Why Are We Still Whitewashing?


By Sayantani DasGupta

Images matter. They matter a lot. Images on magazine and book covers not only reflect what we, as a society, think is beautiful, but they seep into our individual and collective consciousness – urging us to emulate those thinner, younger, taller, richer and yes, whiter images.

Race is a critical part of the images we see. Not to say that there aren’t models or celebrities of color gracing covers and starring in movies, but rather, that standards of beauty change slowly – and not always in a more diverse or more inclusive direction.

Consider this much bru-ha-ha-ed Beyoncé album cover featuring the blonde, almost unrecognizably pale singer. Now, it is unclear if Beyoncé (or her staff, producers, etc.) made this decision purposefully to have her appear lighter than she is in real life, or if this is due to the lighting used that day on set, Photoshop, or some other factor as yet unknown. However, similar critiques have been made of a L’Oreal campaign featuring the singer.

Why should we care? Certainly, Beyoncé has a right to portray herself any way she wants, and the woman is, without a doubt, stunning whatever her skin tone. Yet, as author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said,

“Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad truth that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior… when black celebrities appear to deny their heritage by trying to make themselves look white, I despair for the youngsters who see those images.”

Similar to ideals of extreme thinness, the whitewashing of beauty standards affects women of color in significant ways. In addition, the charged nature of skin tone isn’t a U.S.-centric issue. In South Asia, where multinational companies are hopping on the skin whitening cream market, Bollywood actress, model and former Miss Universe Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is reportedly thinking of suing Elle Magazine for lightening her skin (thanks Photoshop) and hair in a cover shot.

The original whitewashed cover (left) vs. the updated cover that accurately reflects the book's protagonist (right).

The issue extends from magazines to book covers as well. The whitewashing of YA book covers has received a great deal of press in recent years, most famously with Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar, which features a protagonist of color, being initially released with a white appearing girl’s face on the cover. (For several more examples, see here and here). Such decisions on the part of the publishing industry not only reinforce white beauty standards, and the assumption that stories about protagonists of color won’t sell, but send a message to young people of color that their stories don’t matter. The cumulative effect of such messages is insidious. In the words of author Zetta Elliott:

“Because I so rarely saw black characters in books when I was a child, I learned to relate to protagonists who didn’t look like me — but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify with their struggles, triumphs, etc. It did mean, however, that I started to erase aspects of myself when I read — I couldn’t consciously be black and read a lot of those books because then I’d realize there was no place for me in that imaginary realm. I didn’t pretend to be white, I just didn’t acknowledge my own erasure from the scenes that delighted me so much.”

Images matter. They tell us who counts. Just consider the recent photo shoot of actress Viola Davis, which has been making the Facebook rounds of many of my friends. Why? Because it features the dark-skinned actress looking stunningly fierce with a close cropped, natural hairstyle. This simple set of images hit us all like a tidal wave because they flow counter to the ideals of beauty we normally see. They legitimize a different sort of beauty, and remind us that there is room for a wide variety of bodies and skin tones and hair types in our cultural construction of attractiveness.

Whitewashing undermines the very goals of diversity. It’s more variety, more inclusivity, more ways to be beautiful that we need – not less.

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