June 17, 2011

The Traffic in Black Beauty


Vogue Italia "Black Issue" 2011
Black women are the most beautiful women in the world (full stop).  But, of course, I'm biased because I'm a Black woman with a Black mother and Black aunties and Black children and Black family.  When judging female aesthetics, I tend to privilege dark skin, kinky curly hair, full lips, chiseled cheek bones, curvy hips, and shapely legs -- the features that make Black women's bodies so beautiful.  And isn't that the issue at hand with respect to beauty?  Beauty is SUBJECTIVE -- perhaps the most subjective concept of the human condition.  However, stupid and/or racist people keep trying to make it objective.

Vogue Italia
Apparently, there was a "boycott of Black models" on the spring fashion runways this year.  In short, there were no Black models.  In reaction to the so called boycott, Vogue Italia published a "Black Issue" (May 2011) featuring the most stunning Black women I have ever seen (many of which I feature here).  Vogue Italia's attempts to ingratiate itself with Blackness just became another cog in the machine that it was seeking to subvert in the first place.  Does it seem the least bit Jim Crowish that Vogue titled the May issue "The Black Issue?"  This is like saying:  Yes, we know you Black women are beautiful, but you still don't belong in the mainstream.  We still don't want to feature you in American Vogue (unless you're tangential), so we're just going to exoticize and marginalize you even further and throw you all into one big "Black Issue."  There!  We've done our political posturing, made a bit of noise, and given ourselves tons of publicity in the meantime.  When the smoke clears and the camera's stop flashing, we're still going to continue to keep the beauty industry white and discriminate against Black models (at least, that is, until there is another political agenda we can hijack).  

Vogue Italia
I was deeply disturbed by The Colour of Beauty , a documentary I recently saw, which illustrated this phenomenon of "Whites Only" in the modeling industry.  Yes, you read that correctly -- "Whites Only."  Apparently, this is the only industry in America left that can proclaim (out loud anyway) that Blacks need not apply.  And the reason provided (by the well-meaning white modeling agents in the film) -- "Black doesn't sell."  I guess the industry didn't get the memo.  Black has always "sold."  After all, the "Black Issue" of Vogue Italia sold out with break-neck speed.  


In a stupefied, incredulous state, I linked the video on Facebook, and not many folks had anything to say.  In fact, only one person had something to say.  My husband commented:
Interesting how "Black doesn't sell", but sun tan lotion, lip and butt implant surgeons, hip hop dance studios and tanning salons have been and, I dare say, will always be extremely successful business ventures. Hmmmm. Black does sell as long as they don't admit it, huh?
To which, I responded:
"Appropriating" blackness does sell. Just manufacture the black traits you desire and repackage them as desirable white traits to a white market. Don't you just love it when capitalism and racism collide? 
Vogue Italia
The modeling agents featured in the documentary admitted that if the industry decides it wants to feature a Black model (the token model) in a show or in a photo shoot, she must be "a black girl who looks like a white girl dipped in chocolate." The industry co-opts and appropriates Black beauty all of the time.  In the 90s, white women like Kim Bessinger and Angelina Jolie became beauty icons because of their big lips.  The same lips on a Black woman would be "too black" for the beauty industry.  The Stair Master and Step Aerobics and Shape Ups were all popularized to "lift" the gluteus maximums (the butt muscles) -- in essence, increasing the size and firmness of white women's butts, because we all know that Black women already have firm shapely butts.  The goal of the beauty industry is to appropriate Black beauty and repackage it for white consumers while Black women get deleted from the equation all together.

Vogue Italia
This is all very disgusting on many levels.  I am a Black feminist.  Therefore, on principle, I think that industries like modeling are grotesque and absurd.  They seek to objectify humans (primarily women until fairly recently), eroticize and exoticize their various pieces and parts, commodify them, and then sell them as product.  Having cleared the air, I must admit (of course) that I am a part of the machine.  We all are.  Once we buy a tube of lipstick, a pair of stilettos, a bottle of perfume, or a designer garment, we are a part of the capitalist agenda of trafficking beauty.  


But, have we bought into the blatant racism that comes along with it too?