From our archives: In Vogue: Token blackness and the Naomi Campbell Instagram post

 

This past week, the fashion world has been debating the Naomi Campbell British “Vogue-So-White” Instagram post  in which she shamed and derided British Vogue Magazine’s  shameless lack of diversity among its employees – and she had a picture ( above) to prove it. But the ugly issue of  white-washed beauty standards is nothing new, and here at the NAW, its an issue we have tackled head on – a number of times – including this must-read, poignant commentary ( below) by Khadija Sharife  written back in 2008 after the  highly-touted hitherto, one-off  Italian Black Vogue issue .  We reproduce it in full as the views are as valid today. She wrote:

Our report in New African Woman August/September edition of 2008

It’s like icing on the cake. One had to page through almost 100 pages of the usual suspects (white models) in order to reach the ‘exotica’ of the day, in the much touted “Black Vogue” in the July issue of the Italian edition.

Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue magazine must not have been paying attention to the doublespeak that flowed from her lips when she commented on the scarcity of black models, in what I am presuming was the global industry visà-vis her recent decision to dedicate an “entire” edition to the ‘specialness’ of black models.

“I think this is a fault of the agencies and not the designers. The white girls sell more, so you only ever find blonde, blue-eyed girls. They don’t dedicate enough time to scout black girls,” she had said.

This begged the glaring question: to whom are the white girls being ‘sold’ if not editors like Sozzani who determine what’s hot (to use industry-speak) and what’s not – and for that matter, who defines saleability concerning the concept, criteria and definitions of that which constitutes the face of beauty and how it is packaged and presented to the public, but Sozzani herself?

Sozzani has deflected the historicity of ‘blackness’ in Italy, but maybe we can look past that; she did, after all, claim that (at least partially) her inspiration was drawn from Barack Obama.

“There were no black girls,” she said, “but at the same time people were talking about Obama.”

It is the worst form of tokenism – an instrument used to use minorities, to catalyze controversy but not necessarily change anything. Not only does tokenism set apart black women by perpetuating the impression they are an ‘exotic’ breed, it simultaneously emphasises the differences between the ethnicities.

Could Sozzani be ignorant enough to confuse the two issues? Obama stands a good chance of being the first black president, of what is arguably the most powerful country on earth, inscribing policies that affect global markets, especially those in developing countries. The issue here is not one of modelling or Sozzani but the culture itself; Gisele Bunchen, the world-famous Brazilian model with a $150 million personal fortune, looks nothing like most Brazilian women – and I don’t speak of beauty here, but ethnicity and melanin.

Brazil, a country which holds the largest black population outside of Africa, is also one of the most euro-centrically minded and racist countries on earth. The negative images and narratives of black Brazilians are derived from the historicity of slavery in the country; not only was Brazil the last country in the West to abolish 300 years of slavery but it was also the largest buyer of slaves.

According to Patricia Pinho, a Brazilian sociologist, “The ideal of ‘perfection’ not only establishes white beauty as universal but even determines the election of beautiful people amongst non-whites, based on how close they come to the perfect white beauty.”

Not only does tokenism set apart black women from the mainstream by perpetuating the impression that they were and are an ‘exotic’ breed that could not appeal to the general public, except in doses, but it simultaneously emphasises the differences between the ethnicities

Sozzani’s statement reflects the deliberate denialism so patently obvious and pervasive – a denialism that has proliferated the ethnic demography of the beauty myths and ideals that have, by default, resulted in the easy vilification of those who do not conform to the narrow standardised version of beauty that has discluded all but white blondes.

This specialness is the worst form of tokenism – an instrument used to use minorities, whether real of imagined, catalysing controversy but not necessarily change, and like icing on the cake, one had to page through 100 pages of the usual suspects (white models) in order to reach the ‘exotica’ of the day.

Not only does tokenism set apart black women from the mainstream by perpetuating the impression that they were and are an ‘exotic’ breed that could not appeal to the general public, except in doses, but it simultaneously emphasises the differences between the ethnicities – one the coloniser and the other, black women, as the colonised – by imposing skin colour as the dividing barrier, separating whiteness from blackness.

Reading between the lines, it seems that the new vogue is actually nothing more than the old vogue – redefining reality set against the power yardsticks, and by implication, beauty. If white civilisation is perceived as the ideal, then white women are too.

In a recent re-run of the reality TV show, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, Nyabel Lual, one of a handful of black models, was told by Peter Hamm, Dickinson’s business partner, that her ‘look’ just doesn’t book contracts. Dickinson argued otherwise, stating that Lual’s features, similar to those of Alek Wek, were going to revolutionise the industry.

In an interview with the TV Tattler, Dickinson stated, “I disagree with you. Nyabel resembles Alek Wek, who is a slamming model from that area. It’s a type of model, it’s not a typical model. It’s a type.”

And therein lies another fundamental issue – the Wekkification of African beauty that has forever been framed as the face of Africa.

Even though Wek represents just one ‘face’ of Africa and blackness amidst a sea of variegated beauties, the deliberate policy of drawing from the polar opposite of whiteness (or the ideal female) by default, mires blackness in the exotic and serves to further entrench blackness as a stark contrast to the established concept of beauty.

And therein lies another fundamental issue – the Wekkification of African beauty that has forever been framed as the face of Africa.

