Why the world still favours white models

Dolce & Gabbana fashion show during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear in February this year.

Dolce & Gabbana fashion show during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear in February this year. Photo: Venturelli

The fashion industry is not known for its racial inclusivity. In its entire 118-year existence, Vogue has featured just 14 people of colour on its cover. Likewise, the organisers of the 2008 edition of Brazil Fashion Week thought 28 black models out of a total of 1128 was a fair representation of racial diversity. For the record, blacks make up more than 50 per cent of that country's population.

Sure, there are some black models out there, but as the designers who informed black Victoria's Secret model Chanel Iman that they "have already found one black girl. We don't need you anymore", reveal, their presence is largely tokenistic.

No less disturbing is the fashion world's racial insensitivity. Even as it bluntly admits favouring white models because "black girls don't sell", fashion exhibits a remarkable fondness for painting white models in minstrel-style blackface makeup with alarming regularity.

Most recently, Vogue Netherlands showed off blonde model Querelle Jansen in blackface, complete with imitation Afro wig, in a feature that was supposedly intended to pay homage to black style icons Grace Jones and Josephine Baker.

This comes just two months after French magazine Numero thought that it would be a pretty good idea to photograph white teenage model Ondria Hardin, sporting deeply bronzed skin and "traditional" African clothing, in a spread tactfully titled "African Queen".

The industry maintains that it is merely giving their audience what it wants. Sadly, this is partly true. Since much fashion is aspirational, its success hinges on romanticising the idea of unattainable sophistication. And, as the fashion editor of Brazil's Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper notes, the industry clings to research that suggests "their clients still reject the combination of black [models] and luxury clothing".

To put it bluntly, non-white bodies are simply not something to aspire to.

Although often dismissed as silly and shallow, the fashion industry nonetheless acts as mirror and representation of Western society's attitudes to race. The under-representation of people of colour in fashion speaks to the implicitly accepted, but largely unacknowledged, position that whiteness is, as Salon's Kartina Richardson writes, the default position against which all other races and experiences are measured.

In other words, white people are people; everyone else is something "other". And since whiteness is associated with luxury, beauty, and aspiration more than all other races, then whiteness simply matters more.

The consequences of this "default" position is that other races are marginalised in a way that undermines their humanity. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in the mountains of essays written on the way fashion photography – on those occasions that it does actually employ people of colour – uses them as exotic background objects rather than actual human beings. 

As former model, and now sociology professor, Ashley Mears writes in her expose, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, when people of colour are included in fashion spreads and advertisements, they are overwhelmingly used in a manner which, while giving a superficial appearance of cultural and racial diversity, actually cements whiteness as the central human experience by almost always casting a white, Western woman as the main subject in the image.

The latest culprit, Sports Illustrated, shot its recent swimsuit edition in "exotic" locales on all seven continents, using the locals as little more than props.

In the desert of Namibia a white model poses with a native African man wearing loincloths and carrying spears, while in China a white model reclines on a water raft as a local "peasant" man acts as her chauffer. The locals are used not as subjects in their own right, but to place the Western model, the centrepiece of the image, in a particular location.

In Antarctica, where there are no native humans, Kate Upton pouts into the camera while penguins frolic in the background. Can you honestly imagine a scenario where white people would serve the same function as penguins?

Furthermore, such images only serve to cement a one-dimensional view of life in non-Western countries. As Salon points out, would you ever guess that "Namibia is not just one big desert?" and that both Africa and China are home to teeming mega-cities and generic shopping malls?

The ultimate consequence of this objectification of non-white bodies is the failure of the West to fully appreciate the complex humanity of people of colour. Their lives are imagined to be so different as to have little to no relevance to our own. It is for this reason that tragedies that befall Westerners have a deeper resonance – and far greater media coverage – than similar tragedies elsewhere.

Melbourne blogger Lia Incognita writes: "White people experience trauma, sins and tragedies, while everyone else's suffering is part of their natural condition." This is the difference between sympathy and empathy. I have previously written for this site that, while the West's relationship to the non-Western world is often largely sympathetic, it is also sadly lacking in empathy due to the West's difficulty in seeing itself reflected in the experiences of non-Westerners.

Consider, for example, the way in which the Asian tsunami has been referenced in the films The Impossible and Hereafter. Concerned that audiences would not relate to the locals, both films deliberately focus on white, Western tourists in order to make the story more appealing to Western viewers. So while the West felt enormous sympathy for the local tsunami victims when the tragedy struck, when it comes to actually picturing themselves in that situation, Western audiences seem to require the experience of other Westerners as their lens. 

Which brings us back to the fashion industry. As long as the West continues to accept the portrayal of people of colour as generic, interchangeable bodies (objects) with which to contrast modern, individual white models (subjects), then there can be no room for empathy; they will remain the "other".

Self-criticism is a fundamental and essential trait of any society that wishes to progress. The issue of race is a fraught one but one which the West must face head on and admit that we have not come as far as we may think from our colonial past; we only need to hold up the latest issue of virtually any fashion magazine as proof.

11 comments

  • do consumers really think that fashion looks better on whites than other races? I wonder how much impact this "white models preferred" notion would have on the sales and consumer desire for particular brand. I never really thought about who is wearing what when I am at a fashion parade or looking through magazine or online shopping. The important factors for me are the style and the fabric of each product and how they would fit and suit me rather than how they look on models that are wearing in the form of advertising. Are consumers really that shallow as the fashion industry think we are?

