Model Minority: How Women’s Magazines Whitewash Different Ethnicities

by Guest Contributor Alex Alvarez, originally published at Guanabee

Associate Editor Alex Alvarez, befuddled to find that her boobs and hips, or lack thereof, seem to fall in and out fashion like leggings and stirrup pants and poppers, takes a look at the American women’s magazine industry in an attempt to decipher just how, exactly, they can get away with telling women their bodies are ok – if only they’d look more like white girls. (Take The Quiz On Page 62!)

My name is Alex Alvarez. And I hate women’s magazines.

Don’t get me wrong: I like fashion and I’ve worked at several magazines over the past couple of years. I can talk about Courrèges and Two Girls, One Cup in the same breath. But so many women’s magazines, both “fashion” mags like Glamour and Vogue and “sexy” mags like Cosmo and Horse & Hound do women so much more harm than good.

Women’s magazines have long been accused of creating a standard of beauty that will forever be just out of the grasp of most women – prompting them, of course, to wait until next month’s issue for more advice on how to be perfect. (Hint! Transplant your face with this other face.) Selling women this promise not only keeps magazines on newsstands and subscriptions in the mail, it also helps appease the real driving force behind all magazines — advertisers and Satan. And what women end up purchasing is cosmetic “whiteness.” You know you’ve made it, baby, when you wake up looking like you faceplanted on Plymouth Rock.

In this feature, I’ll take a look at women from four, over-simplified ethnic or racial backgrounds and see just how, exactly, magazines are fucking them all up. Then, after a few dozen sex quizzes and several minutes of trying to figure out how you can both “Love Your Body!” and orient yourself on the latest “Plastic Surgery Tips Every Woman Should Know!” without wanting to gag yourself on an exclamation point, I’ll give the magazine industry a few tips on how to talk to women.

Latina

Brief Overview: Latinas are portrayed as being sultry and seductive. They can get away with playing the “bad girl,” possibly because they are allowed – and even encouraged – to have more overtly sexual bodies, with an emphasis on curves, dark eyes and bright, plump, shiny, slick, wet lips shown in loving close-ups, usually while the face to which they’re attached is growling or purring or doing something else that’s totally fierce. They also give better head. Oh. There goes my attempt at subtlety.

The ideal: Jennifer Lopez

Hair: Often enough, Latinas have “big hair” with lots of volume, possibly as a middle ground among the various hair textures found among Latinas of different races.

Skin: Latinas are often depicted as having an olive complexion, with lighter or darker generally ignored or unmentioned by mainstream media.

Ass: Big, round. Makes a “ka-ching ka-ching” sound when bouncing in time to a song about cars and beach houses.

Breasts: While Latinas are generally depicted with large backsides, breast size is allowed to vary. As long as they’re big.

How magazines fucked up: “Latina” is not a race. It’s a diverse group made of many racial, ethnic and religious groups. Some who don’t even look like J-Lo. Additionally, women can’t have it both ways. While Latinas have been “en vogue” for a period of time, certain celebrated icons of “Latina beauty,” such as Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, have whittled down their once-celebrated curvy figures as the years have gone by. Wait until Jennifer loses all that baby weight. She’ll look so much better without Marc.

Black

Brief Overview: While black women can come in a variety of shapes and complexions, those who are most often represented in mainstream American magazines are often, for lack of a better, equally descriptive phrase, “white-washed” in appearance. Features that are seen of characterized of black people, like curlier hair textures, wider noses and fuller lips, are often downplayed in American magazines, conforming to a white standard of beauty.

The ideal: Halle Berry

Hair: There was quite a controversy surrounding a Glamour magazine article that portrayed “ethnic” hairstyles, such as afros and cornrows, as being inappropriate for the workplace. This works to politicize the black body, hair included, and also upholds the standard that in order to be neutral, apolitical and inoffensive in the public sphere, one must become as white as possible. As such, many black women in magazines have relaxed hair, extensions and weaves.

Skin: Lighter-skinned black women are more often represented in magazines than those who are darker complected.

Ass: While black women are “allowed” to be more overtly sexual than those who are white, many “high fashion” black models are quite thin and thus their backsides are smaller and the object of less focus than black women represented in other areas of mainstream entertainment. Like in any rap video that airs after midnight in between commercials for “Girls Gone Wild: Preschool Edition.”

Breasts: The more high fashion the magazine, the less busty the models. After all, even your eyeballs’ll look fat in a Hervé Léger bandaid dress.

