As a dark-skinned, size twelve, black woman, I’ve grown perplexed by the images of African American women in the media. On television and in magazines, black women are a size two with hair down their back and light skin resembling that of a white woman. Dark-skinned women are usually shown with some type of natural hair. Granted, black comes in many sizes, shapes, and colors, but there seems to be a one-dimensional spectrum, with two radical extremes at both ends.
Essence Magazine’s Best Dressed Women of 2008, consisted of twenty, stunning women, but not one of them looked like me. Everyone was either thin and of a lighter complexion, like Lauren London and Keri Hilson, or they were of larger stature, like Oprah and Queen Latifah. All these women are undeniably beautiful, but there has to be a middle ground.
The average female in the United States is a size fourteen and ironically, plus size apparel begins at a size fourteen. In a warped society of style, size, and appearance, I believe it’s only fair to throw in a more even perception of women of color. In my opinion, the media is not the only source of blame in this situation. The light-dark complex dates back to slavery. Lighter women worked in the house, cooking and cleaning, while slaves with darker skin tones worked on the farms and in the fields. Our ideas and perceptions within the community haven’t changed much since those times. Light skinned women are considered superior and more beautiful than dark skinned women. All my life I’ve heard comments and cliches like, “you’re pretty to be dark skinned,” and “so and so is black and ugly.” It often makes me wonder if people truly believe this way or if it’s just a subconscious bruise left from our past? This ideal has ravaged the identity of our community and is damaging the world’s view of African American women.
In 2007, Beyonce posed for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. In a tasteful spread, the superstar dons blonde highlights with an ultra-thin body and unusually light skin. While walking past the magazine stands, you had to do a double-take to recognize her. In October 2008, she was on the cover of Essence magazine with much darker locks, browner skin, and a slightly larger frame. After seeing the contrast, I began to question if lighter skin and smaller frame are more profitable in the media. Was Beyonce being a sellout? Not, necessarily, perhaps, she was tailoring her image, as do many celebrities, depending on their audience.
So, the story isn’t always light and dark. According to Forbes, two of the fifteen world’s top earning models are women of color, Selita Ebanks and Liya Kebede. However, these lovely ladies were at the bottom of the list. Are they less attractive than their Caucasian and European counterparts? No. Are they less marketable in the fashion industry? Yes. Liya Kebede, Este Lauder’s first black model, ranked in at number 15 while Selita Ebanks, a Victoria Secret Angel is ranked number 13. In the grand scheme of things, black is black, but I wonder if Kebede, a brown- skinned model, would have made more money if she was a tad lighter.
Both celebrity and every-day women battle skin tone and size, but black men seem to have it a little easier. Socially, light and dark skinned men have gone in and out of style, but the media seems to treat black men in Hollywood quite fairly when it comes to appearances. Leading men like Will Smith and Denzel Washington, constantly drop and pick-up a few pounds here and there for roles, but are never talked about in tabloids or celebrity gossip shows.
Although confidence is up to each individual person, we have to think about the images shown to our younger generations. It’s about equal and honest representation. Only showing a few images out of many, perpetuates the stereotypes that create self-hate. Our skin tone is beyond our control and is one of the few things that cannot be altered. What is most important is being happy and healthy. Black is beautiful, no matter the shade. There should be neither prize nor penalty for being light or dark.