Fashionably Informed: “White-Washing” & Skin Lightening

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Welcome to College Fashion’s biweekly column, Fashionably Informed. As a CF reader, it’s clear that you love fashion. But have you ever wondered about the drama that goes on behind the scenes? To keep you up to speed, this column aims to inform you about important issues and controversies in the fashion industry.

In case you missed them, see past posts on Retouching & Photoshopping, Tanning Promotion in the Media, and Hypocrisy in Beauty Marketing.

Gabourey Sidibe skin lightening controversy photo

Gabby’s natural skin color (right) compared to Elle magazine cover | Photos via ELLE and Pacific Coast News

The first part of our series on racism in the fashion industry focused on the racism that sometimes occurs in model selection. Today, we will be discussing the media’s “white-washing” of darker models and celebrities.

What is “White-Washing”?

When we say “white-washing,” we are referring to the artificiallightening of someone’s skin color so that they conform to the culturally created (and needless to say, wrong) idea of lighter skin being more beautiful than dark skin.

The belief that lighter skin is more beautiful is nothing new to our society. In the last “Fashionably Informed” article, we discussed how this belief affects what we see on the runways. As we mentioned then, only about 20% of the models to walk in the last NYFW were women of color (i.e. non-white). In an even earlier post, we also discussed the use of skin lightening cream in India.

However, the fashion industry’s preference for light skin does not stop there. If and when darker models or celebrities are chosen for magazine covers or beauty campaigns, their skin is often lightened. There have been quite a few incidents where magazines and cosmetic companies have been accused of lightening a celebrity’s skin color. Let’s discuss a few.

“White-Washing” and Magazine Covers

Rihanna's British Vogue Cover

Rihanna’s British Vogue Cover | Photo Credit

Major fashion magazines, including Vogue and ELLE, have faced controversy when they’ve been accused of lightening the skin colors of their darker cover girls. For example, Rihanna’s skin appeared much lighter than usual on her British Vogue cover (pictured above). After a few bloggers and news outlets pointed this out, Vogue’s editor responded with the following comment:

“The reality is that the pictures that were published came in exactly how they have been published – with absolutely no skin lightening. If her skin does look pale it is probably because of the very strong sunlight in LA that day. We worked with her chosen hair and make-up team to present her in the way she was most comfortable with.”

This isn’t the only time a magazine has cited the lighting as being the cause for a model’s skin color changes.

After her Oscar nomination, Gabourey Sidibe was featured on the cover of Elle magazine (first picture above). However, when the issue hit newstands, people weren’t talking about her interview… they were discussing her skin. Like Rihanna, Gabby’s skin looked much lighter on the magazine cover than it had on red carpets and on screen. Julianne Hing of Colorlines called out the magazine, saying:

Except look closely, and you’ll notice there’s something off in Sidibe’s cover photo. Sidibe’s skin is noticeably lighter than usual. Elle clearly couldn’t handle Sidibe’s real skin color, and traded away her actual color for something dramatically lighter.

Many other news outlets and blogs including Jezebel, Beauty Redefined, and The Telegraph, had a similar reaction to Gabby’s cover. Elle’s editor-in-chief, Robbie Myers told E! News, “It’s not a controversy.” She continued her statement, explaining:

It sort of boils down to this. At a photo shoot, in a studio, that is a fashion shoot, that’s glamorous, the lighting is different. The photography is different than a red carpet shot from a paparazzi. We absolutely did not lighten her skin.

Like Vogue, Elle also cites studio lighting as the culprit for their cover girl’s lighter skin. Lighting is likely to blame, as digital retouching has not been confirmed in either case. However if lighting is what is causing this “white-washing” effect, perhaps better training for photographers would allow a model’s real skin color to come through in photographs.

Skin Lightening in Beauty Advertisements

Magazines are not alone in this – beauty and cosmetic companies have also been accused of lightening their stars. Freida Pinto, the breakout star of the film Slumdog Millionaire, was a victim of “white-washing” in her campaign for L’Oreal Paris (which you can see here). Both The Daily Mail and ABC News pointed out that Freida’s skin tone looks much lighter in the ad. However, L’Oreal released the following comment:

Freida Pinto has been a spokesperson for the L’Oréal Paris brand since 2009. We highly value our relationship with Ms. Pinto. It is categorically untrue that L’Oreal Paris altered Ms. Pinto’s features or skin-tone in the campaign for Project Runway ‘Colors Take Flight’ limited-edition collection.

Explaining the incident further, L’Oreal stated:

This campaign was meant to highlight Freida Pinto’s make-up colors applied on her eyes and lips. Thus, some powerful studio lighting with ring-flash have been used for this purpose to create a ‘runway’ effect on the picture. There has been no whitening retouching process whatsoever on Freida Pinto’s face.

