Cover Girl Controversy: Why Aren’t Women of Color On Newsstands?



Originally published in Feminspire:

Unless you spend your days and nights under a rock (or you’re not on Twitter), you’ve probably heard that The Huffington Post recently published an article that shared the results of a survey they conducted on the diversity of cover girls in mainstream women’s magazines.

Although the results were unsurprising – the covers overwhelmingly feature white women – social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter went abuzz. Many of the users I follow had the same question: Why can’t the magazine industry keep up with the nation’s racial shift?

Women of color make up more than 36 percent of our nation’s female population and about 18 percent of the entire U.S. populationYet, according to the article, minority women account for only 18 percent of cover girls on leading women’s magazines.

But how many of the women of color featured on these covers were whitewashed? How many appeared with lighter skin and straighter hair? And, among all of the cover girls, were there any who could be considered fat? Were they all able-bodied?

Now, obviously the survey, which looked at magazines from September 2012 to September 2013, didn’t examine these other elements. However, considering that the magazine industry’s goal is to make money – not to adequately represent the nation’s women – my question is, do pretty, thin, able-bodied, white women generate more profits than non-white women of different shapes and abilities?

British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman seems to think so. Shulman once said that, “Black cover girls don’t sell as well as white cover girls.

She’s not alone. Many industry leaders are under the assumption that Americans won’t buy magazines that don’t feature white women, a position that carries some support.

In 2002, for instance, The New York Times seemed shocked that Cosmopolitan magazine chose Halle Berry for the cover of its December issue, with media reporter David Carr writing, “in many broad-circulation magazines, the unspoken but routinely observed practice of not using nonwhite cover subjects – for fear they will depress newsstand sales – remains largely in effect.

Moreover, in 2010, not one of the top-selling cover girls were women of color – also unseen were bodies that differed from the thin, able-bodied norm.

The fact that 82 percent of cover girls are white, or that industry leaders continue to choose white models or celebrities because they bring in the big bucks, doesn’t mean that the industry can’t keep up with the nation’s racial shift. Instead, it further illustrates that even as the United States grows more diverse, the beauty standard remains shamefully narrow.

The growing body positivity movement has helped expand ideas of beauty, though not nearly as much as we’d like to think. Black women like Beyoncé and Gabourey Sidibe can’t go to a photo shoot and expect the same digital treatment as their white counterparts.

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Their skin is lightened, their hair is straightened and their bodies are slimmed to “help” them get closer to the dominant white ideal. And women with disabilities, whose bodies have been so desexualized, don’t make covers even if they are closer to the white ideal.

I’m not saying that the magazine industry escapes accountability. With images of tall, thin, white, able-bodied women flooding all areas of the media, including magazines, the white, Western beauty ideal is repackaged with a new, trendy outfit and sold to each generation. In other words, media perpetuate this ideal. It lies to women and girls (as well as men and boys), making them believe a standard of beauty that excludes a majority of women.

And seeing as the audience has already bought into the white ideal, they are likely to pay for glossies that feature cover girls who fit the standard. Those are the ones that make it to coffee tables, and those are the aspirational images that are cut and pasted onto the walls of teenage girls.

The magazine industry, which would rather make millions than produce images of everyday women, won’t diversify their covers if they don’t think their product will sell. This means that the onus lies on the consumers to stop buying the beauty lies they’re selling and stop buying the magazines.

I know, this is so much easier said than done.

But in the quick poll that accompanied The Huffington Post article, most readers said that because of the overall lack of diversity in these magazines, they will be more selective about what they read.

Consumers are willing to zip their purses once they recognize the issues. That’s why we have to keep performing these surveys, writing the articles, Tweeting the facts and talking about these harmful ideals.

If we want the magazine industry to reflect the nation’s racial shift, we have to stop believing that there’s only one standard of beauty. We have to unlearn all of the lies that we were taught about race, color, size and ability. And we have to use both our voices and our wallets to get the magazine industry’s attention.

What do you think about the results of the survey? Do you agree that tired, Western beauty ideals play a major role in the underrepresentation of women of color?

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