If we look at the sea of White faces on magazine stands worldwide, we realize that the struggle for Black women to be accepted as equals in the world of fashion and beauty continues. The gains that generations of women have made become almost symbolic, and not at all concrete, when we still must talk about such issues.
Every time a Black editor, writer, or stylist is hired by a magazine, no matter if it is a Black-centered or a mainstream magazine, it feels as though we might be on the right track. We think we’re gaining momentum, but the sad truth is that is not the case. Are Black women getting hired in the ever-so-competitive world of magazine publishing? And by hired, we also mean getting a magazine cover. It would seem that no, they are not. And because there are so many things that rightly concern us so much more, we have not been making as big a deal out of this fact as we probably should. Indeed, no other group of women are being told what to do, think, or say (and when), as much as Black women. With the “whitewashing” of magazine covers, we are effectively being told to back down, shut up, and put up with whatever it is the ”powers that be” dish out. Even Black women sometimes seem to give up and continue to buy magazines that for decades have not honored them.
By continuously putting the crossover cover stars (you know who they are) on major glossies, we are being told that the girls who do not visibly have White ancestry are not good enough. That beauty is being White or light-skinned. Even light-skinned is not enough. When was the last time you saw an Asian woman, let alone a Black one, on the cover of a major magazine? Is Rihanna seriously the only Black girl out there Or Beyoncé? These are the two women that South African magazines—who do not overtly cater to the Black women market—peddle to their readers, year in and year out. Like a tired dishcloth wrung too many times. In fact, when I was an intern at one of the most well-known magazines here (with an international name), I once suffered a mild shock to my entire system. The editor at the time stated that “This is a White magazine.” So that was the reason their hiring policy has always been non-inclusive, and the few Black faces were there for “color interests,” “Black economic empowerment,” or, more accurately, window-dressing. If they had a full complement of staff, that they respected and took seriously, we would not need to call it that. And we would not still be angry over their cover choices.
The magazine cover that infuriated me most this year was Elle South Africa’s cover with Alek Wek. I should have been joyful, right? She’s a dark, African girl on the cover of the world’s style bible, albeit with a South African touch. But I was not. One of the cover-lines was, in my opinion, an absurd placement next to an internationally renowned cover star. A Black writer, one of the few that has written for this magazine in recent years, dared ask the question: “Do Black covers sell?” Rising up from my spluttering indignation, I tripped over the elephant in the room. I looked straight at what was then only a teaser on a media website, and asked Alek’s image out loud: “How could they do this to you?” I was angry and mystified. She is a fabulous African woman, and more representative of where we are than anyone they have put on their cover for a long time, yet they dare to ask this question.
I understand that it’s a question White editors around the world have asked themselves; but to see such an ignorant, flippantly arrogant and insensitive question in a land where most of who you see are Black faces? But there they were, acting as if South Africa were somehow “Little Europe in Africa” and completely missing the point that some of the best-selling women’s magazines in the entire country are Black women’s magazines with Black women on the cover. These magazines sell to their target demographic rapidly because they respect their readers. Anyone can look at circulation figures for a given magazine and see this—as it is not kept secret.
The publishing industry’s business models need a total overhaul—a revamp. I am not, obviously, a big business owner, and nor do I pretend to know everything that there is to know about publishing. Yet the insights I have gained tell me this: Black women are still being highly disrespected in this country. South African publishers are taking us for a ride when they think they can stock their magazines in our neighbourhoods and not feature, or cater to, us at all. Sure they’ll throw in the one or two Black faces, but that’s it. They might do a Black cover every now and then, but at their book and management meetings they will say, “See, the numbers are low, these covers don’t sell.” They then decided to rehash a Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz cover. I do not recall either of these women ever having stepped on South African soil. Meanwhile, most circulation figures have been going down and magazines are in a precarious position.
At a time when magazines are folding left and right, and these publishers are still clinging to their old business models (and White and cappuccino-colored cover models), you would think that they might have learned a thing or two. It’s a tricky business. And, yes, you only remain on top by giving people what they want. Yet ignoring a substantial number of women, and not tapping into their energies, and, at the bottom line—their financial power—is just plain stupid. It shows the level of racism and lack of respect that White publishers have long held for Black women. Looking through some online responses to the Alek Wek issue, I found some comments that mirrored my own thoughts. One commentator wrote “I’m much more shocked to see that tagline on an African magazine than I would be on an American or European one.”