This comment echoes Vogue’s and Elle’s responses about lighting. Again, retouching has not been confrimed in this case either.

This isn’t the first time L’Oreal has been accused of lightening a spokeswoman’s skin color. Back in 2008, their ads featuring Beyonce came under fire. Multiple news outlets, from The Telegraph to E! News to The New York Post, covered the story. L’Oreal quickly responded with a similar statement to the one they later issued for Freida’s incident, saying:

Beyoncé Knowles has been a spokesperson for the L’Oréal Paris brand since 2001. We highly value our relationship with Ms Knowles. It is categorically untrue that L’Oréal Paris altered Ms. Knowles’s features or skin-tone in the campaign for Féria hair colour.

We hope that these incidents of skin lightening were accidents and that no skin tones were intentionally altered. However, it is still difficult to see these images held up as beauty ideals based on what they represent. Countless women and young girls around the world are looking at these images and absorbing the depicted standard of beauty. Some are thinking that lighter skin is better, or “more glamorous” than their own color. Ultimately, thoughts like those can be damaging on a global scale.

What do you think?

How do you feel about “white-washing” or skin lightening? Do you think studio lighting is the reason behind the lighter skintones? Do you notice skin lightening in images of your favorite models and celebrities? Do you think other women are negatively affected by these retouched images? Tell us your thoughts by leaving a comment.

16 thoughts on “Fashionably Informed: “White-Washing” & Skin Lightening”

  1. A lot of these celebrities bleach their skin themselves as well. For example, I know for a fact that Beyonce and Rihanna both bleach their skin. Look it up.

  2. I think a very obvious example of white-washing is Mariah Carey’s album “Merry Christmas.” I barely recognize her on it. Her skin is completely white! I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me that was just from lighting. Maybe part of it was, but the majority must be from photo editing.

    I don’t understand this idea that there is only one attractive skin colour. I’ve been mistaken for an albino because of my pale skin. However, I don’t want to tan because it would look weird with my equally light blond hair. Also, I do not think pale skin is unattractive. Similarly, I don’t think very dark skin is ugly, either. I’m sure this obsession with skin colour is partly a vestige of our ridiculously racist beliefs of the past.

  3. I have been a reader of this website for a long time. I recently read some of the articles on race and sexuality and I think it is so amazing that you are brave enough to bring these issues up in a fashion context, especially because race and sexuality intersect with the fashion industry in really interesting ways that don’t usually get talked about. CF was always my guilty pleasure website, but now I am truly proud to call myself a reader. I would be interested in seeing an article on the appropriation of other cultures in the fashion industry. Especially prominent right now is the appropriation of Native American and Asian cultures. Anyway, thanks again!

  4. Thank you all so much for your great comments! I always amazed at the response this column gets. Your comments and discussion is one of the main reasons I love writing these posts. My goal for this column is to start a conversion about topics that can be a little hard to talk about normally.

    My awesome editor, Zephyr, did a wonderful job at responding to so many of your comments 🙂 but there are I few that I wanted to speak to also.

    JJ- Thanks for your suggestion about covering the “good” vs. “bad” hair topic. One of my favorite documentaries is Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” (I suggest everyone see it). He goes through many aspects of the “good’ hair issue. I hadn’t thought of doing a post about that topic. But after seeing your comment, I definitely plan on writing one in the near future.

    Sara- Zephyr did a thorough job responding to your comment. But, I just wanted to say that your statement about racism not being much of an issue anymore is extremely inaccurate. I have experienced it first-hand through out my life and so have some of friends and family.

    And for those of you who mentioned paler models and tanning, I have done a post on that issue as well: I agree that this is also a serious issue. The pressure of the media is causing so many girls to risk getting skin-cancer just for tanned skin.

    Jacqule- Thank you so much! Like I said before, I want to start a dialogue and educate others on issues that surround us everyday!

    Jenny Z.- Thanks for being a loyal reader 🙂 As a woman of color, I love writing these posts! I will keep posting as long as I can. Your last statements about it being ok for a white person to be tan but not a POC were very interesting. I haven’t thought of it from that perspective but it’s true.

    Thank you all for your comments! I read every single one. Please feel free to keep commenting, everyone can bring something new to the discussion.

  5. Like Jenny Z said above me, white-washing and wanting to appear more white is a matter of race. It bothers me that people are comparing this to tanning – I’m very pale and I can’t tan at all. Do I get good-naturedly made fun of? Yes. Do I get actively discriminated against? No. That’s the difference. People aren’t making negative assumptions about me, they’re not denying me jobs, etc. because I’m too pale. People do do that because of the darkness of a person’s skin. It’s a sad fact that the lighter an African American person is, the less stereotyped they are and the less prejudice they face (although of course even light-skinned African Americans face prejudice). And that includes in their own communities, where dark-skinned girls may not feel as pretty as light-skinned African Americans. And it’s not going to help these dark-skinned girls to feel any prettier if they never see their skin tone represented in magazines.

