Thursday, October 22, 2009

White-Washed: The Protrayal of Black Women in Mainstream Media and the Fashion Industry

*This photo was taken by Joy Diggs, founder of B. Natural Apparel ( It illustrates just how far some companies go to "white-wash" images of Black women. Note the minimal difference in the complexions of Whitney Houston, Katie Holmes and Monica! If we are all equal and race doesn't matter, why is this necessary?* I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts below:

Despite notable strides taken towards the inclusion of Black women, mainstream media and the fashion industry have far to go towards embracing and celebrating Black beauty. A walk past any newsstand or a flip through the channels on cable television quickly cements the fact that Black women are not as thoroughly represented in the media as their white counterparts. Perhaps even more disheartening is the aesthetic censoring that some companies find necessary in order to include Black women in their ad campaigns or runway shows. Whether altogether exclusion, or caste-based discrimination, much is left to be desired from the less than adequate depiction of Black as beautiful in fashion and advertising.

In 2008, L’Oreal, the largest cosmetic company in the world, found itself under fire for allegedly using photo-editing software to lighten spokesmodel Beyonce Knowles’ skin tone in an ad campaign for its Feria line of hair dyes.

The L’Oreal case is one of the first to draw such public scrutiny, but the issue at the heart of the scandal has persisted for quite some time. More often than not, images of fairer-skinned Black women are readily available in the pages of fashion magazines or other types of media, while darker-skinned Black women, whose skin tones are perhaps more readily identified with their African roots, remain underrepresented. In some publications or fashion houses, Black women are excluded entirely, regardless of their skin tone. Cosmetics giant L’Oreal denies lightening Ms. Knowles skin in its ads, while critics maintain that comparisons of the ad, alongside other pictures of the star, clearly show otherwise. Regardless, the message that Black skin is not beautiful has been made painfully clear.

Another point of controversy in the portrayal of Black women in media stems from what seems to many to be a trivial subject: hair. The debate over whether or not to embrace one's natural hair texture or to chemically or otherwise alter the hair has existed in the Black community for decades. Many believe that altering, namely straightening, the hair’s natural texture means rejecting the physical traits that are distinct to our African descent in order to yield a more "European" look. For years, the media and fashion industry have sent the message that this hair is nothing short of unacceptable to portray beauty and sex appeal. In recent years, this situation has improved. Many Black women now refuse to straighten their hair and even some models are seen photographed with their hair in its unaltered state. Unfortunately, the recent Malia Obama hair scandal is a reminder that the stigma surrounding Black women's hair still exists. While on vacation in London, the 10-year old first daughter's hair was styled in what are known as two-strand twists, a popular style option for Black women with “natural” hair.

Once photos from the trip surfaced, the press tore into the young girl's appearance, calling her hair "undone" and calling her "unfit to appear in public" with such a style. This unfortunate tragedy shines a bright light on the widely held mindset that natural Black hair is ok-but not in front of the camera, in ad campaigns, on runways or on the head of an American first daughter.

The Clark Doll Experiment was a 1939 study on racial identity and perception conducted on young Black children by Dr. Kenneth Clark. The children were presented with two dolls: one Black, one White. They were then asked to make choices, including which doll they’d most like to play with, which looks “bad,” which looks “nice,” and which most resembled themselves. The majority of the children chose the Black doll as looking “bad.” This can almost certainly be attributed to the negative connotation of “Blackness” in what was, at the time, a very racially divided America. Even worse, after identifying the Black doll in such an unsavory light, Dr. Clark reported that many of the children cried and ran away when asked to choose the doll that more closely resembled them. This experiment was repeated and documented in the 2005 film A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis. In the new study, a shocking 15 out of 21 children (all were Black, as in the original Clark study) chose the fairer skinned doll when asked which was the “nice” doll. This illustrates the weight of racial inequality that has trickled down from a painful past of prejudice and become poison in the minds of these, the most innocent victims. With the advent of information technology, we are continuously exposed to media in come form. Although not charged with the primary responsibility of raising our next generation of leaders, teachers and thinkers, the media does play a significant role in their growth and development. Every little girl should be proud, rather than ashamed of the traits and features that make us all uniquely beautiful. In a world that has made such progress towards parity and justice for all, perhaps destroying the prejudices of the media and fashion industries is one of the last unconquered frontiers.