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Passing The Buck and The Brown Paper Bag Test

12 August 2008 18 Comments

There is a little insecure nappyheaded black girl still deep down inside of me who was told early on that dark skin, full features, and nappy hair are very beautiful. Shortly afterward, that same little girl realized that “most people”, especially black people, prefer lighter skin and straighter hair. That little girl inside of me also thinks that Beyonce looks gorgeous in this photo, and knows that “most people” would agree. L’Oreal, perhaps in a revolutionary scheme to boost sales, is aiming its advertising at “most people.” This side-by-side comparison of Beyonce’s latest L’Oreal ad has been making the rounds in the black blogosphere, and now the mainstream media is finally questioning whether L’Oreal intentionally lightened Beyonce’s complexion in this photograph. L’Oreal says that they didn’t, but that is all beside the point.

I lived in France in 2005, and L’Oreal advertisements just like this were everywhere. There was even a 30-foot-high Beyonce in one metro station, and in those ads she looked even more European than she does in this one. Shocked, I called home to tell everyone “Beyonce is white over here y’all!” and realized what a great strategy L’Oreal had chosen: Beyonce is an international celebrity and needs to look as universal as possible. It is the consumer’s job to accept some basic truths: That is not her real hair. She does not use L’Oreal to dye anything in that photograph. Probably around 90% of L’Oreal’s consumers have no idea what is involved in a hair weave or lacefront. In fact, most of them are probably completely befuddled by Negro hair in general. Moreover, there is no way that Beyonce uses any off-the-shelf products at all. She does not do her own hair and we have never seen her own hair. This whole picture is as phony as a Canal street Louis Vuitton bag. We need to think about these things and realize that the very concept of this advertisement is grossly distorted from its conception, and tinkering with the details doesn’t change much about that distortion.

L’Oreal’s responsibility lies in choosing which photos to use. If it was the company’s intention to present Beyonce in her most flattering light, according to standard ideals of beauty they did a great job. She is as light and bright as can be, rocking a #350 Gold Copper lacefront, and her nose has mysteriously morphed into that of Scarlett Johansson’s. L’Oreal can claim that they didn’t do anything special to change Beyonce’s appearance, but they certainly had a stack of photos to choose from when creating this ad, and this is the one that they chose. My brown-skinned readers have probably had the experience of looking like an inkblot with teeth and eyeballs in a photograph. With the right background, hair, and lighting, anyone can be made to look Japanese, Jamaican, or Jordanian. L’Oreal knows this and doesn’t really need to play games with us by doctoring the photos on purpose. It doesn’t take anything fancy to make Beyonce look a few shades lighter than we usually see her on the red carpet covered in bronzer, fresh from San Tropez, or anything else. The question at hand should be a larger one. They could have used PhotoShop to make her as dark as Whoopi Goldberg with a KRS-One nose if they’d wanted to. L’Oreal will and should do whatever they can to sell “stuff”, because that is what companies do. In fact, that is all companies really do. The work of defining international standards of beauty is way more than a conglomerate of corporate drones could ever accomplish.

Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, and Lil’ Kim (above) have all been accused of skin-color monkey business in the past. We have watched each of these women go from “kind of brown-skinned” or “almondy,” to sometimes straight up light-skinned or Blasian. We direct little comments and criticism towards these celebrities but at the end of the day we eat it up. L’Oreal has no monopoly on the antiquated but very real phenomenon of playing up to the fact that “light is right.” As a minority, I can get irritated at the fact that the beauty industry as a whole is not speaking to me through its advertising (at its best, it is speaking to that insecure little girl). As a black woman, I can let Beyonce put a sour taste in my mouth for participating in the whole campaign. But why should I let these things bother me when reminders of the value of “fairness” within the black community are so rampant and recurring? How many times have you heard someone say that a light-skinned girl is “a waste of all that light-skinned”? How many times have you heard someone call a light-skinned person a “10”, only to finally see them yourself and realize that what makes them a “10” are 3 or 4 bonus “lightskinned points,” tacked onto the “6” that they really are? Unless they’re on the news or other programming featuring “regular people,” when is the last time you saw a black female celebrity with her own natural hair showing? This nonsensical colorism was the original inspiration for my “Good Hair Gone Bad” feature; black America’s very convictions about beauty are hopelessly and blindly tethered to lighter skin, and we do a great job making fools of ourselves because of it. Let’s not be upset because fairer skin is what L’Oreal knows will sell, let’s be upset because we’re so insecure and pre-occupied with the color hierarchy that we take the time to notice.