    Here is an interesting article on the subject (although I disagree with the filmmakers’ argument that Obama wouldn’t have been elected if Michelle Obama had had lighter skin):

  6. “For the majority of Americans, racism is not an issue anymore – if anything REVERSE racism is the problem.”

    Umm… Wow.

  7. I am in no way condoning the use of “white-washing” or any other techniques to purposefully make these beautiful women look paler than they are. However, I will say this. Those of us white girls who are pale and can’t naturally tan are made to feel like our skin color isn’t right, either. Why do you think so many white girls risk getting skin cancer and other serious skin diseases by going to the tanning bed or laying out by the pool or at the beach? And why do you think that come summer, you really start seeing all these self-tanners out? As my former pastor use to say, we’re all just different shades of “pecan tan”, so I think we all need to learn to embrace our skin tones and be proud of them–no matter how light or dark we are. We’re all beautiful.

  8. Erin: do you understand that both tanning and skin lightening are extremely harmful to your health? No one should be forced into the mould of some mystical bronze colour. It IS about race, it is about race when women in China, Korea and Japan have surgery on their eyelids to appear more Caucasian. It is about race when women will do anything and everything to appear white, because white is our cultural ideal. It is about race when a magazine hires a white woman and tans her until near unrecognisability instead of hiring a woman of colour. It is about race that the vast majority of models are white, with everyone else -the entire rest of the world- representing just a small minority.
    Please check your privilege.

  9. My questions is why the celebrities have not had problems with their photos? I’m extremely pale, and I would make a public statement if a company tanned my photos. It’s sad that these celebrities have not taken a stand again white-washing.
    Yes, it’s mostly due to photography, but could their skin not have been photoshopped closer to their natural color? These women of color should also take some responsibilities for the image they are letting being sold.

  10. People like Beyonce are VERY white washed. Its really sad. I found out beyonce and I wear the same foundation shade, yet she always looks so pale! Its disgusting. I love my skin and I love all skin tones. I get on to my pale white girlfriends for tanning, telling them to love what they have, and let nature handle it. Stars like Krysten Ritter and Emmy Rossum also help pave the way for pale women. I never grew up around people who thought lighter skin was best, so a few years ago (I’m 22 now) when someone asked me if it was better for black people to be darker or lighter, I was like, “Huh?”
    Apparently its a black on black color war too. I’ve done some photoshoots in my time, and I never came out looking like Dita Von Teese the way Rihanna did!
    In the winter, I get a little lighter. In the summer, I get a really great bronze tan. I like them both, and know there is a time for each.

  11. What about all the models who have their skin darkened so they look more tan? I think skin lightening or tanning is fine. It’s just beauty enhancement just like wearing make-up. It enhances beauty and it’s not about being something you’re not. This should not be turned into a racial issue.

  12. Wow. I had no idea about this issue. The studio lighting might be possible in some cases, it hapenned to me once in the school photos. But in the pictures you included in your article, it’s obvious that studio lighting wasn’t the cause. Their skins are too light. This is completely wrong. This people think that with lighter skin tones you look better and they can make a serious problem on darker colored- skin people like Latin Americans, African Americans or African. I can’t believe these people would go too far in the issue of racism.

  13. If you google image Gabby Sidibe, there is a significant portion of the photos that her skin looks really quite light. Perhaps the Elle photo is a little extreme, but I think showing more images of Sidibe, not just one where her skin looks the darkest, would have been more informative and really illustrated how drastically lighting can change the skin tone.

  14. But don’t you think some of the responsibility should come down on the reader, too? If the skin-lightening hadn’t been pointed out, I don’t think I would have noticed. I know that what Rihanna, Beyonce, Gabby, and Frieda look like in real life, and I find them beautiful regardless. If people suddenly find them more beautiful because of one image, then isn’t that a personal issue? We place a lot of blame on media, but whatever you take away from an image has to do with your personal psychology, as well.

  15. I have yet to read the other articles, but the racism section is very interesting. Most of the time, it even escapes our minds, since we are so used to seeing “white” models most of the time. Thinking about it though, I realize how true it is that those minor details do get imprinted in our brains. I know many people of color, including myself (I’m Latina), that try to not get darker (tan) when going to the beach or the pool. So I guess I do have it in my mind that “whiter” skin is better, which is completely wrong I know, but I have never looked that much into it. =p

  16. I think that some of it IS the lighting, I know in pictures of myself depending on where I’m at I look a lot paler than I am, I know it’s not a fashion photoshoot, but still. But it does look like they did some lightening to the very first, I don’t know why her skin colour is absolutely beautiful.


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