The honour of appearing on the coveted front cover of Vogue – renowned the world over as “fashion’s bible” – has this month been bestowed upon Barbadian pop singer Rihanna. However, readers of the magazine might be hard-pushed to identify the woman, were it not for her name blazoned beneath the image. The rich brown curly hair that Rihanna has most recently been sporting is covered up by a short blonde wig, but even this obvious change pales (no pun intended) in comparison to another apparent alteration. What is most striking about this particular Vogue cover is the inexplicably light shade of Rihanna’s skin.
Such an occurrence is not unusual. Cosmetics giant L’Oreal has repeatedly caused furore with what appear to be visibly lightened images of non-white models used in advertising campaigns, including the Indian actress Frieda Pinto, the Latin American star of Desperate Housewives, Eva Longoria, and African-American singer Beyoncé. The corporation, responding to criticism of the apparent retouching of Pinto’s skin tone, claimed that such allegations were “categorically untrue”, and that no alterations of such a nature were made. Similarly, Vogue’s editor Alexandra Shulman was also prompted into making a statement about the Rihanna cover, in response to an online backlash. Shulman claims that “the pictures that were published came in exactly how they have been published – with absolutely no skin lightening”.
Trying to uncover the opinion of the models themselves proves more difficult: one possibility is that there is an unwillingness to “upset” the company funding these multi-million dollar endorsement deals. Another is that any complaint the models may have is made complicated by the intrinsic part Photoshop now plays in the retouching of images. Modern digital technology has changed the face of photography, so that is now simply a rite of passage for pictures to be subjected to a number of computerised “tricks” that will “improve” the image. Additionally, the switch from film photography to digital photography, gives photographers primary control of the image, allowing them much greater freedom to manipulate pictures to fit their own, or their clients’, “vision”.
Vogue is not alone in its heavy-handed use of the airbrush: fellow glossy Elle magazine has also been embroiled in race issues, including featuring a noticeably lighter Gabby Sidibe on the front cover of their 25th anniversary edition. Again, the magazine claimed that Sidibe’s skin was in no way altered by the publication, but the actress’ usual dark-skinned appearance and the chocolate-brown tone portrayed in the magazine images, are on different parts of the colour spectrum. Furthermore, it is not only the Western editions of these publications that have become embroiled in accusations of skin-lightening touch-ups. Elle India featured prominent Indian actress Aishwarya Rai on one of their covers with a skin tone apparently several shades lighter than her normal hue. Rai did take exception to such a manipulation of her image – she was apparently “furious with the bleaching botch-up”, even considering legal action against the publication.
Global advertisements and magazines have a significant responsibility towards the way people of [colour – again, perhaps not the best word (see above)] are represented on a larger scale. Deliberately lightening these images is a blatant neglect of this duty. The subliminal suggestion is that lighter skin is a necessity to feature somewhere as prominent as the cover of a magazine. Thus, lighter comes not only to symbolise beauty, but also one’s importance and value. Ignoring people of colour in the media or repeatedly “fading” prominent stars is a racial slur. Just as the “magic” of computer touch-ups enables the removal of cellulite and the hiding of wrinkles, it also allows the wash-out of darker skin tones.
Can we assume that we are part of a post-racial era when the concept of beauty is still largely presented in the mainstream media as Caucasian? We may not have some of the worst manifestations of racism – segregation in the US South, say, or Apartheid in South Africa – but let’s not kid ourselves that our culture has “forgotten” how to be racist.