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beauty is in the eye of which beholder?

Growing up in London, England born to a white mother and a black father had conned me into a false sense of security that the world accepted and rejoiced diversity. That is until I moved to Australia and attempted to join modeling agencies that thrived on extraordinary ideals. And so began my journey into investigating why the warped world of fashion believes beautiful women should have vampiric pale skin, razor sharp cheekbones, a button nose and small lips. Unless you fit into this classified minority, you are shunned for your nationality, birthplace and differences.

So, the question on my lips became…if we do not have typically white Nordic features, are we not considered beautiful?

In my attempts to reach the roots of this white supremacy, I stumbled across an interview titled ‘The Colour of Beauty. This followed the struggle for work of black model Renee Thompson. Stunningly tall with a complexion somewhere between honey and cocoa, it was difficult for me to watch her gradual descent into the world of eurocentric beauty and perform like a puppet to the tune of the model agencies’ ideals. Thompson’s apologetic nature was reflected in the way she spoke of herself and her short lived glee at finding out she weighed a mere 50kg. The interviewees later sat down in front of the camera and stated that African American women did not have the “right facial features” for modeling compared to white Caucasian women. These agents continued to rationalise this implied racism by remarking that some African-American models look like and I quote, “White girls painted Black…” born with features such as “a very skinny nose and elegant face” which are considered “sellable”. In contrast, the “big eyes, big nose and big lips” which are “commons traits of African Americans” just do not work.  They also actively stated that they need “a black model who looks like a white girl dipped in chocolate.” For a brief moment, I wondered if they were speaking about baking cakes.

In addition to this controversy, Vanity Fair’s March 2010 magazine cover was considered to lack “diversity,” according to Joanna Douglas’s article. The cover flaunts nine young, thin, Caucasian actresses praised for their button noses and “ivory soap girl features.” The article suggested that Vanity Fair did not consider featuring young ethnic actresses such as Zoë Saldana (Avatar) and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) even though such actresses are equally as talented in the illustrious world of Hollywood fame. Vanity Fair was questioned on this issue by Shine Magazine but of course, they refused to comment.

So why the lack of multiculturalism? According to author Liz Jones, “not a single black girl walked among 60 models” during 2011 Chanel Catwalk week, Jones states that where magazines like Vogue are concerned, the African women who are featured are “air brushed” with hair that is “ironed within an inch of its life.” She suggests that successful black women like Beyonce Knowles are whitened and made to appear paler than their natural complexions, making it impossible for black audiences to relate to her.

In another article, Carole White (Premier’s founder) stated that black women are decidedly harder to work with because photographers and makeup artists are often intimidated by styling darker skin and afro American hair. She states that working with them is often a “slower process” and in the rare occasion when mixed race models are used, it’s in the context of “tribal print locations and desert scenes.” So, can the avoidance of diverse beauty really be linked to makeup artists and photographers who are too afraid to paint a different canvas?

Not according to the Carol Gracias.  In India, several of the countries’ leading models have protested that they’re being unpaid and swept aside due to the influx of their white counterparts. They claim that their agencies have an inherent “inferiority complex” which dates back to “British colonialism” and an unhealthy obsession with pale skin. Indian model, Carol Gracias stated that seeing Indian models on television was rare and that skin lightening lotions like “Fair and Lovely” are constantly in favour. So does this explain the Western favouritism in other countries?  Perhaps it bubbles down to a deeper seated conditioning that ivory will always prevail over ebony?

It seems here that a majority of different sources find it incredibly easy to apportion blame rather than take control of this issue.  Some agents even have the audacity to argue that their models reflect a general demographic, however how many 5’11, 8 stone women do you see walking down the street?

So what can be done about this entrenched racism? According to freelance casting director James Scully, consumers should be taking matters into their own hands by writing to their magazine’s editors and complaining about the lack of ethnic representation.  Scully claims that editors do acknowledge all feedback that they receive, however issues like these need to be brought to the attention of high designers too. One must question though, that when agents believe that their models reflect the general demographic, how many protests will it take before we see different shades of beauty colouring our favourite magazines.

A glimmer of hope lies in the birth of digital expression.  Multiculturalism can be found in online documentaries and blogs which allow women to reassess and redefine their subjective concepts of beauty and find self acceptance rather than rely on the affirmation of media. Strategic and thought provoking campaigns like “Fashion against Racism 2012” signals change within growing communities. We can only hope that this marks the beginning of a new generation that knows beauty has a lot more shades than “fair and lovely.”

By Sophia Anna
(Image credit: 1.)

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