On Counting “Black” Models

New York Fashion Week is upon us and as much as I look forward to planning my days and nights around pre-selected shows I intend to crash, ogling male models at after-parties, and picking outfits for both it is also the week when I lament most about the lack of “me”-representation on fashion runways and mag’s.

Back in 2007 there was a lot of hoop-la about the lack of black model representation within the fashion industry, but after some chastising coverage and a few brown saturated spreads later, it seemed the clamoring for change was a thing of the past. Three years later and the number of black models spotted in magazines has grown, but their chances to book solo spreads and editorial features still seem as slim as their waistlines.

According to Jezebel, only four out of 10 fashion magazines showcased black models in a coveted fashion editorial in the September issue. The rest, did however include some black models throughout their pages but almost always either accompanied by white models or clustered with other ambiguous looking beauties.

As Julianne Hing @ColorLines points out, this fall’s fashion mag tally wasn’t a complete wash; Halle Berry is on the cover of Vogue (albeit she isn’t a model she is the second black woman to snag a September issue in Vogue since Naomi Campbell being the first in 1989).

Counting models of color is a great start to holding magazines accountable for their racially skewed spreads, and it seems that things are, however glacially, getting better. That said, the standard of beauty that these black models still have to fit in order to compete with their white counterparts is just as important as the frequency in which they appear.

When it comes to black models there seems to be an unsaid rule pertaining to accepted “black” beauty and it almost always has to relate to their pigmentation: the lightest are afforded the most ethnically ambiguous features; middle-tones  must have more  slenderized facial features, while the darkest of skin models are often exotic-ized (animal prints and colorful set designs for shoots; sometimes the black models are themselves props for racially insensitive themes). But overall the black female models with most “elegant” features–Chanel Iman, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn, Liya Kebede–tend to excel to the top and have more chances of staying there because of their ability to fit not only into a size 2 but also the favored white aesthetic.

There also seem to be no limits to race-bending techniques offered to those models who are just one feature short of achieving the exemplar “beauty” archetype–“untamable” tresses are either given buzz cuts, straightened chemically or given weaves, and skin is often significantly lightened with make up or photoshopped.

Black female firsts in any industry where beauty was paramount, predominately included women of lighter complexions (Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Whitney Houston) simply because they represented part of a spectrum of “blackness” that was more readily accepted by white mainstream society at the time. But jump some decades later you would expect those accepted norms of black beauty to widen a little but unfortunately in film, music, fashion, entertainment overall the light skin ideal still prevails; I mean how many models besides Alek Wek stray from the typical then”dark-skinned” Naomi Sims archetype features set in 1968?

Of course there is really no such thing as distinctively black features thanks to centuries of colonization, slavery and of course  interracial (or multi-ethnic if you prefer) relating but as long as we allow “black beauty” to be continually shaped in a European cast, decades from now we’ll surely be able to count more black models in our magazines but how many will truly reflect the variety of beauty constructs in our society? More importantly do we even have black beauty constructs wholly independent of our white counterparts?

Check an excerpt from the documentary “The Colour of Beauty”, (if you already haven’t) released earlier this year about Renee Thompson, a model who fits the “white girl-dipped-in-chocolate”  cast but unfortunately still has trouble landing model jobs reserved in some cases for whites only.


Naima "Nai" Ramos-Chapman is the Associate Editor at Campus Progress, a dancer with Taurus Broadhurst Dance in D.C., and an aspiring visual artist (she doodles). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Naimaramchap.
  • Val

    Well as long as Black people continue to covet designer duds while being ignored in the ads of those same designers nothing is ever going to change.

    Money moves people, not simply doing the right thing. So when Black people, especially Black celebs, stop spending their money and fawning over haute couture and fighting to sit front row at shows then things might change.

  • brent

    I have only a peripheral contact with the fashion industry which is to say that I worked in film and photo production a while back and a lot of this work involved arranging castings for fashion magazines. In my experience, magazines defined their needs in an ultra specific way that excluded all sorts of women who would match even most conventional standards of beauty. Frankly, the women chosen as the most desirable for hire in that context were kind of freakish in the way that say, most NBA Players, are physically a highly unusual body type that are especially suited to a particular task. I bring that up because I wonder how much the standards of the fashion industry can really be used as a “stand-in” for a more general societal standard.

    You mention also some examples from film, which is certainly broader but also has a history of excluding many different types of women. I have the sense, however, that this may be a much more fertile ground to explore the standard, such at is. I agree that the “first in” have been “light skinned-ed” black women of a certain type but it has also included legitimately serious romantic leads as far away from that standard as Queen Latifah and Alfre Woodard and Gabrielle Union. It is not inconceivable to me that say, Viola Davis, could play a romantic lead in a popular movie.

    Obviously that is all still a fairly narrow spectrum but the point is that the popular perspective on beauty need not be anywhere near as limited as it would appear to be in a highly specialized profession like fashion modeling. These industries are different, probably in large part because of what Val suggests above, the economic incentive to broaden their perspectives.

  • Darth Paul

    “Of course there is really no such thing as distinctively black features thanks to centuries of colonization, slavery and of course interracial (or multi-ethnic if you prefer) relating”

    That reads rather narrowly. Did you mean Black American? African Diaspora? Africans have been in the mix long before the European inflicted slavery/colonialism holocaust. Compare the Khoi to the Habesha to the Akan- all distinctly “black” but very different.

    “More importantly do we even have black beauty constructs wholly independent of our white counterparts?”

    If you’re thinking Black Americans are monolithic in perception and thinking as far as esthetics go, absolutely not. All ethnic groups in the US seem to have sold out to the Cult of Youth. In a less rigid sense, though, I can see Black tastes being somewhat different than the Industry-dictated mainstream; namely in that more body types are accepted rather than one being preferred over others. Facial features are a little trickier, and I don’t know many black women who like hairy guys (though I know plenty of gay black men who do).