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Oct 18, 2005

If They All Do It...


I feel I've got to play devil's advocate here.

Dennis Dunleavy, a professor of communications at Southern Oregon University, picked up this story via Radar Magazine.  It concerns hip hop artist Beyonce Knowles, who fronts the latest issue of Vanity Fair.  In becoming the first black woman to appear on the cover in twelve years, it appears the magazine decided to present Ms. Knowles in a skin color a few shades lighter than actual.

But here's where my problem comes in.  I've posted stories like this before, the last one involving the doctored Newsweek cover featuring Martha Stewart.  Often, a typical response I get is that "all the magazines do this now" or "what do you expect?"

It's hard to argue with the "they all do it" critique.  In fact, while searching around, I found this Beyonce Rolling Stone cover from March 4, 2004, and it's hard to tell what the shading difference is, if any, from the Vanity Fair shot.


(This is in comparison to the cover of the English magazine, Harpers & Queen, which appeared the same month, and reveals a darker shade.)


So, here are my questions for the readership:

How much is this about racism, sexism or commercialism?  And if it is racist, is it relevant to ask how racist is it?  (Do you imagine, for example, that Beyonce feels exploited over this, or would object?)

Also, considering the darkened O.J. Simpson cover that caused such a stir is now eleven years old, my second question is, how much is this a noteworthy story versus a foregone conclusion? Considering the degree of "making over" and "re-visualizing" going on these days (in real, as well as virtual situations), is there really an issue here anymore?

Specifically returning to the racism question, shouldn't the BAG be saving the space for more urgent matters of race, especially for cases in which the person in question could better use the exposure?

(image 1: The Big Picture; images 2 & 3:


The only difference between these photos and the darkening of O.J. Simpson by Newsweek compared to Time, is that Beyonce gets the whitewash treatment, while Simpson got the thug makeover. It's possible that Beyonce agreed to the tonal variation in order to present a more agreeable image to the specific readership, as opposed to having her image exploited without her consent.

Unfortunately (or not, I suppose depending on your perspective) visual cosmetics, physical make overs, accessorizing and enhancement have become de rigueur in every day life -- much less on the media stage. Perhaps skin color is the next barrier to fall -- just ahead of free display of women's nipples and pubic hair. If so, maybe it is an appropriate move for a publication known for reflecting society's cutting edge. An argument could be made. (But yet, they deny it?)

In fact, could we have come to the point that thinking an alteration of skin color is a racist act, makes the opinion holder the racist?


>>>>>Specifically returning to the racism question, shouldn't the BAG be saving the space for more urgent matters of race, especially for cases in which the person in question could better use the exposure?<<<<


Magazine photos touch up the pictures to make the models look more attractive. right?
so if they shave a few pounds off, or remove a blemish, its because they find that ugly, or at least unappealing and in need of improvement in order to please their audience.
So Beyoncee gets bleached, because black isn't beautiful. And OJ gets darkened (africanised- like those killer bees)to make him look scarier, blacker, uglier, more evil, more CRIMINAL.
Of course its Racism, your whole culture is so steeped in Racism you can hardly identify it anymore.

I really enjoy your blog, but I'm not sure I buy the skin-tone-alteration-as-conspiracy perspective. Art Directors at magazines colour-correct photos to look appealing and pleasing or to work in a particular layout in a particular way, realism is usually a secondary consideration. Cover photos receive the most work of all because they need to sell the magazine.

Furthermore the 4 colour process used to print most magazines is notoriously bad at producing colours in the orange range. This often results in some pronounced shifts when trying to make photos of people with darker skin tones look good. I've been in hundreds of conversations about these sorts of adjustments and I've never heard anyone raise the issue of whether or not a skin tone was accurate to the model. The primary concern is always to create a photo that works for the magazine.

I suspect the OJ photo was darkened overall to add to it's gravitas, not to deliberately change his skin colour. As for Miss Knowles, it may not be her actual skin tone, but you have to admit she looks luminously fabulous and that means that somewhere there is a happy Art Director.

The first two covers have white background. On the third cover the background is black to brown in color. Backgrounds play a major role in the presentation of the subject. If that's her natural hair, then her skin color is probably being presented close to what it actually is. It's hard to judge one's skin color without knowing their family history. Bob Marley was considered a black man, but his father was an English sailor. His skin was not "black." No skin is really black, if I may be absolute.