How magazines fucked up: While Halle Berry is a stunningly attractive woman, she happens to have a white mother. And while Latinas are allowed to “fiery” and “seductive,” the magazine and fashion industry seem confused about how, exactly, to portray black women, choosing instead to whitewash them and choose only light-skinned women with whittled-down figures, or very dark “exotic beauties” that are treated more like sculptural objects than flesh and blood women.

Asian

Brief Overview: Asian women hold a curious place in the beauty stratum. Often, what is perceived as their “natural” physical traits are encouraged and often emulated by White women trying to achieve a certain standard of beauty. The idea of a natural physical ideal is a harmful one, because those who do not possess such traits are ignored or considered somehow inferior, physically. The Asian ideal, as perceived by American fashion magazines and elsewhere, revolves around the idea that one must be petite, slim, fair and delicate. Doll-like would be the best way to describe this ideal, both in terms of physical appearance and attitude.

The ideal: Ziyi Zhang

Hair: Straight. What was interesting to me, actually, was that a former Korean roommate of mine had all these magazines that featured girls with curly hair all dyed a sort of reddish color. Seriously, every. Single. Girl. In her magazines had the exact same hairstyle. She also had one magazine dedicated to Japanese girls who wanted to emulate the style of American Black women -this included wearing afros. Also interesting? Girls in Japanese and Korean magazines are generally much, much thinner than in American ones.

Skin: Clear, light. Although there are many, many ethnic groups prevalent throughout Asia, only porcelain-skinned girls find representation in American fashion mags.

Ass: N/A

Breasts: N/A

How magazines fucked up: Some Asian girls are chubby. Really! Some are muscular, some are tall, some are dark, some are doughy, and some are boney and awkward.

White

Brief Overview: The gold standard of white beauty is a woman who is thought of as being the least “ethnic” and most “neutral” as possible. Fair skin, fair hair and thin, often lacking in curves that would be considered vulgar or distasteful (or exotic?) the stereotype of corn-fed Midwestern girls or sun-kissed, muscular athletic girls are eschewed for fair, tall, boney girls – often with what is described as a “boyish” figure, one without the tell-tale markers of womanhood – hips, ass. Personality.

The ideal: Gwyneth Paltrow

Hair: Hairstyle changes with the season but barring avant-garde styling, styles are usually pretty tame, alternating from loose ringlets to super-straight, shiny, sleek hairstyles. Comes in a variety of haircolors, again, depending on the season.

Skin: Pale or tan, depending on the season and the style of the photoshoot. Like to mix colonialism and cultural oppression with your couture? Bring a healthy glow!

Ass: N/A

Breasts: Depends. In magazines focused on middle to upper-middle class women, breasts are often normal to large. In high-fashion magazines, however, fuller bustlines are used to indicate “plus-size” or “seductive” women like Eva Mendes, not necessarily elegant or stylish ones.

How magazines fucked up: There’s been a long tradition of a “fight for white,” meaning that various ethnic groups over the years have had to struggle for the chance to be seen as normal and neutral. Irish-Americans, for example, who are today almost synonymous with the concept of what it means to be white (fevered dancing without the use of hips or shoulders, the consumption of potatoes), were very much “the other” for a very, very long time in America. Jewish and Italian Americans were also not always considered white folks here in the old U.S. of A. This isn’t mentioned to encourage anyone to wait whiteness out, it’s meant to highlight the fact that whiteness is a culturally manufactured concept and is only given meaning by a certain segment of society in a certain slice of history.

Sigh. What can you do? Well, for one, you can stop reading fashion magazines.

No, ok, calm your ass down. (Ooh! See what I did there?) And remove your stiletto from my cornea. You can still celebrate fashion and enjoy girlyness without conforming to patriarchal and Anglo-centric standards of beauty. There are some magazines out there that will let you know you’re fine, and even beautiful, exactly as you are without telling you to lose five pounds in three days to fit into a bathing suit you can’t afford. Dig around. Put effort into being a consumer, and be discerning in your taste. Women make up the majority of the U.S. population; it’s not far-fetched to say we drive a lot of the economy. So why do we give up all our power to the beauty and fashion industries, only to be rewarded with the idea that we’re still not good enough? These standards and fads only have meaning if you elect to give it to them.

Latoya’s Note: In the comments to the original post, Alex addresses something that appears to be an omission in her piece:

I purposefully used these four, generalized groups because these are found most often in mainstream media / American fashion magazines. Your statement on not being able to find Middle Eastern or South Asian women in such magazines is exactly why I chose not to include these groups in my feature. It’s the same reason I didn’t include, say, Native American women or ethnic groups in China who didn’t fit the “pale, small” stereotype.

Additionally, I did not mean to include South Asian women under the “Asian” header at all, on purpose, because there is almost always a distinction in popular culture and language between “Asian” and “South Asian.”