Erin Petersen

White Out

By - Jan 14th, 2011 04:00 am
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Take a look at the recent cover of Elle India , featuring Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

Photo courtesy of

Now take a look at what she really looks like.

Photo courtesy Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s website.

It would appear that Elle India significantly lightened her skin and hair for the cover photo. The question is: Why?

This is not the first time the magazine has gotten in trouble for “selective photo editing”. Photos of a L’Oreal ad featuring Beyonce surfaced in 2008, showing the ad as it appeared in Essence magazine juxtaposed against its Elle counterpart. The latter seemed to be much lighter, however it may have been due to varying pigmentation during printing. Additionally, L’Oreal denied lightening the singer’s skin for its advertisements.

Photo by L’Oreal Paris via

In September 2010, Precious star Gabourey Sidibe appeared on one of Elle’s 25th Anniversary covers, in which several up-and-coming actresses were featured. There was debate over whether Sidibe’s skin was lightened for the photo (decide for yourself here), a claim the magazine vehemently denied. Truth told, it could just be the lighting in the photo, and multiple images available online all seem to have a different tone.

However, it’s worth noting that Sidibe seems to be the only cover girl in Elle’s history who’s cropped so close so as to avoid actually seeing her body. But that’s a different rant altogether.

As of yet, Elle India has not released a statement to counter the claim, but Bachchan is reportedly “furious” over the cover. In any case, the image — and the prejudices it represents — run counter to the magazine’s motto : “Elle pledges to make women chic and smart, guide their self-expression and encourage their personal power”

But by essentially showing Aiswarya Rai Bachchan as white, the cover not only represents a centuries-long class struggle based on skin tone, but in a way, insinuates that she also supports the myth that lighter is better.

Overseas, cosmetic markets in India and southeast Asia are flooded with fair-skinned models — targeted at both men and women. In India, creams that lighten, brighten and bleach the skin rake in more than $400 million per year — a number sure to increase with the population. The belief is that those with lighter skin are happier, more attractive and in general more successful than their darker counterparts. Several Bollywood icons have lent their respective visages to the products, giving further credibility to the notion that whiter skin puts one in a higher social caste.

And the market is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2008, Unilever launched series of ads for its “White Beauty” cream, featuring two Indian men with different skin tones fighting over a woman. In the end, she chooses the lighter of the two. In July 2010, Vaseline introduced a new lightening lotion into Asian markets, and even created a Facebook app for the product, allowing men to digitally “transform” their faces to gain a preview of the whiter, brighter them.

The side effects of bleaching creams. Still from an episode of Jessica Simpson’s “The Price of Beauty”

In the States, skin-lightening creams, hair relaxers,  and negative portrayals of dark-skinned people in entertainment media abound. Take a trip down the ethnic cosmetics aisle at your local Walgreens at you’ll still find lightening creams.

All over the world, men and women with dark skin subject themselves to a battery of toxic salves and potions in order to be more ‘desirable’. Many lightening creams contain a laundry list of harsh chemicals — the worst of which being Mercury– while some consumers opt for at-home concoctions, often using bleach to get the desired effect.

The preference for fair-skinned women throughout history can be linked to just about every culture, and the color of one’s skin has consistently been used as a means of subjugation. Skin color was used to determine the worth of American slaves, and distinctions based on color were the norm long after, with  Caucasian features — light skin, straight hair — to some extent still considered ideal in the African-American community.

A full conversation of these age-old prejudices and how they manifest themselves in contemporary culture requires more space, time and exploration that this forum permits. And deeply-held myths about beauty and success are not easily changed.

But magazines like Elle need to know that acquiescing to discriminatory beauty standards only perpetuates a sentiment that is antithetical to the magazine’s mission. Next time you’re in the magazine aisle, take stock of the covers you see. Magazines that supposedly promote female empowerment and expression do little to promote diversity with the models they choose to be the monthly face of their publications. With few exceptions, women’s magazines are devoid of body/ethnic/racial diversity, and are altered in Photoshop beyond recognition.

Women’s magazines are not the only ones to blame: When companies like L’Oreal, Nivea, Garnier and Vaseline cash in on the race for whiter complexions, they promote a biased social hierarchy and give value to harmful and exclusionary definitions of beauty. But that’s business, and promoting unhealthy ideals is good for the bottom line.

We can’t rely on Revlon to lead us out of the woods, so we’ll have to lead ourselves — first by not falling prey to self-destructive thinking, and by refusing to buy products that make a profit from discrimination. Plain and simple.

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