Beyonce is beautiful no matter what color we think she is.

I don't like the "brown sugar" T.

I do think it's good to post such questions because we all pass by these images in the supermarket lines and they do play a role in our understanding/acceptance of the world we live in. Plus it's nice to get a little eye candy when visiting the Bag.
; )

Frankly, this makes me wonder if Beyonce is behind the bleach rather than the magazines. Does Rolling Stone bleach other black subjects? I don't know the first thing about her, so this could be way off base, but having seen Mike Jackson whiten his skin, it doesn't seem too off-the-wall to think Beyonce might whiten photographs of her skin.

I've long been fascinated with the way a certain bunch of female pop stars are presented, but usually how they present themselves; note that Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul (who are not "black") and Alicia Keys and Beyonce (who are) all present themselves in different ways at different times. Sometimes it is useful for the former to appear black, and sometimes it is useful for the latter to lighten up, so to speak. In the end, the lines between races are rather blurry.

Don't cover photos like these result from meetings where a bunch of people (editor, art director, etc.) look at the cover photo and tweak it in Photoshop until everyone passes on it? Would Beyonce or her rep have final approval on the cover art? Pir's comment that "It's possible that Beyonce agreed to the tonal variation in order to present a more agreeable image to the specific readership" makes sense. I wouldn't be surprised if all concerned decided that a whiter Beyonce looked "better." Magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair are desperate to pump up their newsstand sales. They may feel that a cover that looks too "black" will drive away the casual (mostly white) magazine buyers they want to ensnare.

The British Harpers presents Beyonce very differently. Here, she's more of a design element than a personality. The photo is dark to set off the drop-out white typography. For design reasons, they may have actually darkened her here to make the cover more dramatic. The Harper's cover raises different racial issues. The photographer chose a background about the same shade as her skin tone, her body recedes into the background and her white dress comes forward and re-iterates the white type. She becomes less of a person and more of a passive object. Even if her skin is lightened in the Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone covers, they present her in a more assertive and individual way than the Harper's cover does.

Ironically, racism 'is' involved in the published skin tone(s) of Beyonce whether intended or not simply because it quickly became a reasonable topic of discussion.

The apparent perfection of covergirls, like the Barbie/android appearance of many cable television newsreaders, renders them unnatural anyway so photographic enhancements, or even pointed ears, would not seem out of place. It's just a different frame of reference from the 'real', everyday world most of us live in.

Old racist perspectives still infect our aethetics in the social concious...

We are going through and odd phase as we adjust to the much more accepting new generations...

I'm not so sure the photos are out of line with her actual appearance or that they've been touched up to make her have lighter skin. For starters, there's the lighting.

But if you do an Internet picture search of "Beyonce," you'll see — at least it appears to me — that she isn't as dark-skinned as the Harper's cover.

Here's one example, which you may have to cut and paste to see:

"Elvis is king" - John Lennon

Elvis's head was darker on Mexican printed albums, not sure why. A black social anthropologist, who inadvertantly moved into an apartment just occupied by a Black Panther activist (I've attended a lecture at CUNY of the Grey (? or gray) Panthers) hence why he had that funny feeling he was being followed around in "The Loop" in Chicago, told me some people are "urples" so black they are purple, in the parlance of the black bourgeois. (Bourgeois Charters Provides fishing on the bayous of South Louisiana. Source: Google)

The first thing that came to mind is that African-Americans themselves have a bias towards lighter skin. There's a whole range of terms to categorize various skin shades, the lighter the shade, the more desireable. If I recall correctly, a "high yellow" tone, such as Beyonce is showing in the first two covers, is considered especially beautiful & desireable.

Many others have said pertinant things about the Art Directors's goals. Selling, not reality, is often the goal. It's very plausible to me that they would "golden" her up. Even white models sometimes get the "ultra luscious skin" treatment.

So all that being said, I'm not sure this lightening of skin has any significance beyond the inherant racism of our society(ies) prefering lighter skin as a marker of beauty. Maybe Beyonce herself is pleased because they made her look even more glamorous and beautiful than she already is. Maybe white people will love her more if she is presented like a golden apple. Maybe she will sell more magazines! This use of skin color is inherant racism, but it is inherant, likely not deliberate. In this case, it seems to be "Used" to sell magazines.

