Kim Kardashian being naked shouldn’t still be news, especially since the reality star literally just disrobed for the May issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Yet, her latest W cover is a conversation piece, most notably the inside photo where Kardashian, dipped in platinum, touts her assets.
As Kardashian’s platinum-dipped visage suggests, we’ve definitely witnessed a mainstream beauty shift in this country in the last decade or so. When Jennifer Lopez’s butt was the rave just a little over a decade ago, magazines weren’t necessarily all out embracing it. Lopez did plenty of magazine covers for certain but it’s hard to imagine any mainstream magazine insisting on running an all-out butt shot of Lopez back then. So the standard of beauty in the United States does indeed appear to be changing.
Halle Berry just did Vogue’s highly coveted September issue. Gabourey Sidibe was one of the cover models for Elle’s 25th anniversary issue. Meanwhile, Rihanna landed a slew of covers this year, including GQ, W, Elle and Seventeen. But, in addition to more and more women of color gracing magazine covers, it’s interesting to note that many of the white female cover girls are also bringing something different. Angelina Jolie has noticeably full lips. Scarlett Johansson has curves and so does Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks. So many of the attributes long identified with black women are now in demand by the mainstream.
Visit a make-up aisle today and the many ethnic faces are hard to miss. No doubt impressed by the estimated $3 billion-plus generated in the US multi-cultural beauty market from 2005 to 2009, not to mention the constant reminder of the rising percentages of nonwhite people in the U.S., all aspects of the beauty industry are becoming noticeably more willing to embrace a standard of beauty that it consistently dogged not too many years ago. No longer is a vintage thin and blond Christina Brinkley or Cheryl Tiegs the ultimate standard of beauty.
It’s not all rosy though. Most of the well-paid and celebrated models are still predominantly white and dangerously thin. It’s as if the beauty industry is engaged in inner turmoil, conflicted by the standard of beauty that it must erect to be profitable and the standard of beauty it has always embraced. The Harriette Cole-penned “Fashion Blackout” article in the August/September issue of Uptown magazine makes it clear that there is not nearly as much dynamic progress within the industry, especially regarding working black models, as there should be.
When it comes to mainstream representations of black beauty and those of other women of color, celebrity appears to trump prejudice. Thus, Beyoncé and even Jennifer Hudson have more clout because of their pop culture appeal. It’s not a stretch to venture that there is a slim to none chance that a model resembling Kim Kardashian could score such a coup with W. For the most part, curvy models are still a minority.
Change is very slow but these are positive steps, even if it’s nothing new to black women and Latina publications especially, who have a long history of promoting full lips, healthy backsides and curvier bodies. However, danger does lurk in the potential co-opting of these aesthetics. Are curves only attractive on a Kim Kardashian for the mainstream audience? Do they only find full lips desirable if they belong to Angelina Jolie? In other words, do these common black female features only attract mainstream attention when non-black women possess them?
It certainly does appear so. Most beauty ads still adhere to the traditional standard of beauty. Although their faces do demonstrate their ancestry beyond mere skin coloring, rising models like Chanel Iman, Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn fit the industry’s longstanding lean standard. In this industry, there is a clear distinction between what’s acceptable for the average woman and what’s acceptable for a beautiful woman. Thus far, the beautiful woman is still not black, although some like Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede have slipped through the cracks.
Because the everyday woman is deemed as the target audience, the industry has generally been alright with ignoring the proven success of the Real Dove and My Black Is Beautiful campaigns. Models are who everyday women wish they could be, not who they are. Most white women can’t even fit the standard of beauty set by the industry. That is why airbrushing is so prevalent.
So how do we get the industry to change its impossible criteria, especially when most women of any race cannot meet them? So far, the industry appears to be slightly bendable. Symbolically, W embracing Kim Kardashian’s backside is a great thing. But, again the question is: how do we get the industry to stop making that the exception and adopt it as the rule?