Why do we insist on lightening BAME women on the front cover of magazines?

What have Kerry Washington and Beyonce got in common?

Both are successful black women in tough industries, both have featured in multiple ‘sexiest women alive’ lists, and they have graced many respectable magazines as the cover star. Unfortunately, they have also both been on a magazine cover where their skin was lightened and their faces altered.

It is important to note that they are both major role models to Black women in Western society – a place where we are indoctrinated to believe we have equal opportunities no matter who we are, although this isn’t the case.

When both of these women have had their skin colour altered on popular magazines, accessible to millions of people around the English-speaking world, what sort of message does this give?

Jody Furlong, the founder of Eye Casting, a casting company based in London, spoke to us on the history and background as to why Black and mixed-race models are not always the first choice for magazines and adverts, and why a darker complexion is not always desirable to racist editors.

“This isn’t new,” Furlong tells me: “Historically lighter skin is more precious, it’s down to the caste system in some countries. The idea that lighter skin is preferable, and a sign that you are wealthier is an archaic trait of why people want lighter skin, but you still have advertising companies and magazines who ask for light skin women even here in the UK.”

White models have had the luxury for decades to be put on mainstream fashion and lifestyle magazines freely without worry. Black models have always struggled to have the same rights.

Internationally renowned models Naomi Campbell, Iman Abdulmajid and Bethann Harden have been fighting for years for equality in fashion. All three started when it was not profitable to hire black models.

Furlong said: “I recently got one email saying no Black women, light skin women only, as it is what is seen as desirable by the casting director. It is all about marketing. They are selling the customer what they think they want. Magazines own a position of influence; some see darker skin in a bad light. They see it is a sign of poverty, which in the eyes of the business equals fewer sales and less advertising.”

Just over 5% of the UK population identifies as black or mixed, in the US that figure is 13.2%. Circulations of these magazines are high, so admittedly certain magazines are way behind the times.

Furlong continues: “Why are we lightening Beyonce? Kerry Washington? Successful attractive Black women who should be able to sell magazines because the majority of the intended audience doesn’t care what colour they are. I don’t think it sells more magazines; it is unfathomable to think that this perceived idea that a Black woman doesn’t sell has ever been proved.

“The February issue of Vogue, for example, is a good indication of how fashion magazines treat diverse women; February is a month that magazines don’t tend to sell for several reasons. That is also the same month that they will put a Black cover star so that they look racially aware but they are doing nothing for the cause. This concept has never been proved and it is ridiculous that this is an accepted notion in the fashion world.”

Lightening products in the Western world are prevalent, but in places such as Nigeria where 77 per-cent of women use skin lightening products, (according to a recent World Health Organisation report) can you put all the blame on the media for influencing women to lighten their skin? Furlong said: “I hope it is a conscious decision, make the model look nicer, fresher, the tone of the make-up they use. You can also flip it on the other side and realise that photographers use special make-up to have an effect on camera that will translate well on the front cover, it is not always 100% intentional, but a lot of the times it is.”

The situation was talked about all over Twitter, everyone weighing in with different thoughts and opinions.

Freelance photographer, Nataline Lamptey said: “It is difficult to speak about as a Black individual. If I saw pictures of myself lightened up, where the majority of my fan base is Black women, what is there to say? If she is saying that’s okay, then we feed into that because we look up to her, and it’s not just Black actresses that are immune to this either. No one has criticised the media for these sorts of situations who work for the film industry, you have Lupita N’yong who constantly tells us to embrace our beauty, but what she is not saying is that the media may not embrace your beauty if you don’t fit in with their standards.”

Others don’t wholly agree with the notion that lightening your skin is a bad thing, and that women who choose to do so shouldn’t be attacked. Some say they shouldn’t be made to feel like they aren’t proud of their heritage.

When asked for comment, InStyle magazine denied purposefully lightening Washington’s skin. They credit the change of lighting on the set of the photoshoot was why the photos came out the way it did. A spokesperson for InStyle magazine said: “We are super fans of Kerry Washington here at Instyle. To feature her on the cover of our March spring fashion issue is both an honour and a delight.”

Washington responded on Twitter to the controversy: “Beautiful statement. Thank u 4 openings this convo. It’s an important 1 that needs to be had.”

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Skilled writer, with particular interests in fashion, fintech and diversity.

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