Not to downplay what they've done. If I ran across these covers in public, I would be scornfully pointing it out the manipulation to anyone who would listen. But what can I expect from such publications with such a casual relationship with reality? As dus7 observed:

"The apparent perfection of covergirls, like the Barbie/android appearance of many cable television newsreaders, renders them unnatural anyway so photographic enhancements, or even pointed ears, would not seem out of place. It's just a different frame of reference from the 'real', everyday world most of us live in."

A final thought:
A detrimental effect of such skin tone enhancements is that is reduces the self-esteem of women and girls everywhere. We take pictures as "real" (regardless of possible elf ears), and we are caught trying to live up to that glowing so-called reality. We compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. Even black women aspire to a golden skin tone. These covers, while selling their mags, are also selling that impossible ideal AND the idea that lighter is better. So from that perspective, the meta message is that we are all unworthy. We all fail to live up. It's very damaging. (There are studies somewhere showing a correlation between exposure to fashion mags and lower self-esteem.) Unfortunately, by featuring Beyonce and her golden glow, African American women are that much more included in the net.

I'm not sure why BAG is so reticent to discuss this here. It's also true that magazines routinely make their female cover subjects look bustier or thinner than they really are. That kind of thing doesn't really seem irrelevant to me at all. Lies and manipulation are lies and manipulation.

Well, at least in her case, they just photoshopped a picture to make her skin lighter. But in real life, women all over the world are sold the idea that they need to actually make their skin lighter skin to be beautiful and successful, and that is a serious issue.

Popular Arab satellite channels constantly run advertisements for Fair&Lovely, a skin lightening product made by Unilever. (See the Fair&Lovely page.) In a typical commercial, a woman is sad and pretty much a loser, then she uses Fair&Lovely. The next thing you know, she's landed a dream job as a TV broadcaster... she looks radiant, and her parents are so proud watching her on TV.

It's widely available in the Middle East, and used by Arab women as well as Asian workers here. I would guess that it's big in India, too, since it's made there. Skin lighteners are also widely used in Africa, where many women have destroyed their skin with such chemicals (think Michael Jackson - and they don't have the resources he does to deal with it).

There's a long article here on this subject: Pigmentation and Empire: The Emerging Skin-Whitening Industry

For pictures of Beyonce with a variety of skin tones, check out her webpage. Is it racism? Let's see.

The Newsweek/Time difference you post--with OJ Simpson's skin darkened to ensure a black thug negative stereotype. Okay, that one is easy.

But this one? Oh, dear...1) OTOH, she is presented as a beautiful, strong person, and in the process 2) OTOH, her natural skintone may have been bleached.

So, is this about racism? Are these feeding the racist white stereotype of the hot "brown sugar" sexual object--the view that led to untold numbers of rapes during slave times. The female analogy to the O.J.Simpson pics? Or fueling racist standards of beauty defined by white characteristics? The blue-est eye? The whitest skin? The white-est of blonde hair?

--You don't mention Beyonce's straight and colored hair. That's not very black, either.

--You don't mention what has happened to images of white girls like Britney Spears whose hair is bleached and skin darkened.

Humans adore that which is rare and unexpected. And true fair skin and hair--whether in white or blacks--is rare. With modern products all sorts of mimicking can-and does-take place. Is a white audience automatically racist if they find beauty in the characteristics of their group, blonde and fair?

We really need some operational definitions of racism, and we need to distinquish between racism and routine image manipulation. You'll notice that the standard of beauty for both Beyonce and Britney is that of a totally non-natural whore: Both are selling bad music by being plastic sexy. Racism is real, but I don't think these pictures are the best evidence.

OTOH, I think these pictures of Beyonce would be supporting evidence in a discussion about media images of women or the commercialization of everything. I am also interested in a class critique. Notice how Beyonce is presented in each of these covers: in the upscale Vanity Fair, she is wearing a ball gown and jewelry. In Rockster Rolling Stone she's a object of raw desire in a short skirt, bared midriff and t-shirt. On Harpers, also upscale, she's an ornament on a rug. What do these images tell us about the target market's view of the world? About the source of power or authority?

