NEW YORK, NEW YORK--Vogue’s March cover, like Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, is an indication of the progress we still have to make towards a just and equal society. A navy blue bumper sticker with white lettering clarifying that Trump’s election is “#NOTNORMAL” and that we should, as a thinking people, come to “RESIST” has been popular in my neighborhood. Having been familiar with these resistant bumper stickers since late November and early December, I found myself wanting to affix one to the front cover of this month’s issue of Vogue, a book-sized issue born from a rain-dotted plastic cover at the foot of our driveway.
The cover features seven models, Liu Wen, Ashley Graham, Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Imaan Hammam, Adwoa Aboah, and Vittoria Ceretti. What Vogue has self-heralded as a triumph of diversity seems to be lost on the American public, who has pointed out that though it is true that some diversity is present, with Liu Wen’s being the first Asian model to grace the cover, or Ashley Graham being the first plus-sized model to accomplish the same feat, it is also true that the diversity presented is one exceptionally limited in terms of skin color, facial structure and size.
One question the cover raises is the kind of diversity at which its image was aimed; if its aim was racial diversity, its failure is pretty glaring. While it is true that Liu Wen is a Chinese model, Imaan Hammam an Egyptian and Moroccan model, Adwoa Aboah of half Ghanian descent, and Gigi Hadid half Palestinian, it is also true that more than half of the cover’s models have at least half a white heritage. Ashley Graham, Kendall Jenner and Vittoria Ceretti all claim full white heritages, being of English and German, Dutch, Scottish and Irish, and Italian descent, respectively. Hadid and Aboah are both half Caucasian, being part Dutch and English, respectively, leaving the Chinese Wen and Middleastern Hammam as the only fully non-white models represented. The models’ predominantly Caucasian heritage accounts for the group’s bearing a close resemblance both to one another and to the fair-skinned cornerstone of Western beauty, a fact many on Twitter have pointed out. “Vogue is “democratizing fashion” by not including a single woman darker than a paper bag in an “inclusive” spread,” wrote Evette Dion.
CBC Montreal News described Vogue’s presentation of only light-skinned, if somewhat ethnically diverse models as in line with a kind of discrimination called “shadeism” defined by “one underlying rule: the whiter your features, the better you are.” The Toronto-based filmmaker responsible for a new documentary, Shadeism: Digging Deeper, Nayani Thiyagarajah described the prejudice depicted in her film as “the insidious cousin of racism.” “It’s definitely rooted in the idea that whiter is more powerful,” she explained, citing our world’s history of colonialism and slavery as reason for this discriminatory perception.
While the criticism of Vogue’s featuring only light-skinned models may seem random, the truth is that the “paper bag” Dion mentions in her Tweet is not a singular metaphor, but instead a physically archaic but still socially relevant form of racial discrimination. The discrimination traces its routes to the famous New Orleans Cotton Club, a music club in which professors such as Duke Ellington performed and where all-white customers not only came to listen to music, but also, according to the New York Daily News, “to see the Copper-Colored Gals, the club’s troupe of lovely light-skinned dancers,” a troupe whose criterion included that one’s skin was “lighter than a brown paper bag.” “Coined the "paper bag test," this criterion,” the Daily News explains, “was used for decades to determine the degree of privilege granted to individual African-Americans all over the United States.”
Displaying only those light-skinned, or “white-looking” members of minority groups is not only a glorification of white conformity, but is also a displayed ignorance of those very real segregations which exist within these minority communities themselves. Vogue misses that race isn’t just about black or white, or brown or white, or anything or white, for that matter. Vogue misses that featuring a very light, part-Nigerian English model doesn’t capture the essence of all black people, everywhere. Erica Williams Simon wrote in Ebony Magazine, “Many of the concerns that [the black community has] about racism and its corrosive effects on society are just as much, if not more so about discrimination based on the literal color of one’s skin.”
Another conformity evident on Vogue’s March cover is that of facial structure. The Western ideal of a thin mouth and nose is one which has been perpetuated by the American media for decades, and this issue of Vogue is no exception. While most are quick to argue that we left the Aryan-feature-worshipping in the dark ages of first Herbert Spenser’s Social Darwinism and second Adolf Hitler’s adoption of and application of Spenserian theories in the pseudo-science of eugenics, it is undeniable to deny the influence of such theories in a modern world where black women purchase hair relaxants and in which nose jobs for graduating Jewish high schoolers are a rite of passage. The popularity of Spenserian appearance-alterations is supported by Circus Bazaar, which reports that “more skin whitening creams are sold in India than Coca Cola,” that “in Seoul, South Korea, a staggering one in five women go under the knife to alter their ethnic features.”
