Black Beauty or Fetish; Dark Skin in Fashion

By Atinuke | Jan 21, 2022

Attempts at adulating dark skin in media and fashion fall on either end of the spectrum of representation. They get it right and it comes across as intended, worthy praise and love for blackness or in some cases, thinly veiled racism. Though black women have garnered more attention from the fashion and beauty industry after backlash from consumers, there are still glaring issues with both the quality and quantity of Black representation in the industry.

Recently, fashion houses cast dark-skinned Black models and dark-skinned Black models for their runway shows and beauty campaigns, which may have flipped the bias referred to as colourism. The cover of British Vogue’s February issue begs the question; artful expression showing appreciation for blackness? Rebellion against the age-long discrimination against and condemnation of it? Or is it fetishisation, glorification of black skin that does not represent everyday dark skin?

Though Current British Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, said the magazine cover was an important statement of anti-tokenism, the magazine cover has drawn criticism from industry players and consumers alike.

Akau Jambo, a Sudanese comedian, commented on the offending Vogue cover, describing it as “black skin porn.” The picture shows oiled-up, overly edited dark women, flaunting features without actually representing us. Compliments based on our likeness to chocolate, the glossiness of our skin and others do not indicate the presence of acceptance and love for blackness and they certainly are not indicative of progressiveness or inclusivity.  The cover, featuring all dark-skinned, black, African models is posited as “fashion now”, a symbol of diversity and inclusion.

Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s first Black editor-in-chief wrote in an Instagram caption; “Every one of these brilliant models is of African descent…the rise of African representation in modelling is not only about symbolism, nor even simple beauty standards. It is about the elevation of a continent.”

Brazilian photographer Pavarotti describes his work as a “celebration of Black and indigenous experience.” Contrary to his opinion, representations like on the cover do not “elevate the continent”. The cover met valid backlash online as dark-skinned, black people saw it as a caricature almost, depicting blackness as Europeans do and favouring the image they project on us.

Another Twitter user described the photoshoot as reproducing “European colonial, fetishistic obsessions.” They believe that the imagery is reminiscent of depictions of dark skin in European art (by white people). The characteristic fetishisation and dehumanisation of black people can be found in art throughout European history.

Model Kendra Austin told Coveteur, “I find that the depiction of Black bodies in fashion media is largely rooted in exoticism and fetish—and is, frankly, lazy. There are a few ‘acceptable’ versions of Blackness, notably all thin, that are welcome—the visibly mixed, the dark-skinned African model, the freckled model.” Ms Austin added that Black models with fetishized features get fewer options for wardrobe, hair, and makeup as “they’re perfect enough already.” She noted that this is another way for the fashion and beauty industry to say “we cast them so we wouldn’t have to do the work to present them in imaginative ways like everyone else.”

While it is laudable that women of African descent with African features are at the forefront of the modelling industry currently, the popular representation of these women and by extension, the continent, is tokenistic.