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Gabby’s Elle Cover: Light, But No Whitewash

As Hills simply put earlier, the recent American Elle issue with Gabourey Sidibe, while filled with good intentions, just doesn’t make the cut. Extremely poor hair/makeup choices withstanding, the standard “three quarters” rule for covers was ignored and replaced with a truly horrible crop job. Recently, Colorlines jumped into the fray with the headline “Gabourey Sidibe is a (Much Lighter” Elle Cover Girl,” charging that the magazine digitally “lightened” Sidibe, followed with the requisite pop-history about the fashion media industry’s history of favoring lighter-skinned Black talent, “lightning” female faces and darkening the male faces:

Except look closely, and you’ll notice there’s something off in Sidibe’s cover photo. Sidibe’s skin is noticeably lighter than usual. Elle clearly couldn’t handle Sidibe’s real skin color, and traded away her actual color for something dramatically lighter.
It’s a common, tired practice, and the routine is well-practiced: beauty companies and fashion magazines regularly lighten women’s skin (and darken the faces of black men), pissed off consumers shout back, and sometimes an apology is issued. But come the next fall collection or election season, photo retouchers are inevitably back to trying to make women of color more attractive by lightening them, and darkening the skin of men of color to make them seem more dangerous and suspect. Color, still, is everything.

It’s true, it happens and frankly it’s fucked up, but this time, I call bullshit. The lighting used on the cover is very typical lighting for any mainstream mag cover. Fresh and bright, with tonal blow-outs on the cheeks, chin and t-zone. It hides blemishes and makes the subject appear lively and younger, and it really works, for lighter-skinned or white women. I’ve worked on sets for years now in NYC & LA as an art & creative director/ image producer and even my chocolate skin shot in this manner reads much lighter without the correct color-balancing, both on set and in post aka retouching. She’s completely blown out and badly cropped and styled—but there is no whitewash here. Blame a complacent photographer, bad lighting and horrible direction.

I could see how anyone would question this image, it’s kinda awful, but to prematurely pull out a race card is not only irresponsible, it overlooks a larger issue: the lack of diversity on the fashion, beauty and editorial staffs of these major magazines. These cover images don’t make themselves, but with more Black, Latina, Asian and Multi-Ethnic women in the room, I doubt we would even be having this conversation. Again, Ebony (shown above) managed to feature a full-length shot of Gabourey with great lighting for a better and Harper’s didn’t leave Gabby looking like she’s being vacum-packed in green saran wrap. Let’s save the race card for when we really need it and focus on getting more diverse and intelligent women & creative talent on the set.

RIP at this weave, btw.

Last 5 posts by Shannon Washington

  • well said.

  • TJ

    Agreed. However, using this type of lighting to achieve a lighter gabby is not lazy — it was deliberate. It’s not irresponsible to pull the race card in this instance.