Vogue’s cover reflects the lack of media diversity noted in the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report, which reported, despite that minorities comprise more than 50% of the United States population, a significant underepresentation of minorities in movies and on T.V. This lack of diversity sparked the outrage over the 2015 Oscar Awards, an event whose homogeneity was identified by the collective hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The message of this now two-years-eclipsed movement seems lost on the American public, who in 2016 were enraged over Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 performance, a routine of her song “Formation” apparently a nod to civil rights champion Malcom X, and again confused over her chrome-dominated performance at the 2017 Grammy’s.
While it shouldn’t matter that the media has a bias towards or against one group or another, the fact is that it does matter. A 2006 report by Magazine Publishes of America found that 78% of teens read magazines, giving publishers the rare and powerful ability to influence the minds of today’s youths. The scope of this influence must not be overlooked. Most parents would balk at the idea of telling their children that their features are too large or their skin too dark, but the media, through its unparalleled proximity to teenagers, effectively translates these same messages; when a teen is surrounded by images such as those presented by Vogue, airbrushed and unrealistic, displaying statures and facial features and skin tones galaxies away from those they face in the mirror, they may come to take this manufactured and false representation of their world as fact, and resent those differences they understand as dividing themselves from such looks. “Much of what we know about the world around us,” explained UCLA Professor Dr. Darnell Hunt, “comes from media.”
The immense power of the media over perception presents a danger to society. “When you have a society that’s becoming more and more diverse,” Hunt explains, “but an industry that is lagging, you have a distorted idea of what’s going on in the world. . . . A very narrow depiction of what is normal.” Nyugen similarly emphasizes this point, stating that “People imitate what they see in the media . . . . Inner conflict and identity crises then, are a natural result of being exposes to media that is woefully out of touch with reality.” Williams Simon comments on this point in her aforementioned Ebony article, stating that she is “often asked random questions” about race, such as “Doesn’t Lupita finally make you feel beautiful?” to which she replies: She’s gorgeous but what?” failing to find the logic between her self-perception and the perception of the midnight-skinned actress. Despite what she understands to be a gap in such logic, she argues that the media does, in fact, influence a person’s self-image. Nyong’o herself made a similar point in her 2014 speech at the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, where she spoke to the power of, and therefore the danger inherent to the media. First touching upon her own influence on black girls and then continuing to delve into her own experience with role-models as a dark-skinned teen, Nyong’o spoke frankly of such danger:
“I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: "Dear Lupita," it reads, "I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.” . . . And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother's every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. . . . Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. . . . People were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. . . . A flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny.”
Vogue’s choice to depict a cookie-cutter form of beauty is as disingenuous as it is dangerous. Like magazine spreads which espouse streetwear’s egalitarian spirit in sweatshirts and tennis shoes and then feature cashmere hoodies for hundreds or colleges which strategically fill their affirmative action quotas with wealthy foreigners instead of low-income American students for whom the system—created with the intent of righting “the wrongs of historical structural racism and discriminatory practices”—was intended, Vogue’s cover claims to embrace a multifaceted reflection of society’s women, and yet, rather than actually embracing this heterogenous image by showcasing models with strong ethnic characteristics or varying facial structures or physical statures, display models who ethnically fit the bill, bearing part other-than-white lineages, but adhere to one very white ideal.
Speaking to my mom about what I understand as Vogue’s abuse of intent, my mother reflected on a past favorite law school lecture. Vogue, she explained, was obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit, or “obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the “letter”) of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law.” Alongside the legal definition, she produced her own. “It’s doing a job as shoddily as you can get away with it,” she said, “Cheating. Like doing the dishes but cramming all the cutting boards together so they don’t get clean.”
