It is no secret that the fashion industry has made a tremendous improvement in including and building spaces for diverse voices and faces of a variety of communities over these past years. Some might say that it has been the healthiest it ever was and a group of people who would usually be underrepresented and neglected are finally able to take part in the conversation of beauty and high fashion. In recognition of such victory, this year, British Vogue took the initiative of creating an entire cover shoot embracing the inclusion of models with unique features still unknown to the western world. In other words, this could be interpreted as a visual response to beauty standards and the need for change on the magazine’s side. Its February 2022 cover issue, shot by Brazilian photographer Rafael Pavarotti, features well-known faces such as Adut Akech, Anok Yai, and many more — all dressed up in ugly-chic Prada and Victorian-like wigs, looking straight at the camera with an emotionless stare, and remarkably openly proud of the final result and the message behind it. In retrospect, there is no denial that the right intentions may have been present throughout the production of this project. Perhaps what is left to ponder over and not discussed enough is the repetitive imagery or idea seemingly being constantly pushed forward where a certain aesthetic is embraced, yet its own subjects cannot be recognized in their natural skin tones.
There’s a difference between a well thought out concept and pushing a certain narrative down the consumer’s throat. At times, the same narratives that are intended to uplift a specific crowd can also be used to cause detrimental damage to the same group of people. The question we may all ask; when is it just art and when is it running with a certain narrative that sells best? Throughout the years, there has been a trend amongst fashion photographers to darken the skin of already dark skin subjects. At first glance, it may seem harmless and completely unintentional as it is arguably both aesthetically and commercially appealing to the eye, especially in a fashion commercial. Moreover, there has also been a common thread where these same subjects are required in similar concepts to appear before a photoshoot with a shaved head or short-cut hairstyle. It is undoubtedly clear that the main target for these style essentials and hairdos are the majority of times African models or models of African descent with a fairly dark skin colour. It is to be said though that there is obviously a number of faces who present themselves with such looks completely by choice and rightfully so. The argument that is being made is whether the fashion world has begun to fetishize a single script, whilst excluding the rest and the acknowledgment that African women come in all shapes and forms, most notably in different skin tones.
Furthermore, the reason why it comes into question in the first place is because for many generations, the same aesthetic that is now being praised and put through enhanced editing was once so negatively viewed by the same people who currently push it forward. A long time ago, society declared that a darker skin shall be seen as undesirable and that women with shorter haircuts be considered as unfeminine. As a result, a great number of children from those communities across the globe were perceived as less attractive by western standards and grew up hating the skin that they were born in. Thus, the push for diversity and recognition of beauty in every human species on planet earth is absolutely necessary; however, the same must be applied behind the intentions of the push in itself, while making sure that these fellow models are truly embraced and not simply used as a shock factor.
To further explain why the use of darkening skin tones tends to be problematic, it is because it can directly target certain people over others. As mentioned before, such editing has been used on Africans versus Carribeans or African-Americans many times, which reinforces the idea that this aesthetic is only visible to a certain demographic of people. In addition, by targeting mostly African models, this conveys a narrative that this may be the ultimate appearance of the general African population and strips it down from its variance and its true identity. For example, American poet Amanda Gorman, who appeared on Vogue’s May 2021 cover issue, as vibrant as ever in her own skin, equally celebrated for her achievements as for her natural beauty, has not to my knowledge been regarded with the same intent. Instead of being portrayed in a gloomy concept mistaken for the deed of empowerment, the cover shoot was colourful, pure and most importantly, a genuine testimony to the magazine’s understanding of the poet and activist. Similarly, one of the greatest fashion models to have ever touched the runway, Naomi Campbell, to my knowledge, throughout her modelling career has never been placed under the same or similar treatment. Interestingly, the fashion icon is British of Caribbean roots. If a woman of colour can endure an entire career without experiencing overdone edits and genderless hairstyles, why can’t the same be said to rising stars like Lily Fofana?
To dive deeper into the rabbit hole, the common act of darkening skin complexion through editing has already resulted in brown skin models passing as darker-skinned faces. This is an engrained issue as it not only takes the opportunity away for naturally dark skinned individuals to be hired in those positions instead, but also taints the personification of them and can be depicted as a form of dishonour. By pretending to be of a certain skin colour for profit, this puts in question again whether the intent behind these creations are truly for mere fondness and not misappropriation. Historically speaking, a black face has never been used in a positive light and only worsens the condition of people of colour within their circles.
Finally, a counter-argument to many of the points I have brought up is the need for representation. Now more than ever, it is crucial for people of all backgrounds to be able to see individuals of the same appearance in a variety of positions and occupations because it was not the case many years ago. With the accessibility of the internet and vast information, representation can force the ending of harmful narratives and help the formation of healthier ones. The more representation that people of colour receive, the better they may be viewed in society and considered as much capable as any other person. However, I believe that what is also important and must always be prioritised is the right intentions being placed behind the act, as much as the right message must come across. Furthermore, the idea of representation could expand even further than imaginable such as becoming heads of the very fashion brands and magazines currently pushing diversity, and perhaps then an innocent cover shoot may no longer have to be questioned.