IN­TER­NA­TIONAL RE­PORT

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS SISONKE MSI­MANG

Vi­ral hoax Have you fallen for one?

‘lupita Ny­ong’o Is Kenya’s Jennifer Lawrence ’de­clared Wire.com; ‘What [ac­tress] Lupita Ny­ong’o Can Teach Us About Beauty’ an­a­lysed The Guardian; ‘Hear How Lupita Ny­ong’o Only Con­sid­ered Her­self Black When She Came To Amer­ica’ click baited Up­wor­thy.com; ‘Was Lupita Ny­ong’o’s Skin Light­ened In Van­ity Fair?’ ac­cused The Huff­in­g­ton Post. These are just some of the head­lines that chummed the web for clicks as the Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tress’s star con­tin­ued ris­ing this year.All ref­er­enc­ing her race but, more so, high­light­ing the is­sue of ‘colourism’. While all women feel the pres­sure to con­form to nor­ma­tive stan­dards of beauty (few of us – re­gard­less of our race – meet the stan­dards of the cat­walk and Hol­ly­wood), there is no deny­ing that the darker you are, the less likely you are to be viewed as beau­ti­ful both within main­stream me­dia and, more painfully, within your own com­mu­nity. Around the world, colourism is a stark re­al­ity.

From In­dia to Italy, to the Philip­pines to Venezuela, to our very own Mzansi, too many people iden­tify light­ness with beauty and suc­cess. While we of­ten talk about the pref­er­ence for light skin as a psy­cho­log­i­cal or emo­tional is­sue, it also ex­tends to real eco­nomic and so­cial con­se­quences: women who burn their skin with bleach, men who in­sist on only dat­ing light-skinned girls, mag­a­zines that change the colour of a black model’s skin, com­pa­nies that view a can­di­date of cer­tain com­plex­ion as more em­ploy­able than her darker equiv­a­lent. The pref­er­ence for lighter-skinned people and the per­pet­u­a­tion of colour-based hi­er­ar­chies is sig­nif­i­cant and well-doc­u­mented. You need only watch a few min­utes of the har­row­ing 2012 doc­u­men­tary Dark Girls to un­der­stand its im­pact. Colourism, though, isn’t racism. The two con­cepts are closely linked, but they have dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions. In The Per­sis­tent Prob­lem of Col­orism: Skin Tone, Sta­tus, and In­equal­ity, Mar­garet Hunter sug­gests that colourism, or skin-colour strat­i­fi­ca­tion, ‘priv­i­leges light-skinned people of colour over dark in ar­eas such as in­come, ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing and the mar­riage mar­ket’. Hunter ex­plains that colourism is per­pet­u­ated by me­dia im­ages and feeds into the ‘multi­bil­lion-dol­lar skin-bleach­ing and cos­metic-surgery in­dus­tries’. And the vic­tims of colourism can be any women of colour. Racism, on the other hand, is the be­lief that races, and not shades of com­plex­ion, can be ranked dif­fer­ently – some seen as su­pe­rior to oth­ers.

Given all of this, the me­dia’s ex­cite­ment about Ny­ong’o might seem to sig­nify a step for­ward. You can’t open a mag­a­zine or click on an en­ter­tain­ment site these days with­out see­ing a pro­file of the 12 Years a Slave movie star, skin gleam­ing, short hair per­fectly coiffed. Some might even have us be­lieve that dark-skinned women are (par­don the pun) the new black, that she has bro­ken down the doors and we can all come march­ing in, con­fi­dently. Sadly, we are not there yet. Google ‘Lupita Ny­ong’o’ and you will see the un­for­tu­nate con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Van­ity Fair’s al­leged light­en­ing of her skin. Whether pho­to­graphic light­ing and ex­po­sure set­tings ‘washed’ her out mak­ing her ap­pear lighter, or she was de­lib­er­ately pho­to­shopped af­ter the fact, the ef­fect was the same. Ny­ong’o looked more palat­able to the mag­a­zine’s pre­dom­i­nantly white read­er­ship. How­ever, there could be many rea­sons for her ap­pear­ing lighter in Van­ity Fair that have noth­ing to do with sin­is­ter in­ten­tions. Maybe it could just be put down to a lack of skill and in­ter­est – per­haps the pho­tog­ra­pher didn’t un­der­stand how to light dark skin or even to pho­to­shop blem­ishes from

it. Read­ers, now seems the right time to make sure all of you are aware that black women also get darker or lighter depend­ing on ex­po­sure to the sun. Our skin tone changes with the sea­son – enough to change our foun­da­tions by a few shades – and how a room is lit will af­fect how we look on cam­era, of­ten in dra­matic ways.The Dazed & Con­fused cover was equally con­tro­ver­sial, beg­ging the ques­tion of whether Ny­ong’o is as dark as she ap­peared and that, if she isn’t, was she be­ing fetishized to look even more ‘ex­otic’?