While skin tone and facial structure are subjective enough to allow for the abuse of intent Vogue accomplishes, the argument of Vogue’s representation of diversity in body type on its cover is less than so debatable. Given the database of celebrity stats available at websites such as Models.com, the mean height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) of the cover’s models can easily be calculated and contrasted with those of the average American woman. In locating and computing the mean height, weight and BMI of the models as compared to the mean of those real-life figures the magazine purports they represent, I understood, maybe for the first time, what my grandfather meant in saying he admired the stark quality of math and science. The facts are facts. Unlike the shade of a certain model’s skin, or the question of Nyong’o or Alek’s beauty, the numbers, free from arbitrary meddling or personal interpretation, are unalterable in their reality and clear in their meaning. Below follow the seven models’ statistical measurements, including height, weight, and body mass index (BMI):
Calculations on the available data report that the mean height of the seven models is 5′ 9.1″, the mean weight—with use of a mean of Wen, Jenner, Hadid and Hammam’s weights in place of Aboah, and Ceretti’s weights, which are unlisted, given their apparently similar body types—131.6 lbs, and the mean BMI 19.4, a normal, though a mere 0.9 points above underweight index, with underweight being defined as a less-than-healthy state. The height, weight, and BMI for the average American woman, as recorded by the Centers for Disease Control, as well as the discrepancy between the mean stats of the models and this national average are as follows:
Average May 2017 Cover Model: Height 5′ 9.1″, Weight 131.6, BMI 19.4 (normal)
Average American Woman: Height 5′ 4″, Weight 166.2 lbs, BMI 28.5 (overweight)
The difference numerically evident between the models on Vogue’s May diversity cover and the American women we see on hometown streets and grocery stories, in our homes, attending class or vising libraries, is one much felt by the American public, many of whom have voiced their frustrations through social media. Twitter users speculated a Photoshop-induced lengthening of Hadid’s arm to obscure Graham’s stomach, Graham’s own placement of her hand on her thigh to hide her leg’s width, as well as Graham—unlike the size 2 and 0 models surrounding her, who wear colorful printed shorts—being outfitted intentionally in black shorts, a hue notorious for its slimming effects, as tactics employed by the magazine to eclipse Graham, the model with the most relatable figure of the seven. “Wow, they really made her put her arm down,” wrote @divaTy, “God forbid we see an actual leg-sized leg on the cover of Vogue.” Madison Brodsky voiced similar sentiments, writing, “Woah woah . . . This #VogueCover . . . photoshop gone wrong (Gigi's hand), trying to make Ashely look thinner (only one with hand down) & more.”
To say people are irate over the cover is to say the last. That the cover, supposedly created to celebrate differences, depicts seven models conforming to certain cosmetic norms—light skin, thin lips, thin noses and all, with the exception of the arguably-obscured Graham, waif-like statures—at best falls very short of the mark. The old cliché that the cover-up is worse than the crime rings brass for Vogue this month; if its homogenous front image is a misdemeanor, its propaganda-imitative PR scheme of an accompanying article is no less than felony.
“In a climate of immigration bans and building walls,” proclaims the first line of the cover’s accompanying article, penned by Vogue correspondent Maya Singer, “the biggest names in 2017 make the case that there isn’t just one type of American girl—nor has there ever been.” Singer continues to make the case for Vogue’s self-diagnosed diversity: “Has there ever been an era in which some beauty ideal hasn’t loomed large? . . . The rules change, but there are always rules. What would happen if society threw the rule book away? What is beauty when no standard measure applies? The cover of this magazine answers that question. . . . Each of these cover girls proudly inhabits her own particular gorgeousness in her own particular way. Together they represent a seismic social shift: The new beauty norm is no norm. And fashion, the industry that—yes—has historically done much to enforce beauty codes, is joining the movement. ¡Viva la revolución! All are welcome. Anything goes.”
Singer peppers her argument with quotes from some of fashion’s leading names, comments whose relevance to the particular shoot remains hazed. “That fashion conformity,” contributes Michael Kors, “where all the girls are the same size and they’ve all got the same hairdo, it looks old-fashioned to me now. What feels fresh and modern is a sense of surprise, like when you’re in the city, watching all kinds of people go by on the street.” That he dislikes when models have “all got the same hairdo” and are “the same size,” given the reality of the cover—a span of models with identical facial structures, near-identical skin tones, a conformity emphasized with identical black Prada turtlenecks—you almost feel sorry for him.