I find it interesting that white women spend so much money and time tanning or using sunless tanning products to obtain a golden tan and black women are attempting to reach the same color. Latino, Middle Eastern and Indian women seem to come by it naturally. If what ummabdulla asserts is true that one can assume that there is a universal aesthetic of beauty that sits squarely in the middle of all the colors. Or perhaps they are seeking to be exotic in their culture. Exotic is defined by it's rarity. Perhaps white people seek to be dark and dark people seek to be white in order to stand out in the crowd.

Remember that this cover is mass marketing is designed to appeal to, well, a mass market. Between the most extreme whiteness of the WASP and the extreme darkness of certain africans there comes the golden average and it is there that we define general beauty. This is beauty a larger group can agree on. It's not racism, it's marketing. Presenting the happy medium.

As to the question does this debate belong here I say it's important to look at entertainment in a society as well as politics because both are driving forces of cultural change. Hip hop has changed the face of white America. Black is beautiful.

But in this case you must consider, sometimes a picture is just a picture.

The purpose of any magazine cover is to get our attention and sell the magazine. Newsstand competition is cut-throat. A monthly has a very brief window of opportunity (days, I don't know how many — 14, if that?) to sell itself before it gets bumped by or buried under a million other provocative covers on the newsstand. It's sheer commercialism that utilizes racism, sexism, or any other ism to compete and survive. The fact that we're considering whether Beyonce is touched up means that this cover accomplished its goal: It got our attention and held it.

In this particular case, I think the racism issue is such an onion peel as to be impossible to argue coherently. If we want to talk about the "whitening" of Beyonce, maybe we should start with her decision to have plastic surgery. Just Google "Beyonce nose job" for before and after comparison pics on a number of sites. Then maybe we should examine our own responses to what we consider her "beauty" and discuss whether Vanity Fair is just giving us what we want: a Beyonce beyond our whitest dreams.

What PTate and RTBAG said.

"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination." — John Lennon

It's probably as much a question about racism as it is a question about Photoshop and photography.

In the end it's those who cheat for wrong reasons that spoil it for those who do it for the right reasons.

the "brown sugar" t-shirt is the most blatant racist thing of all the pictures. forget the skin tone.

I want to see covers of Missy Elliot, an artist with a rather boxy body type who only tried to dress sexy once--in her first video. She included a dog collar in the get up. After that she chucked it and wore mannish jump suits and pants and jackets sets that emphasized rather than hid her chunky physique. Her hair styles are short and unglamorous. It must have taken tremendous courage to choose this look. Amazingly, it did not mean professional suicide, although she doesn't get top billing on videos like "Lady Marmalade". But she's there!

So Beyonce can go jump in the lake as far as I'm concerned.

I can't see that these photographs represent an attempt to simply make her more white (i.e. palatable for a white demographic) when all three photos also add up to a shameless Portrait of the Artist as Sexual Chocolate = Edible Product. From Beylicious (1) to Brown Sugar (2) to being wrapped up like a candy bar (3) it Halloween yet?

Being black isn't just a hinderance in the US, its a factor in being hired, fired, and arrested.

Our perceptions of skin color certainly dictate our feelings about black people. I myself have been stigmatized often because of my black heritage, and usually it was completely off track.

It is important, but I'd hesitate to call it a matter as important as the war in Iraq. While I'd definitely choose Iraq over this issue, I certainly wouldn't exclude it because of its relationship to someone who is famous.

This reminds me of a blog post I recently read:

"The other day I saw Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. He is a rare ethnic Indian on mainstream American television, even though East Asian immigrants have the highest income per capita in the US. His skin used to be a rich, milk chocolate color, but that day it was a greenish pasty, Michael Jackson corpse hue, at least a few shades lighter. His hair had been tamed, as well, from a dark, wavy coiffure to a straight, Julius Caesar short trim, the type you see on young, white, stockbroker yuppies. I blinked in horror, hoping it was a result of a misguided make-up artist 'trying something new' and not what I suspected, that an ethnically dark skinned person had undergone dermatological treatment to lighten his skin color in order to pave the way for further media success."

I find ummabdulla's comment insightful.

