I don’t understand how anyone could look at Octavia Spencer and not see the absolute beauty that she is. Unfortunately, no matter how beautiful, talented or perceptive a Black woman is, she always gets the short end of the stick and this has everything do with racism. All women must negotiate sexism, but Black women have the added negativity of racism and this places us continually behind White women in our warped social hierarchy. Women’s activists would have us believe in a universal experience of womanhood, which forms the basis of our oppression but the truth is, even as White women are oppressed by patriarchy, racism means that they have privilege. The monolithic construction of womanhood is not only a lie but a direct negation of the experiences of women of colour.
As much as the fashion industry creates harmful body image in women, the singular act which they can be counted upon to do is uplift White womanhood. Looking at the newsstands, the one thing that these so-called women’s magazines all have in common are the overwhelming White faces staring back at us. Octavia Spencer recently made the cover of Elle and I was excited when I first saw the image. Spencer is a good role model and she is a wonderful example of just how beautiful Black womanhood can be. I should have cooled my excitement when I realised that it was Elle magazine because the publication does not have a good track record when it comes to women of colour: Elle India decided to lighten the image of Aishwarya Rai, a renowned actress and winner of the 1995 Miss World pageant, when she appeared on the December 2010 cover. Gabourey Sidibe received the exact same treatment when she was featured on the cover of Elle in October 2010. This causes me to wonder if a woman of colour could ever be light-skinned enough to please Elle?
Spencer is only featured in the subscriber edition, while the newsstand cover is Sarah Jessica Parker. To be fair to Elle, this is not the first time that they have done multiple covers. However, I cannot help but question the motivation behind having Sarah Jessica Parker on the newsstand copy rather than Octavia Spencer, given Elle’s history and the industry in which this occurred. Black women have long been deemed to be unworthy of Front Cover status; often, they are relegated to "special editions." The only women’s magazines which regularly feature women of colour are those specifically aimed at us, like Essence or Ebony.
What bothers me the most is the fact that women are told repeatedly how harmful these magazines are, yet it is rarely discussed how the erasure from this medium is harmful to Black girls and women. Do we define beauty as thin and White, in the vein of Sarah Jessica Parker? Is Octavia Spencer less than beautiful as a plus-sized Black woman? Is she less marketable? Less talented? Obviously not. But when a little girl of colour looks around and she does not see faces that look like her, she learns to believe that something is intrinsically wrong with her and that she is not valued. When it comes to the media, regardless of what format we discuss, women of colour are too often either pigeonholed into roles which are absolutely regressive or simply erased altogether.
Print magazines are suffering in our digital age, but the speed at which the specialty Black issues of Vogue sold, is absolute proof that there is a market for increased representation of women of colour. Jezebel reported that the Italian Vogue Special Edition increased newsstand distribution by 40 percent in the U.S., the day it was released. Even with the terrible recession, African-American spending power is projected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2015. However, instead of attempting to attract an untapped market, the vast majority of women's magazines continue to proceed with absolutely abysmal representation. Case in point, in the year 2011, Vogue featured Penélope Cruz and Rihanna. Harper’s Bizarre had Beyoncé and Alex Chung on the cover. Though Cosmopolitan had Nicki Manaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, considering that there are 12 months in a year, it means that even with increased representation, only 1/3 of the available space was allotted to women of colour. Clearly, the bottom line is not profit, but uplifting and supporting White supremacy.
I would like to pretend that relegating Octavia Spencer to the subscriber edition doesn’t matter but the truth is, it does and it hurts. Even if a woman of colour believes that she is not affected by the erasure and the negative portrayals, both will still impact the world around her. The lack of consistent, positive portrayals of women of colour in the media, translates into things like a lack of opportunities or outright racism in our daily lives. No matter how confidant or accomplished a woman of colour is, she must still thrive and subsist in a world determined to present barriers based on race and this means negotiating and interacting with those who have normalised the erasure and negative portrayals of Black womanhood as true.
Because racism is so normalised, it is easily internalised and it is only through conscious deconstruction that harmful ideas have any hope of being challenged. This is the insidious nature of erasure. Even as it tells women of colour that they are without value, the consistent and exclusive promotion of White femininity tells White women that they occupy and deserve a place of privilege. This is why the idea of a true sisterhood or a shared oppression simply does not hold water.
Not only do Black women deserve better, our daughters do as well. Even as I write this, some Black child is wondering what the paucity of representation means and what it says about her. A little White girl is growing up knowing that her gender will be a restriction, yet still (consciously or otherwise) aware that she may count on her Whiteness to at least present a form of advantage over Black women and girls. These magazines are racially divisive and they exist as such without the hallmarks of overt racism. It is only because we have determined that racism must be overt to count as stigmatizing that erasure continues to be unchallenged in our daily discourse surrounding race. One need not wear a White sheet in public or burn a cross on a front lawn to negatively impact the lives of people of colour or support the project of White supremacy.