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“Elle” makes a mockery of Gabourey Sidibe’s cover girl moment

What do you call a top fashion magazine that features a plus-sized African American actress on its cover? Progressive? Revolutionary?

If you’ve read recent Internet reports of Gabourey Sidibe’s October Elle cover, you might call it “racist,” “offensive,” or, as Salon puts it, “a weird fetishization that borders on patronizing.”

Allow me to explain. In honor of Elle’s 25th anniversary, the magazine is featuring a photo portfolio on “a new generation of smart, talented, game-changing artists, filmmakers, actresses, and activists.” Four of these lucky ladies landed a coveted spot on Elle’s special series of covers: Amanda Seyfried (Caucasian, thin), Lauren Conrad (Caucasian, thin), Megan Fox (Caucasian, thin), and Gabby (none of the above).

While the inclusion of a dark-skinned, big-bodied actress sounds like one giant leap for womankind, Gabby’s cover portrait frankly makes it hard to tell that she’s either one of those things. Illuminated from every angle and cropped just below her chest, she’s almost unrecognizable.

By the time I received my issue in the mail (hey, it’s considered About-Face “research”), I had already heard the hubbub surrounding Gabby’s Elle controversy. But my expectations for fashion magazines are never very high to begin with (though Glamour has been full of nice, body-positive surprises lately), so I wasn’t entirely shocked by the ultra-altered picture. I was more appalled by Elle’s lame excuses for the photo fiasco.

“It sort of boils down to this,” editor-in-chief Robbie Myers told E! News. “At a photo shoot, in a studio, that is a fashion shoot, that’s glamorous, the lighting is different.” Hmmm, “different” enough to virtually transform a person’s skin color?

We absolutely did not lighten her skin,” Robbie continued. “Retouching is when we take a piece of hair and move it out of her eye, so you can’t compare a picture on a press line from what you do in a studio, where your job is to make them look beautiful.”

Oh, okay, I think I get it. Making someone look beautiful involves heavy-duty picture manipulation through careful lighting, calculated angles, and endless fun with Photoshop.

Whether Gabby’s skin was lightened digitally, or simply illuminated by “glamorous” lighting seems irrelevant. The question remains: why wasn’t the color of her face beautiful enough as it is?

And while we’re on the subject of  her face, let’s ask that question too: Why was Gabby’s the only close-up cover shot? Why did Megan, Amanda, and Lauren get to flaunt their designer-swathed lithe bodies while Gabby’s presumably pricey frock was cut from the chest-down?

“What I loved about Gabby was that she walked in and was so jovial and ebullient and so happy and charming and she engaged the entire crew and everybody,” Elle‘s creative director, Joe Zee said. “She was 180 degrees not the character of Precious.”

Did anyone think she was, Joe? Are your readers typically vapid enough to equate actors with the characters they portray? Why then, wasn’t Megan Fox showcased in a smiley headshot, to assuage any fears that she is, in fact the demon-possessed, boy-eating serial killer she played in Jennifer’s Body?

Anyone that’s seen 2 seconds of a Gabby interview, or caught a minute of her hilarious “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig knows she’s not the tortured character she played onscreen. But Joe couldn’t take any chances. “She’s not Precious at all, and that’s what people should know,” he continued. “That’s what we captured in the picture and for any flak to come out of that is ludicrous, because at the end of the day it’s about her personality.”

FYI Joe and Robbie: it would have been just as easy to display Gabby’s decidedly un-Precious personality in a full-body shot, rocking her own lovely skin color. What’s the point of proving how inclusive your magazine is by blatantly controlling the content of your supposedly equal-opportunity covers?


— Michelle Konstantinovsky is a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and an avid admirer of shiny objects and preteen entertainment. It would be nice if you visited her website: www.michellekmedia.com. Also, she may learn to use Twitter more effectively if you follow her @michelley415.


12 thoughts on ““Elle” makes a mockery of Gabourey Sidibe’s cover girl moment

  1. I guess I just don’t get this. You say, “…Gabby’s cover portrait frankly makes it hard to tell that she’s either one of those things.” (full-figured and African-American). I have to say that though I don’t read fashion magazines or celebrity gossip, don’t have cable TV, and haven’t seen Precious, I still knew who she was and I still knew that she was black and full-figured. I don’t think anyone would look at that magazine and not realize either of those things.

    I guess I just don’t see the big deal. Do we really think that Elle has a lot of sense in the first place? I mean, Megan Fox and Lauren Conrad are “smart, talented, game-changing artists, filmmakers, actresses, and activists”??? I highly doubt that. I think I’ll just save my money and not buy the magazine or worry about it at all.

  2. Though it was great seeing her on the cover, she absolutely deserves to have the rest of her big beautiful body on the cover. Otherwise it sends the message that being a BBW is not sexy or sexually acceptable. That’s a disservice.

