Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Whitewashing women’s magazines: racism or just bad Photoshop?

Or a little bit of both?

Something you may not know: as part of my last job, I was responsible for sourcing and lightly photoshopping images for publication. This could mean different things, depending on the image in question - cropping for size, creating composites of different celebrities, adding a question mark or an arrow to an image, and so on.

Regardless of the other work involved, every image would undergo two procedures before it was uploaded to the website: it would be sharpened for clarity, and we’d play around with the ‘curves’, making the image brighter or, yes, lighter.

On images of white people, this has the effect of creating that glowy, luminescent look you see in so many glamour or advertising shots of celebrities. It’s part of the reason they look prettier than the rest of us. On images of non-white people, as in the case of Gabourey Sidibe above, it has the unfortunate effect of making them look whiter.

In my case, I had enough social/political/media studies knowledge to keep this in mind when employing my rudimentary Photoshop skills on images people of colour. But the experience does make me look at these controversies, when they inevitably arise, a little differently to some of my feminist/media blogger counterparts.

I emailed professional retoucher Abbie Muntz of FauxPink for her view on the Sidibe cover. Below is an edited version of her reply:

One retouchers’ trick is to increase the most highlighted parts of a models skin to make it seem more dewy. It’s the same seen here with Naomi. Glowy highlights blown out.

The lighting of the ‘before’ shot in the blog post you sent me has a completely different style of lighting [to the lighting used on the Elle cover]. Classic beauty lighting often involves a silver lined umbrella and card and this technique is not necessarily the way to shoot dark skin.

Still, the Jezebel blog post used a very extreme example in the other direction. Here is [an unretouched shot] of Sidibe on the red carpet with different lighting again…

The fact is that skin reacts to all different types of lighting in all different ways.
It all starts with how the photographer shoots the subject. In this case, the image should have been darkened all over. Looking at the colour of Sidibe’s hair on the cover shot, it’s really really light.

In other words, it isn’t that white magazine editors hate black people, it’s that they erroneously employ photography and retouching strategies that work best on white people. It’s not unlike the issues Jezebel identified the week before with how Sidibe’s hair had been styled - seemingly by someone inexperienced in styling African American hair.

None of the this, of course, is to excuse the image. Racism that stems from the blind assumption that what works for white people will work for all people is still racism, even if its roots lie in ignorance rather than prejudice or disgust. And one of the first things I learnt as a student editor was that what people make of what you have to say is as important as what you intend to communicate: the systematic whitening of black models’ and celebrities’ skin has been discussed enough that it’s something any magazine editor, art director or retoucher should be aware of when designing a cover.

I don’t think covers like these stem from a perception that black skin is ugly - although they probably do stem from an assumption that white models, and white magazine buyers, are the unmarked default - but by this point, editors must be aware of what the consequences of their choices are likely to be.

What do you think?


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