Disclaimer: I have submitted this piece to the website Business of Fashion as an Op-Ed. If they decide to publish it, I will be taking it down here and posting the link.
Lupita Nyong’o has appeared on red carpet after red carpet since the premier of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes this month, Nyong’o was subsequently passed over as Academy favorite, Jennifer Lawrence took home the award for her performance in American Hustle. This lit a new spark in the on-going discussions surrounding race and the entertainment industry. I use it as an opening here to discuss Lupita’s break into the fashion world and what that means for women of color with dark skin.
Lupita has recently appeared on the covers of Dazed & Confused, W, and Vanity Fair magazines. Recently, Vanity Fair has been accused of lightening Nyong’o’s skin for the cover photo. Once again, showing us what a sensitive and poignant topic race is in the entertainment industry. Some believe that the lightening was due to bright lighting on set while others think that the lightening of her skin was a deliberate attempt to make her look like she has lighter skin.
Lupita has also scored a campaign with high fashion brand Miu Miu which was shocking. Founder, Miuccia Prada who is also creative director of Prada has some of the most consecutively white runways during fashion week and has hardly had any people of color in Miu Miu campaigns. The last were Chinese actresses Zhou Xun and Dong Jie in 2006. There has never been a Black woman featured in a Miu Miu campaign, let alone one with very dark skin.
It is worth noting that we see models with dark skin being used in editorials that are deemed alternative and artistic. Almost never do we see them creatively directed for wearable and relatable looks. This is because it is impossible for the demographic that is wealthy white women to see a woman with dark skin as relatable. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentioned once that as she flips through a magazine, she sees women of color who could be seen as bi-racial, but no one who us undeniably Black, with dark skin, that looks like her. The same goes for beauty advertisements.
This leaves dark skinned women and girls with a complex about their skin because white skin is normalized. A Black woman with dark skin cannot be chosen simply for her beauty and talent. She must also be so exceptional that she beats out all of her other very beautiful and deserving Black peers for the opportunity to land a high fashion campaign or a fashion glossy cover. Where as a white woman has many opportunities to be cast, a Black woman does not. If she is competing with Black women with lighter skin, her chances are even slimmer.
One of the blogs that I follow on tumblr, a black woman who blogs mostly about fashion, made a post stating that if she had seen a woman who looked like Lupita on the cover of Vogue when she was younger, she “wouldn’t have had as many hang ups about her looks” as she did growing up. As a dark skinned black woman myself, I have to agree. The lack of dark skinned girls my age that I saw in Teen Vogue and Limited Too catalogs (along with other colorism issues I faced as a child) played a huge part in my self esteem.
There are the amazing Essence and Ebony magazines who feature dark skinned women. However, they are lifestyle magazines created specifically for the African American market (because there was virtually no media that showcased Black people in a positive or creative light) that simply include fashion in the issues. They are not fashion publications. They are not about the art of fashion design and showcasing what is supposed to be the pinnacle of beauty. And while Essence and Ebony do not discriminate against dark-skinned women, the people featured on the cover are Black celebrities. Their celebrity is determined by the entertainment industry’s mere tolerance for Blackness.
It is past time for women with dark skin to be included in the magazine pages and web pages that reflect what the fashion industry considers to be beautiful. As a result, we have the gorgeous Lupita shining like the star that she is and also shining a light on the need for representation of women with dark skin not only on covers and in campaigns, but in the fashion industry in general. Hopefully the discussions had by the public at this time stay in the mind of casting directors and fashion industry leaders, respectively.