FASHION PUBLICATIONS AND CRINGEWORTHY ATTEMPTS AT INCLUSIONFebruary 26, 2021
I still remember when I came across this cover. I was at the drugstore and it stopped me dead in my tracks, “An Indian model on the cover of a Canadian fashion magazine?” Something I had never witnessed before. Then I noticed the headline. The excitement dissipated and my heart sank, followed by my mind starting to race, “Was this printed in the 1950s? How was this approved? Is this really where we’re at?” (Basically my reaction to most things.)
“Beauty’s New Face. Uniformity Is Out and Diversity Is In!” It seemed like a fair statement and cause for celebration, but the more I considered it, the more furious I became. Is being brown not “uniform”? (See my “We Need to Change The Meaning of Mainstream” post to understand this question more). Slapping this slogan onto an image of an Indian model, with no context, came across as a vile act of tokenism. A declaration that being brown wasn’t cool before, “But guess what? It is now!” I wanted to bang my head against a wall.
To finally see an Indian model on a cover and have it be paired with this headline was a slap in the face. Like there’s some unspoken, conditional agreement between BIPOC (who normally get excluded) and publications that goes something like this: “We’re happy to add you, but on one condition: it has to be sensational or paired with mentioning diversity, race or something specific to not being white, because why else would we feature you?” That’s how I took it. (Badly.)
The editorial inside featured a variety of models with different distinguishing features, or what I like to call “one-of-each representation”. A standard approach when fashion magazines make attempts at being more inclusive. There was one Black, one Indian and one Chinese model who all talked about enduring racism and discrimination with relation to the fashion industry. The other five models (all white) talked about how their freckles, height or tattoos created challenges when modelling (if I remember correctly, but topics along those lines). The main purpose of the editorial was to show the classic “all styles, all body types, all skin tones” type narrative, which is often used to justify tossing in the lived and traumatic experiences of BIPOC with a “diversity is cool now” sentiment. It’s off-putting, offensive and insensitive, to say the least, and continues to be the default when constructing fashion editorials and articles today. The usual formula is to carefully position racial hardships and trauma as being on par with white challenges with self-esteem and acceptance in order to seamlessly be more “inclusive” without causing too much of a stir in regular content. It dilutes the depth of the storytelling of BIPOC and essentially diminishes the platform they’re supposedly being given.
The majority of fashion magazines are run and assembled by predominantly white teams, which means when an idea comes up to celebrate diversity, to them, it seems revolutionary and not like something that is long overdue. With this belief, it’s often not considered if what they’re presenting is acceptable and authentic from a BIPOC perspective, and that’s usually where they go wrong. The white gaze almost always views BIPOC topics or inclusion as “new”, which results in rarely ever featuring people of color as their full, complex and embodied selves and in an appropriate and respectful context. BIPOC almost always have to remain one-dimensional, easy to understand and are placed next to someone or something familiar (white people, culture and experiences) in order to be granted access. Without empowering BIPOC creatives and leaders, attempts to make beauty and fashion more inclusive often misses the mark, resulting in tokenism, exploiting (QT)BIPOC for their painful experiences and their in-the-moment, trend worthy status, while lumping them in under a frivolous topic to make their experiences more streamlined and digestible. In addition, there is typically one-of-each shade or ethnicity for featured people of color alongside an infinite number of white or light-skinned faces, making it clear that their presence is a novelty and not the norm.
Alternatively, BIPOC are rarely afforded the privilege of being featured for fun and for simply being themselves, with the exception of supermodels and celebrities…but, even then, they’re not always immune. There are often stereotypes attached to justify their portrayal (like being strong, a survivor or an activist), while headlines for white people are lighthearted and usually along the lines of, “What I Ate For Lunch”, “Check Out My Million Dollar Beach House”, and “Look At How Cool My Makeup Is.”
Overall, what is needed are more discerning eyes and minds working in the industry (aka. it’s time to hire more Black and Indigenous leaders) and less patting each other on the back for “disrupting the industry” while perpetuating the same issues that have existed in beauty and fashion all along.
This can seem like a harsh review of a well-meaning story, but I think everything I mentioned can be summed up with two questions:
1. Would the same headline be used with a white model on the cover?
2. If a BIPOC model got to choose the headline, would they self-tokenize and refer to their features as being “in”?
This is the type of reflection and awareness we need in fashion…before it gets published.
It’s important to note that I mean no disrespect to the models and creatives who put this editorial together, especially the cover model for her huge accomplishment of being the first Punjabi model on the cover of a Canadian fashion magazine. I know how exciting it is to be granted the opportunity to have published work and to try to do something different. If anything, this editorial serves as an example of the position we’re currently in - an increasing visibility of BIPOC and more opportunities are arising, which is cause for celebration, but critically taking note of the lens BIPOC are being presented through is still necessary. Moving forward while shifting power and putting it in the hands of more BIPOC leaders is dependent on our ability to see through illusions of change.
Ironically, Glow was in print for 15 years and this was their last issue.
Cliches about individuality and being “different” are the current go-to when featuring BIPOC, sometimes in less obvious ways, but the sentiment is still there. In the moment, this might feel like a win, because the scales are being balanced as far as an increase in faces of color gracing covers, but the tradition of “othering” and attaching novelty and over-simplification to BIPOC identity continues. If fashion publications had the foresight to consider, “Would this be acceptable ten years from now?”, these headlines wouldn’t exist.
I included some more covers below to observe and questions to consider:
1. Is a BIPOC face on a cover a step towards true inclusivity if the headline “others” them by using cliches about diversity, inclusion and being “different”?
2. Are BIPOC being portrayed in media with the same ability to be multidimensional as white people?
3. Did a white person write the article? How does this affect the perspective and tone?
4. How many Black and Indigenous people are on the full creative team?
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