When Nyabel was asked for her favourite features, she said, her teeth. Sure, Nyabel has nice teeth, but did she select her (white) teeth because it was the only part of her body most neutral to criticism? Why did she not, for example, say her lips?The global cosmetics industry is worth over $40 billion annually; a significant portion of these alterations are used to enhance the size of lips. Are big lips beautiful only on Angelina Jolie?

According to Maya Schulz, MD of Acclaim Model, an agency that promotes ethnic diversity, “The racism you come across is not underlying, it’s blatant.”

“People will say things like ‘don’t send anymore black models’, and one designer even said black people didn’t suit his clothes. And we’re not talking about small designers here, it’s all the big ones.”

The root of the problem hearkens back to the very concept of commodified women, a predefined platform that incorporates women as reified entities, valued solely for their utilitarian functions – much as natural resources intimately linked to the indigenous ecology.

And beauty is big business: The diet industry is worth a whopping $38 billion annually, some $2 billion less than how much the cosmetics industry rakes in each year.

From straight hair to blue eyes and emaciated leggy shapes – black beauty, as well as other invisible or lesser seen beauty forms such as Indians, Arabs, Asians, North Africans and Native Indians, have been selected only when a pinch of spice is needed, and even then, as complementary to the white model or the ultimate female standard. After all, how many times have you seen black supermodel Naomi Campbell with anything but straight hair?

And even though white has become the preserve of the industry, ideal whiteness in itself has been formalised as that of blonde, plain and skinny. Most white women are not good enough to be ‘white’, hence the dyed blonde hair, mimicking the symbol of pure Anglo-Saxon stock.

After all, how many times have you seen black supermodel Naomi Campbell with anything but straight hair?

In 2007, Ed Pilkington for the Guardian newspaper quoted Ivan Barts, vice-president of IMG Models, as saying, “The rules have become stricter. When I fi rst started in the business, a beautiful model of any colour could be on the cover.”

Bethann Hardison, a former model and founder of Bethann Management, an agency that assisted in launching the careers of Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford, was also quoted in the article.

“In the past decade the black image has been reduced to a category. She is not even to be seen; she has become invisible.”

The theme of the article was a write-up about the anti-racist campaign initiated by Hardison, at a meeting in the Bryant Park Hotel in New York and attended by 70 top models, agents, editors, designers and journalists such as Andre Leon Talley, the AfricanAmerican-US editor-at-large of Vogue.

Talley is one of the few black editors with power – and for good reason, he has yet to really rock the boat and question the status quo. The racism inherent in the modelling industry is nothing but a manifestation of the racism present in the corporate industry. Editors are not black, hence, black subjects and issues are deliberately overwhelmed into insignificance, because it simply does not matter to those who hold power.

They understood too, that acknowledging the racism in the industry would lead to a devolution of power, their power.

What I speak of now is not reverse racism, but criticism levelled at a predominantly white culture that has defined whiteness, blackness and the various shades of grey.

See Also

Normative white attitude informing power is the problem, not white people. But precisely because it benefits one specific race, the beholders are less likely to cut the chains that have arrested so much of race in the world.

The lack of visual, corporate and other representation has undermined the importance of black identity and history, as something created within and from the people – black women in this case –  as opposed to a narrative superimposed by skeletal portrayals that are as demeaning as they are false.

The very nature of commodities and currencies rests in its monetary worth, valuated according to the degree of likeness and usefulness; precisely because women are seen as less than human – part product, part flesh, the malleability of the female brand has resulted in conquest idealisms.

The conquering advance guard – Western civilisation, fi rst super-imposed these conditions of existence on its own women in Europe; the Church propounded that Eve, the symbolic head of the female race was the mother of all sinners; women were subsequently viewed as either whore or mother. The seeming contradiction was outwardly nullified by the fact that women often bought into these myths of their gender.

The sexuality of women was thus demonised because it tainted the Saints or Clergymen and in doing so, shifted the focus off of the responsibility of men and their unquestioned, unchecked power bases.

The male-structured paradigms of social engineering ensures that the parable of Adam and Eve will forever remain obscure, cloaked in new raiments; it justifies the exploitative, exposed, financialised narrative that accords to women worth only in relation to their sexuality, which paradoxically has resulted, centuries down the line, in the second-step syndrome. Whereas men are safe from physical assessment and evaluation as a tool demarcating the ideal man as physically perfect, women are never spared, least of all the ‘ideal women’ herself.

The modern world may not consciously believe in corrupted and distorted religious projections of women, but it has become the cultural canvas of modern secular society’s relationship towards women, informing the subconscious.

The voices of women, especially those once colonised, who are devoid of representative power, has forced the bulk of the world’s female population into obscurity.

In its 116-year history, Vogue Italy has featured women on the cover around 34 times, according to Elena Sheppard.

How many fashion designers, magazine editors and CEOs, are women, let alone black women?

The issue at hand is not one of beauty, but politics. The eye of the beholder, in this case, appears to be cast in a contact lens. Blue, to be more specific.

The lack of visual, corporate and other representation has undermined the importance of black identity and history, as something created within and from the people – black women in this case –  as opposed to a narrative superimposed by skeletal portrayals that are as demeaning as they are false.

 

 

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