  3. I visit your site often and read your blog because I love what you do on a lot of levels. I have to say that this turns me off, though. I thnk your strength lies in helping women/adolescent girls see that overly prettified images (like Lauren, Amanda andMegan above, or most fashion magazine covers in general ) are unattainable — not in tearing down the attempts media companies make to put their toe over the line ot the other side. (I think it’s a really week argument that bright studio lighting was meant to downplay Gabby’s skin. good photography requires light …) This gets too esoteric and philosophical — how many women and girls with bad body images are going to look at Gabby’s image and think OH NO WHY DIDNT THEY SHOW HER BODY? Please, help us/them by giving us the tools to resist the over-objectified skinny/beautiful images — not by encourage us to find reasons to be pissed off and negative even when a beautiful, voluptuous black woman is featured.

  4. I’m in agreement with SBinSF- I can absolutely see how lighting in a studio may make her skin appear lighter in colour than it may look in a differently lit arena. I don’t think this was necessarily intentional as a ploy to make her look more “white”. I feel they tried to make her look glowing, just as they would any other cover star.

    I think it’s fantastic to see her celebrated on a magazine cover.

  5. One other thought, and I am saying this from a place of admiring your mission but feeling you’ve stepped in the wrong direction here, I think you should change the title of your post, because in your choice of words it is actually you that is making a mockery of this cover. Imagine how Gabby would feel reading this post, if she was foolish enough to have felt happy and proud of her cover moment.

  6. I’m in agreement with Megan and SBinSF here and think that you’re a bit off-base in your harsh criticisms of this cover. The language you use in the title “makes a mockery” seems hyberbolic and in my opinion weakens your argument further. If you’d just said something along the lines of I wish Elle had gone all the way with this and given us a shot of her body like they most often do in covers I could see where you’re coming from. I agree, though, that the creative director’s remark about Gabby being “180 degrees not the character of Precious” was plain silly.

  7. Hmm… I’m looking for the right way to say this to the people who can “tell she is obviously black and heavy” Yes, to a person not of color this would be the only factoring issue.

    But as a person of mixed race, I see exactly why it IS a big deal that Gabby’s skin was lightened. I am treated with so much more respect and consideration than family members that just happen to be a few shades darker than me.

    Companies that wouldn’t dream of appearing “OMG!Racist” here in America affirm in other countries what they can only imply here through things like this magazine cover: that if you HAVE to be a person of color, being lighter is “better.” Consider the skin lightening and whitening creams and procedures widely available in India and other Asian countries. They aren’t no name brands, but major companies with holdings here in America: Vaseline has a recent men’s line, Dove has Fair and Lovely – both UniLever products, actually.

  8. Very much appreciating all the thoughtful comments, thank you.
    But SBinSF, I don’t consider the post to be “pissed off and negative.” I consider it a critique. Just because a media outlet is not overtly tearing women down does not mean it is building them up.
    And Megan, it is not an issue of making Gabby “look more white” – as Ashley Vincent pointed out in her comment on our Facebook post, racism is not always an issue of black vs. white – it is not uncommon for people to be discriminated against because the SHADE of their skin (whether it is black, brown, OR white) is not the one their culture deems “beautiful.” I don’t see this cover as “celebrating” Gabby – I see it as altering and manipulating her true appearance beyond the “norms” (if we can call them that) of how women’s images are typically manipulated on magazine covers.

    SBinSF, I don’t think I’m making a mockery of the cover (and I’m sure neither do the numerous other sites that wrote about this controversy before I did). If anything, I’m hoping to make a mockery of a magazine that seems so eager to pat itself on the back for including a cover subject not typically seen in the fashion world, and then proceeds to crop out and modify the things that make her an atypical choice in the first place. What’s the point?

    And Kim, I was never actually under the impression that readers would LITERALLY not be able to recognize Gabby as an African American, plus-sized woman. I just have a hard time recognizing the same Gabby who I’ve seen in the media before – the image on that cover doesn’t do the real person justice.

    And C.K., yes, I do often speak in hyperbole, but I don’t think accusing Elle of making a mockery of Gabby’s cover qualifies. In my opinion, featuring a woman on the cover of a FASHION magazine often indicates: 1) she will be showcasing some sort of garment (which she is, we just can’t see it) and 2) that she is representing something the magazine values as beautiful. I don’t see Elle valuing much in Gabby’s true appearance.

    Phew, okay, thanks for reading. Seriously, differences of opinion are what make these blogs worth writing. Just please don’t allow my posts to ever sway your confidence in the amazing work About-Face does.

  9. I can see where the author is going with her critique. In a sense yeah she got the cover, but Gabby was not given the same cover opportunity as the other women. It only creates controversy and speculation. Besides the only time her entire figure would have been captured is if she advertises for slim fast, jenny craig etc….. Promoting the thiner image will get her a full body cover.

    Besides this just enables the public with a vail of equality when in reality what’s behind the veil is the promotion of a slim figure.
    it’s all about the subscriptions and giving the public a manipulative taste of equality.

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