The article reads like reflections of an alternate reality, like records from a logbook to a planet where up is down and right is left and where tigers fly on wings. “Now women inhabiting a borderless, decentralized world are liberated to be themselves,” writes Singer. “What links these brands is their hunger for reality . . . a cottage industry catering to the demand for idiosyncratic faces has emerged . . . Whereas the nineties girls exuded a forbidding glamour, bewitching from behind the velvet rope, the stars of this generation seem more like pals waving you past the bouncer and into the club.”
As though these statements weren’t absurd enough, Singer proceeds to complete her article with the statement that the “coltish, sloe-eyed, sun-kissed, and blonde” Gigi Hadid—who in 2016 walked in not one but numerous of fashion’s biggest house shows, is worth an estimated $13 million, and brags a familial relation to Daher Al Omer, Prince of Nazareth and the Sheikh of Galilee—as being “Cool, aspirational, relatable.” “That’s Gigi Hadid,” she states, speaking to what is this obvious relatability, “in a nutshell.” Her comment, so out of touch with reality, would be comical if it wasn’t so alarming.
The campaign is a clear kaleidoscope of flaws. A journalist could focus on the subject for a year and fail to be at a loss for content. Five minutes of an honors English junior’s attention would return the following dissection:
The appeasing alliteration in the phrase “fashion’s fearless females” is glaring. That the movement speaks of itself as “the beauty revolution” is laughable—need its creators be reminded of the violent, generally equalizing nature of such fights? (see Storming of the Bastille, or see American Revolution; do not see Max Mara’s spring line.) The cliché of “women rule” reveals an evident insecurity of motive. The irony in the statement “No norm is the new norm” against the uniform-like sequestering achieved by the individuality-sequestering and obsidian black Prada turtlenecks is striking. The 1950’s invocative shorts and hairstyles reveal what seems to be a subliminal connection to a time of female and minority discrimination.
The collective absurdity of Vogue’s diversity campaign, however, may actually prove its singular scrap of worth. This weekend a friend and I discussed, over the small bourbon colored circle of a table at Starbucks, the same theory strategists have been pushing since Trump’s inauguration: that this election’s violent swing right must, by physics’ rules, be met following his time in office, with an equal and opposite swing back left. Maybe, like this political pendulum my friend proposed, Vogue’s concrete and tangible disregard of society’s want for diversity in its media will generate an equal and opposite regard for concrete and tangible progress in the near future.
Often my Dad talks about facing difficulty by stating that the approach to eating an elephant is in breaking it to pieces, a sentiment mirrored in a concept taught as part of the AP European History curriculum last year, in which the tenets of classic conservatism were described as administering restorations to a house in place of tearing it down for construction anew. It is true that change can come gradually. As Lucretius once said, “Constant dripping hollows out a stone.” But it is also true that sometimes change—English manor houses, eroded rock and portable elephant metaphors aside—needs to come now.
That we have a new version of the “paper bag test,” the #A4WaistChallenge, in which men and women are holding pieces of white A4 printer paper to their torso as a meter of skinniness, espouses as much. That Williams Simon, in her explanation of colorism for Ebony, points out that men need to stop telling woman that “the whole issue can be solved [with] a good neutral lipstick,” points to the same conclusion. These and hundreds of other such commonplace prejudices are proof for immediate and, if not violent, jarring change. Those who have spoken out in response to the warped and harmful depiction of normalcy Vogue perpetuates in its March cover have highlighted what has long been proclaimed: society’s images must be rebranded.
Vogue, if half as progressive as it so claims, is undoubtedly familiar with incendiary thought. Vogue, if half as progressive as it so claims, understands what Mao Tse-tung meant in explaining that “A revolution is not . . . doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” In other words, it is anger and not motion in centimeters, as Vogue is moving in, which has the power to derive change. In order to be lifted by rather than buried under the present swelling of sentiment, Vogue must accept its own rally cry, “¡Viva la revolución!,” or live the revolution.
Perhaps the Beatles, in their off-beat English manner, have the best advice for the publication powerhouse: “You say you want a revolution / Well, you know . . . You tell me it's the institution / Well, you know / You'd better free your mind instead . . . You say you want a revolution.”
Vogue, you say you want a revolution? The time’s come for you to climb out from behind your silkscreen of perception and start one.