    Commenter
    ac
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    May 06, 2013, 12:52PM
    • We live in a very 'white-centric' society. Opponents can wax lyrical about how the modern day world belongs to white people, including the fact that we 'live' in a 'white society' (i.e Australia, etc) hence the only natural order of things would be a highly white based society where "whiteness" and the experience from such is normalised as default and everything else is secondary, or 'other'.
      Australia is probably one of the most, if not the most, white-washed country I have ever lived in, and the stark denial of its default whiteness is astounding. People take comfort in the fact that ethnicity is 'other', and comfort themselves in the thought that seeing a suburb peppered with colours living in physical existence with one another other than white people and consuming 'exotic' multicultural foods is a badge of that integration Australia has achieved - when anything beyond that comfort zone of 'ethnic people in ethnic restaurants or engaging in stereotypical ethnic activities' - you are more apt to see discomfort, ignorance and in some, bristling hostility.
      Whiteness has become the norm in which people in the Western world has come to measure themselves against others - hence the reason why for example, 4 people who die in the West is given immense coverage and sympathy than 100,000 women and children in a foreign, non-White land. Or a white woman murdered versus a non-white child murdered is stark in response from the public.

      Commenter
      Green Tea
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 1:38PM
      • lol. When I wrote "non Asians" above, I meant "Asians". Look at Asian and Indian models and actresses in their own countries and you'll see a very clear preference, generally, for those who are unusually pale compared to the average colour of their own countries.

        Commenter
        XX
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 2:54PM
      • xx, another mistaken perception viewed from an ethnocentric viewpoint (the mistaken logic of: Because we are x, and <insert culture> places a value on x, our x must be superior/<said culture> values our x.)
        Before modern Western civilisation existed, or they had knowledge of white people's existence, the Indians and the Chinese were highly hierarchical agricultural societies who placed value on fair skin, not the pink/red hue of a white person's skin which is generally disliked, I know, hard to believe.

        Reason was that the scholar/priest/nobles did not need to slave away under the sun, hence were noticeably fairer than their darker counterparts.
        Hence, fair skin became seen as an indication of status due to being of a higher stature or class. Women in particular, of the higher classes, did not need to work alongside their men, hence fairness was highly desired. It meant a family was rich and could afford their women a perceived life of luxury.

        When the Chinese first met white people, they were described as 'red barbarians' (being that anyone non-Chinese was a barbarian and not civilised back in their day) and seen as extremely ugly. Of course I would imagine the Europeans thinking the same of the Chinese when they first crossed paths, but my point being that their ideal of a fair skinned maiden was very much different from the Western 'white' look.

        Today, globalisation means that the 'ideal' look is becoming more and more mixed and generic.

        Commenter
        Green Tea
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 3:51PM
    • Maybe it's because colours such as those included in make up are more dramatic on a fair complexion.

      Commenter
      kev
      Location
      kangaroo ground
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 2:15PM
      • Paler people are favoured nearly everywhere. Look at India and China where many women avoid the sun and their huge industries producing and marketing skin lightening creams that are harmful to the skin. Then there is the rapidly growing plastic surgery industry where non Asians pay to look more European.

        Commenter
        XX
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 2:31PM
        • What about Asian models? they are prefered less than black models.

          Commenter
          BB
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 06, 2013, 2:32PM
          • BB, I suspect that black models are seen as 'cool' or keeping in with the trend of African Americans exposure in the highly dominant American pop and media culture in our globalised world.
            Australia, in her zeal with being one with the big boys, occasionally attempts the whole 'African American' chic but quite rarely - it doesn't make such a big impact.
            Its more predominant in America where the African American community are more outspoken and are a larger consumer market for goods and services, and race relations, although not in its most ideal form, mean that white-washed advertising will come under criticism. They do not want bad PR, so having the token "coloured" person will help strengthen an inclusive 'All-American' identity. This is highly generalised of course and there are many exceptions of great, ethical brands who do believe in a nationalistic colour blind approach.

            Commenter
            Green Tea
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            May 06, 2013, 3:59PM
        • How about Joan Smalls? She is Puerto Rican and is ranked 1st on the top 50 models of the world. I'm not trying to say that lighter/Caucasian aren't more popular but I think it's moving in a more positive direction than the past.

          Commenter
          Carla_bunga
          Date and time
          May 06, 2013, 3:41PM
          • I agree, they are slowly making strides. Yes, some view it as tokenistic gestures, we place novelty on the occasional exotic person that stands out in a sea of mediocrity and sameness so valued in the modelling world, but the most important thing is moving forward.
            To me, nothing could be more beautiful than a palette of beautiful shades and looks of different cultures, men and women. The character and stories behind a beautiful creamy mocha, an interesting tinge of amber tan or a deep earthy clay - is so much more worth looking at than a generic wash of any one single colour.
            Why diversity is not more widely accepted besides the occasional splash of colour is beyond me. I highly doubt its market value reasoning behind it, perhaps they want to milk the old formula dry before moving on to new pastures. Or could be just plain old bigotry at the top.

            Commenter
            Green Tea
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            May 06, 2013, 4:07PM

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