I am on Tumblr. Let’s just get that out of the way. Admittedly, it’s not the best use of my time. But it provides a near-constant source of entertainment that the other two or five forms of social media I use just don’t quite hit.
During one of my lengthier Tumblr sessions last month, photos of Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o wearing stunning dresses on red carpets were reblogged (Tumblr term) with such a fervour that my dashboard (another Tumblr term, I’m not ashamed) became a mini Nyong’o appreciation site. Not surprising as she had appeared in the award-winning film, 12 Years A Slave, for which she had been nominated a Golden Globe Award and two Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Then the inevitable happened: the fashion industry got their perfectly-manicured mitts on her.
Dazed & Confused has Nyong’o on the front cover of their February magazine editorial with her skin tones embarrassingly darkened for a high-contrast concept between her and eye-wateringly bright colours. For a Miu Miu photoshoot, the outfit for Nyong’o incorporates cowrie shells attached to her top for a fashion spread. According to Miu Miu, the “…poses, full of personality, convey [the actresses’] diverse points of view, effortlessly translating the new spirit of the Miu Miu woman.” Are you kidding me, Miu Miu? Across the waters, Italian Vogue has her in tribal prints in a move that genuinely made me para-quote The Devil Wears Prada – “Tribal prints? For a black person? Groundbreaking.”
Frustratingly (and I mean pushing-a-massive-rectangular-concrete-block-uphill levels of frustration), this is not a recent thing. In the 1990s, Iman and Tyra Banks were the industry’s attempt at quashing rumours of being prejudiced. However, it quickly became apparent that these beautiful women had significantly European features and lighter skin, as if the industry were pacifying the masses in its transition from soft foods to solids.
Conversely, in the earlier stages of her career in the mid-90s, South Sudanese British model Alek Wek’s skin tone was heavily darkened. She was also regularly adorned with tribal paraphernalia for catwalks and photo-shoots in an almost unnatural persistence in making non-white models seem more exotic.
Fast-forward to today and it is grotesquely insulting that one could play Dulux Colour Chart Bingo with the amount of shades of brown that Beyoncé has been. That’s right, even the already light-skinned Beyoncé is not safe from the sheer amount of ‘colour adjustment’ to make her more palpable and more appealing to all audiences across the world.
In my daydreaming downtime, I like to imagine getting all the leading fashion designers and editorial fashion magazine teams into a large conference room. Standing on a podium, I’d say “Look, guys. Seriously, I get it. I. Get. It. There is going to be backlash if you use one or two ‘ethnic’ models, an even split or a total wash across the board. There is no winning. If you’re going to edit with wanton abandon for more bulbous boobs, more toned torsos and less bootylicious behinds, why even bother with realistic skin tones anymore? You’re not fooling anyone.”