The plasticization of media personalities is disturbing in and of itself. I've only recently started watching the news again and I'm horrified by what these "reporters" are doing to themselves. They resemble talking robots more than anything. Freaky.

RACISM: Yes. A black co-worker made me aware of this when I asked her why she wouldn't date a certain cute guy. Her reply was that she was too dark and he would never ask her out. His skin was lighter, so he would not even date someone darker. Among blacks there seems to be an uber-consciousness of the exact skin tone. I think that explains why so many successful, prominent black men have white wives. We all know the examples. You can see this on TV, also. Black men always have lighter-skinned wives. And I've been told that among black women, it's all about the hair, which may explain her coif.

SEXISM: Yes. Just the poses by themselves are that of the typical sex kitten, especially the Vanity Fair one . . . totally non-threatening. The other two are more agressive. But in this, it is not racist. Media portrays all women that way unless they have enough clout to object. Beyonce may have clout but not be mature enough yet to exercise it.

Also, perhaps by lightening the skin tone, she may appeal to a large Latino audience. In this she may be complicit.

COMMERCIALISM: Yes. They are ALL commercial. Magazines do not put anything on their cover that will not sell magazines. I don't know VF's circulation numbers in the middle of the country, but there are a lot of people there that retain the sexism of the '40's. Maybe I just notice it because I live and grew up on the West Coast. A few years back I went to a large event (several thousand people) in Wisconsin. After a few hours, I realized that everyone there was white. It was really a spooky feeling. So magazines must aim the cover at the lowest common denominator.

The aforementioned friend and I often commented on the lack of black models in women's mail order catalogs. Just in the past few years have they started appearing, but they are so light skinned that one can not be certain of their ethnicity.

The implicit racism is no more and no less pertinent--here on your blog--than the implicit sexism that accompanies similar image manipulations of this and other female celebrities. This is sickening indeed, but I think this issue, if you want to address it here, should be addressed not only in the specific contexts of racism, sexism, etc, but also in the wider context of our culture's thoroughly demented sense of body image. You would have to go after just about every advertisement in print, on tv, and on the internet. You would have to go after just about every film made in Hollywood. You would have to go after the way newscasters present themselves (or let themselves be presented). And so on. Too much! I say, keep focusing on images like the charming mass murderer in the GQ pose from yesterday.

And then there's the most chromatophoric celebrity of all...

OK first off - she's hot in all the pictures (except that last one). The example of darker skin tone is also (IMO) just a bad far away and impersonal. Not sexy to me anyway.

I find it funny to see people writing "well, they lightened her skin tone to make her more appealing" for a series of reasons that make me slightly ill and suspicious. Or that she was actually the one who said, "hey, could you please make me look less dark? I mean, c'mon, what self respecting white person would be inteterested in me like I am"? and to that point there was even an example of that very mind set from another person who isn't making millions off her skin tone (light/black/or other).

This all takes me back to the Hulk. Did you know the Hulk was actually supposed to be Grey? But for reasons I can't rememeber (something silly like the printer ran out of grey or made a mistake) the Hulk was, after the first few comic books - made green. Just explanation, he just came out green one day. Now I bet if I asked you what color the Hulk is you'd say "green" and not think twice.

So, that begs two questions - why not more green celebrities? and two, the hulk has always been green to you, hasn't he? I bet there are grey hulk fans out there right now bemoaning the loss of an icon....

maybe perception is genetic? Or maybe we are not able to discern or admit as a group that mass media plays to the middle and the middle drinks budweiser and thinks GWB is a "good guy" cuz he works on his ranch. He got votes! I'm not making this up!

What can you? .......move on to the magazine with the cover shot of a large, extremely dark skinned black person with a blonde afro three times the size of his/her head standing next to a bald, albino, anorexic and say "finally!...Free at last! Free at last!"

You would have to go after just about every advertisement in print, on tv, and on the internet. You would have to go after just about every film made in Hollywood. You would have to go after the way newscasters present themselves (or let themselves be presented). And so on. Too much! I say, keep focusing on images like the charming mass murderer in the GQ pose from yesterday.

I agree. In fact, it might make more sense to highlight any non-racist images of black women in main stream media. I can't think of even one at the moment.

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