine has spotted a number of other whitewashed faces on gorgeous women of color in fashion magazines. Apparently, many of us thought we’d moved on from a place where “black is beautiful” was a provocative statement, but the fashion industry is reminding us just where we stand.

At first, when I read this, it sickened me that any magazine would ask their photo editor to change a woman’s skin tone to make her appear whiter. But then, the real thought that sickened me is that they only do stuff like this because they’re selling us what we want to see. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they focus group tested Sidibe’s and Rai’s face with consumers and found that they were more likely to purchase the magazine where the cover girl appeared more white.

That’s ugly. And it’s us. We’re ugly. It hasn’t gone away. It’s just a little less obvious.

It’s happening all around us. A 2005 study by Brigham Young University showed that in teen magazines, light-skinned minority models were more likely to be given a prominent place in advertising and more likely to showcase white standards of beauty like long, straight highlighted hair.

When I worked in Lawndale for my first summer in Chicago, they used to tell us never to let our students touch our hair. At first, we were confused. Why would that matter?

Because you’re white, our leaders told us, and they’re black.

Every fashion magazine or ad our young students saw showed women with “white” hair. Think of all those Pantene commercials with long shiny straight locks. That’s all they were told was beautiful. Their own hair? It couldn’t compete.

And most days didn’t go by when a little girl would reach out and touch my hair and remark how pretty it was. We made a lot of efforts to talk about their own hair–notice when they had gotten new braids or cornrows or new barrettes–to let them know that we thought they were beautiful.

But those few tiny messages here and there couldn’t possibly be enough to combat the relentless images they see, telling them there’s nothing beautiful about being the way they are. has started a petition to get Elle magazine to apologize for lightening Rai’s skin. I hope it succeeds, and that the magazine has the guts to admit the ugly truth about our feelings about race and beauty.

But it doesn’t just stop with Elle. We’re to blame too. We can’t just apologize either. Until we proactively create images of beauty in all colors, we’ll just end up with dull whitewashed images that pale in comparison with the true beauty our society has to offer.

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