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

Freida Pinto's L'Oreal Paris Advertisment

Freida Pinto's L'Oreal Paris Advertisement | Photo Credit

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 (pictured above). 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.

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