The March issue of Vanity Fair drew headlines for the right reasons last month, when it featured prominent black actors on the cover of its annual Hollywood issue. For many, the cover signified a shift in attitudes about media representation, since the magazine, one of many in the Conde Nast empire, previously attracted negative attention for its exclusion of people of color. However, a two-page story in its latest issue shows that Vanity Fair is still stuck in the past.
On the surface, the publication (you can find it on pages 164 and 165) applauds female sexuality and self-empowerment, but a closer look reveals deeply-ingrained biases against women of color.
In an article comically entitled “Rear Admirable,” Vanity Fair showcases social media sensation Jen Selter, who skyrocketed to fame after posting photos of her butt on Instagram. The pictures used in the spread include a backside shot of Selter in a black corset, and another of the model in 1940s-inspired, fishnet lingerie. The accompanying text describes Selter as a “member of a rapidly rising subset of Instagram stars: young women unfraid to share their deeply bronzed, sculpted figures.”
The takeaway message is that showing off curves in a public way is not only a new phenomenon, but looking darker, “or bronzed,” is the new way to be beautiful. It’s a breath of fresh air to see curves and darker skin tones applauded by a world-renowned publication, but disappointing that Vanity Fair used a white Jewish woman to convey a newly-accepted norm.
We cannot and should not conclude that women of color have a monopoly on curves. Yet, Vanity Fair overlooked a number of women with naturally bronze skin and voluptuous bodies who were out there way before Selter. The article’s incorporation of hashtags — including “belfies” (butt selfies) — perpetuates the idea that curves are new, trendy, covetable accessories, thereby dismissing women of color whose curves existed long before it was fashionable to have them, and whose bodies have been critiqued throughout history.
And just as cultural trends are appropriated from people of color and capitalized on by mainstream media (eg. twerking), Vanity Fair’s use of Selter advances the narrative that non-white people, particularly women, are unprofitable. New ways of thinking only become valuable when fair skin is attached to them. It’s akin to Marie Claire dubbing Kendall Jenner’s “new braids” “epic,” overlooking millions of black women who have worn that hairstyle for years.
In response to XO Jane’s controversial piece written by a white woman, “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” Maya Rupert states, “The problem is that at some point you got the impression that you — in all your “skinny, white girlness — was the ideal. And that I would, if given the choice, choose to look like you.” In line with this argument, Vanity Fair is shifting away from the “skinny” image, but reaffirming the concept of the “white ideal.” In this case, curves were not en vogue when they belonged to racially and ethnically diverse people, but a Jewish American woman has made them so.
Thus, like many others, Vanity Fair puts the bodies of women of color in a precarious situation: they are either at odds with the standard of beauty or become that standard without being credited. And they are not allowed to be trendsetters or role models, whereas Jen Selter is inspirational and worth all of the “sponsorships, free gear, and most importantly, followers by the thousands” for showing her bodacious body.
It seems like Vanity Fair has a long way to go.