Skin Language: Unpacking the Cover of Elle Magazine

After reading about the current controversy surrounding Elle Magazine, I am left thinking of skin, of the ways we culturally embed the flesh with racist stereotypes. Dominant culture has mythologized light skin as privileged, setting a dangerous precedent.

On the cover of this month’s Indian edition of Elle is Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. True, in our current beauty culture we have all grown accostomed to photoshop, to the reality that all printed images are artifice. However, Bachchan’s blatant skin bleaching is not only excessive, but it broaches issues of skin color and privilege that cannot be ignored.

It is as if in order for Bachchan to grace the cover of Elle, her skin must be lightened. The discourse Elle creates with this act is problematic to say the least. Posing on the coveted cover of the magazine (of any magazine for that matter), positions one with status. The cover is meant to grab, to entice, and perhaps most importantly, to sell an image of beauty.

This skin bleaching reveals that our beauty culture does not value the presence of women color; our culture does not view dark skin as alluring. Fashion magazines repeatedly exclude women of color, creating a visual silence which suggests that our dominant standards of beauty still remain stunted: Eurocentric preferences persist. If women of color are included, as with Bachchan’s case, they are edited, manipulated to reflect Western beauty norms (apparently this is not Elle’s first time lightening the skin of a woman of color: see the cover of Elle’s 2010 October issue with actress Gabourey Sidibe here).

We now know that race is a socio-culturally constructed discourse. With the arrival of the Human Genome Project, scientists have determined that we all share the same genes; we are all, despite differing mother-tongues and skin colors, of the same bodily stuff. However, our beauty culture’s firm attachment to light skin ignores this scientific fact.

Elle Magazine’s current, manipulated cover speaks to a desire to hold on to a racist myth, the belief that Eurocentric qualities are, and should be, esteemed above all others. We, as the public, can indeed contest these stereotypic and artificially constructed standards of beauty. Then why don’t we?

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5 Responses to Skin Language: Unpacking the Cover of Elle Magazine

  1. RK says:

    Ugh, yes. I was shocked at how easily available skin bleaching creams were when I visited Korea last time, and things like this don’t help at all. That’s why I sometimes cringe when I hear people say things like “I’m just not attracted to [an ethnic group] – it’s nothing against them!” Beauty and taste are constructed, not natural…and it’s important to keep questioning our culture that shapes our standards. Thanks for this post!

  2. Great post. Here in the UK there’s been a big debate about the word ‘nude’ or ‘flesh-toned’ in the fashion industry (whose flesh? oh yeah, white people), especially when “nude” was the colour of the moment …

  3. Thanks for the feedback. Yes, the use of language in this whole industry is most intentional. So is “nude” no longer prominent in the UK? Are things slowly changing?

  4. I have three words: Shame on Elle! Okay I have three more: incredible writing Shayda!

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