I’m not a fan of glossy magazines. I often buy one when I’m mentally exhausted and I’m looking for something frivolous to peruse and perhaps bitch over— “why does their skin look like plastic?” or I’m trying to build up a stock of magazines I will need for a classroom activity. Recently I purchased a copy of True Love Magazine. It seems I’m only ever drawn to buying this magazine when Lira is the front cover girl.
While trying to make a choice of which magazine would be the object of my scorn, I had a Biko moment. This is the moment when the racism alert button goes off in my brain and I have to question myself: are you imagining the problem in this situation? While scanning the magazines on display (lets say more than 10 women’s magazines) only three magazines had black women as their cover girl: O mag, Destiny and True love magazine.
I recognise that the magazine industry is fraught with complexities about the representation of women and in particular, black women. When a black woman is lucky enough to be featured on the cover of a glossy magazine I am often struck by how “yellow” she looks (unless she’s Alek Wek). This conversation in my head relates to what Alice Walker refers to as colorism: the stigma of skin complexion. Amongst black women, there is a desired shade of blackness that allows one to be seen as beautiful. The skin lightening industry is still booming thanks to many black women who have been duped into the idea that beauty is about having lighter skin; to be as white as possible. As a child, I remember watching my own mother obsessing with creams that would alter (and ruin) her skin. My mother is also the person who will comment on my skin colour whenever she hasn’t seen me for a long time (often comparing me to my sisters who are considered yellow). The lighter one’s skin (and the longer one’s weave or braids) the closer they are to reaching the norms about beauty which require (amongst many things) that a women be light-skinned with wavy hair.
The challenge with being a consumer of glossy magazines is that I am constantly confronted with images of beauty which do not represent what I look like. The representation of black women in the media is controlled and requires black women to resemble whiteness as much as possible. Gone are the days of DRUM magazine which portrayed black women who were darker, shorter hair, wider hips and had not undergone the snipping and editing of photoshop. The “Drum decade” allowed Black women on the darker side of the continuum of blackness to be seen as the norm in the black community. Granted, this was also a time when declarations such as “black is beautiful” or “I’m black and I’m proud” meant something.
In our rush to be post-racism, the dominant media’s representation of black women (and perhaps broadly black people) is in a precarious position. For many years black women were invisible in glossy magazines. Hair products and make up tips were targeted at white people because the models were all white. Criticism of glossy magazines often considers how sexism is promoted because of the prototype that is displayed every month in each magazine, but racism needs to be considered too. When BonangMatheba was on the cover of South Afria’s FHM cover, she was applauded for finally being the first sister to “take one for the team”. The truth is, Bonang suits the mould that FHM works within: thin, long hair and yellow skin. To celeberate Bonang’s victory of climbing the white slopes of beauty, her accomplishment was referred to as “the rise of Bonang.” Really?
This led me to consider what Oprah Winfrey has done with her magazine. It’s easy to criticise her for being so vain that she would have her face on every single issue of her magazine, but she’s making a political statement and destabilising the dominant discourse of glossy magazine industry beauty. With a lack of positive representations of black women in the media we will be accosted by Oprah’s face on the cover of O mag as a reminder of the limitations we have about beauty and what kind of representation black women have in popular culture. She is a reminder of what it means to be a successful black woman as well as what it means not to be seen as a black person.
Magazines create illusions about who we are as women and mostly what women should look like. I haven’t discussed the “Beyonce question” and what she’s done for the representation of black women, nor what it means for America to have a First Lady who scores high on colorism’s scale of blackness. In South Africa we have many black women in the public eye and the truth is, many emulate the trends of African-American women: the weave and the yellow skin being the ideal. We forget about Toni Morrison’s book The bluest eye, a story about Pecola and her unfortunate blackness in a sea of other black girls who victimized her for her blackness. This book highlights the complexity of beauty and colorism which is taken for granted in pop culture when forming representation of black women.
I’m still going to buy glossy magazines, but with misgivings. The slogan, “Black is beautiful” is not any easier to say now than it was in the 1950s. The lack of positive representations of black women in popular culture doesn’t mean black women are not beautiful, but we still have a long way to go in convincing the world, and particularly black women too, that black is beautiful.
 Inspired by Steve Bantu Biko’s writing about Black Consciousness, I write what I like.