I refused to buy that magazine, even though I adore Alek and look at her 1997 Elle magazine cover as a collector’s item. That was a turning point for me. Up until that time it was rare to see any black faces on covers unless they were Essence, Ebony or Jet. I thought things would change, but thirteen years later nothing has changed except the clothes Alek is wearing on another Elle cover.
As a Black woman standing on African soil, I felt insulted by the article. I felt that it was yet another method by which White magazine publishers try to circumvent the truth, which is that Black covers have been selling extremely well in various markets, especially this one. I, however, was not going to be coerced into picking up that magazine because it had the psychological effect of a slap on the face with a wet rag.
We have put up long enough with the racism that says “White will sell” and “White is beautiful” even in a majority Black country like South Africa. I wondered what was going on in other African settings, so I asked a few of my friends to do some checking.
In Tanzania, Sandra reported, “There are hardly any White faces staring at you from the covers of our local glossies here in TZ. However, about a good 99 percent of the cover models are very light in complexion. Even the models used for the ads seem to be lighter skinned, which is apparently preferred. And, of course, the longer horse tails you have, the better.”
Francis in Zambia found that most magazines on the rack in his hometown were foreign magazines that featured mainly White people. An avid Arise magazine reader, he said, “The newsagents put out what sells here. I believe it’s mainly because of the misconception that Black models and Black women in general are less versatile then their white counterparts. However if you look at Tyra, Naomi, Alek, and Iman, they all come from different countries, their looks are all different, and they are all physically dissimilar. They’re diverse.”
Dineo, a South African who lives in the most urban part of the country, which includes Johannesburg and Tshwane, says the situation is dire. “When it comes to faces of color, they are always on Drum, Bona, Soul, and Real . . . those kinds of magazines. It’s very rare otherwise. Beyoncé and Rihanna can only be shown so much. What is also frustrating is that even when they appear on the likes of Cosmo or other glossies, where is the representation inside?”
Gugu from Soweto confirmed what has become very clear. In the Black townships, the magazines at what are known as spaza shops are those with White covers.
Dineo, who lives in the high-income neighbourhood of Waterkloof Ridge, in Tshwane, says it’s the same. These are costly magazines with international names, yet they find space on many newsstands, even the predominantly Black areas. That’s the cheek of it—especially considering how White editors simply do not wish to cater to the Black population, yet they will gladly take their money. It is true that some Black women simply do not care. They can afford the magazine, so why not buy it is what I’ve heard some say in discussions focusing on the non-inclusive nature of some magazines.
While it’s true that Cosmopolitan consistently puts more Black faces on their cover than any other international magazine, the representation only goes so far. Black covers can only do so much if magazines are not hiring Black writers, stylists and editors. There is only one Black editor that I know of, on any of the major international glossies. The editor of O, The Oprah Magazine South Africa, is Black. (In South Africa she is seen as colored or mixed-race). In industry circles, using a colored model, who they often term “cappuccino,” is the most accepted rule of thumb to circumventing actually hiring a dark Black South African model. In fact, it is hard for me to even come up with a Black South African model’s name. Many of the girls they use on shoots are Brazilian, American, British, or Nigerian. But even those Black girls do not make the covers of Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Women’s Health, FHM, Sports Illustrated, among other prints. All the international glossies that compete with home-grown South African talent (like Destiny and True Love) for a place in Black women’s hearts and minds, rarely honor Black women by giving them covers, or positions with the publication.
At my local grocery store in Cape Town, I scanned the newsstands. Everyone and their grannies frequent this store—all colors, all faiths. Out of 27 glossy magazines in the English language, four had Black people on the cover. One was Good Housekeeping with Michelle Obama. Another, with Nelson Mandela as cover star on Destiny—the second offering from Khanyi Dhlomo’s publishing group, which is one of the few Black-owned publishers in the country. It is significant that Destiny is the only magazine that I have seen that speaks to all kinds of women. Dhlomo has put people of almost every color group in the country on the cover, and within the magazine’s pages.
If the opportunities for young Black women are closed even before they’ve begun, this is indeed dire. For how long can we keep telling our sisters and daughters that, yes, they matter, and, yes, they are just as beautiful and vital as everyone else in the world, when we’re not fighting hard enough for them to have a place in the sun? At the end of the day, a cover on its own simply does not matter. What matters is the implied racism behind constantly being ignored—as if you do not exist. Yes, there are a myriad number of issues that affect us globally as Black women. But carving us out of substantial parts of the economy and the media—via rendering us invisible to the world at large—is making the statement that we do not matter. Those who do not matter inevitably get left behind. Yet here we are, and perhaps our best bet lies only with ourselves.