Ny­ong’o has not been the only black celebrity to be in­volved in a ‘colour’ scan­dal. Queen Bey, or Mrs Carter to you, has also been em­broiled in a num­ber of pho­to­shop­ping dra­mas, in­clud­ing al­le­ga­tions that her photo shoots for an in­ter­na­tional cos­met­ics com­pany in 2012 show­cased a white­washed ver­sion of her. Added to that, some even sug­gest that Bey­oncé ac­tu­ally en­cour­ages ‘photo bleach­ing’ of her im­ages. Be­tween the me­dia treat­ment of both women lies an un­com­fort­able truth: while white women’s skin colour is al­most never dis­cussed, for black women, com­plex­ion is al­ways noted and high­lighted. But per­haps women of colour shouldn’t com­plain? At least we’re land­ing cov­ers and get­ting some ed­i­to­rial, right? But in spite of the cur­rent Lupita love-fest, it be­comes hard to imag­ine that there could be space in a glossy for two women, or heck, let’s get wild, even three, as dark as the Yale School of Drama grad­u­ate that isn’t a cel­e­bra­tion of Africa’s ris­ing or a tribal-themed fash­ion shoot. The me­dia loves Jennifer Lawrence but I have never heard the pre­sen­ters at E! go­ing mad over her skin’s pre­cise shade of white, or gush­ing over the mag­nif­i­cence of Ju­lia Roberts’s pale pig­men­ta­tion. Or wav­ing away mod­els from cast­ings say­ing they have enough alabaster op­tions. In other words, the in­dus­try is ac­com­mo­dat­ing Ny­ong’o as they did ac­tress Vi­ola Davis (one dark woman in the spot­light at a time re­mem­ber), but it isn’t

While white women’s skin colour is al­most never dis­cussed, for black women, com­plex­ion is al­ways noted and high­lighted

chang­ing be­cause of her. Her im­age doesn’t dis­rupt ex­ist­ing no­tions of beauty: she has a pe­tite frame, a per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal face, great cheek­bones and straight, even teeth. She fits the Hol­ly­wood aes­thetic per­fectly, which means she’s easy on the main­stream eye: no full lips to deal with, no con­frontingly flat nose in the mid­dle of her face. Ny­ong’o is the new shade of chic, but she doesn’t change what chic is. Chic is still skinny and fine-fea­tured. And largely pale.

Ar­guably, the woman who has done the most to change ideas about black beauty has been a woman who – iron­i­cally – isn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the beauty or glam­our busi­ness.The US First Lady, Michelle Obama, who, at al­most 1,8 me­tres tall and with un­de­ni­ably African fea­tures, has be­come a global style icon, chang­ing how we see ev­ery­day beauty and body im­age. When Obama be­gan to ap­pear by her hus­band’s side in the early 2000s, she was called a ba­boon. No-one un­der­stood how the fu­ture US pres­i­dent – him­self such a light-skinned man – could be at­tracted to a dark-skinned part­ner. De­spite the fact that she went out of her way to play the ‘good wife’ ,Obama’s looks (com­bined with the Har­vard law de­gree) were threat­en­ing to a press that wasn’t used to pro­ject­ing im­ages of black women as icons of style, strength and beauty. The story ends well. Obama’s in­sis­tence on wear­ing ac­ces­si­ble clothes, her ath­letic frame and her work on child­hood obe­sity are what put her on the cover of Vogue US as only the fourth black woman to do so in the mag­a­zine’s his­tory. Her ‘un­con­ven­tional’ looks be­came a non-is­sue. Per­haps that’s the point in all of this colourism mad­ness. Per­haps the rest of the world will learn to look past Ny­ong’o’s short, nat­u­ral hair and dark skin and fo­cus on her ob­vi­ous talent. And on the savvy of all the dark- or light­skinned women of colour whose paths she paves into Hol­ly­wood.

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