  • donald said:


  • Miss Gypsy Eyes said:

    Thembi I can sympathize. I had a coloring mixup and had to cut my hair and went natural, my family went ballistic when my natural curl pattern made itself known( a have a not so distant relevant who was a prostitute in the 30’s and would only service white men so her children are light enough to “pass.”) So my natural curls that actually were tiny corkscrews (that white people loved and other black people asked me where I bought) drove them crazy. After 3 years, I finally straightened (because it was so curly it would knot and I’d have to cut them out) And now it’s down my back and I’m acceptable again because the texture straightened qualifies as “good.” People still walk up to me and ask me where I bought it. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. As far as lightening Beyonce You hit the nail on the head, basically people see what they want to see. It’s perfectly acceptable for white people to spray on a tan, and show up at an event 4 shades darker than they were the previous day. But Beyonce, Kim, Janet and even MJ are under constant scrutiny; too light is bad but too dark is also bad, it never ends.

  • ambboogie said:

    hey themb… where ya been?

  • gradmommy said:

    You must of watched Tyra Banks Show today, cause this was what they were talking about. My children are lighter-skinned than both me and my husband, and both have curly, but not nappy, hair. When we are out together, people don’t believe they are my children, and it truly pisses me off. I remember as a child wanting to be darker, staying out in the sun as long as a could in the summer…

  • KelleBelle said:

    You already know my stance re: the light skinneded issue.

    Peep Jasmyne’s take on the latest round of black celebs to go blonde (incl. black barbie and queen latifah):


  • Tina said:

    The only people who will have a problem with this are those for whom color means so much to them that anything that dares to show anyone as lighter than they may be puts them in a tizzy. It’s called insecurity and it’s pathetic. There’s so much more to life than being offended by a superstar with fake hair being airbrushed, or lightening their skin, or getting fake boobs or butts, or face job to make them look different than they normally would.

  • The Love Collective said:

    I think black folks can look any shade, any hue in different light. It’s just our skin color. Poor, L’Oreal, they dam’d if they do dam’d if they don’t.

  • apathetic bliss said:

    I think this is so ridiculous! Beautiful is beautiful…the colour of your skin or the curl in your hair is secondary…but the fact that Loreal (as well as many other companies, media, etc) is distorting beauty into a monotone beige is sad and so so disturbing!
    BTW I nominated you for the Black Web Blog awards cuz you rock!

  • Lola Gets said:

    Girl, you broke it down in this post!

    and this,
    “3 or 4 bonus “lightskinned points,”

    had me crying at work! Girl, sometimes, all a girls got are her ‘lightskinneded points.” And lets not forget the “long hair points” either, because, unfortunately, they do count!

    It amazes me that a woman could have the face of a Rottweiler, and still get serious play, all due to whats on her head.

    Eh, well.

    Again, this post was excellent.


  • Reginald Dorsey said:

    A 30ft. high Beyonce? Like the updated Colossus-at-Rhodes, or something? Sort of like when Return of the Jedi was first in the theaters, and the soda machine at the concessions stand was supposed to be the little control panel inserted into Darth Vader’s chest cavity. It literally looked like Darth Vader was dispensing ginger ale directly out of his aorta. To this day I associate teh smell of buttered popcorn with an ambiguously negroe intergalactic fascist despot.

  • Thembi said:

    “ambiguously negroe intergalactic fascist despot”????
    Reg, this is why I adore you.

  • bklyn6 said:

    Lil Kim Jong-il.

  • JP said:

    the only thing that seems off in the Loreal ad is Beyonce’s nose ,with lighting, a high yellow person like Beyonce could only get lighter

    My mom’s black, but very fair-skinned, and in the summer she looks like Beyonce on the left, but in the winter she’s just as pasty as the Loreal ad… especially in photos when we use flash… so you never know, maybe the pic came out that light because of the lighting, even Oprah looks lighter on her show sometimes, because of all them dang stage lights

  • AllPeople (AP) Gifts said:


    The legend of the existence of so-called ‘Brown Paper Bag’
    Tests; ‘Blue Vein’ Societies; ‘Fine-Toothed Comb’ Tests; etc.
    – have been PROVEN by multiple historians to have been
    (very much like the infamous so-called ‘Willie Lynch Letter /
    Speech’ HOAX and the myth of a Light-Skin ‘House’ / Dark-Skin
    ‘Field’ chattel=slave “hierarchy) nothing more than a series of
    ‘Urban Myths’ and ‘Urban Legends’ created in order to incite
    unmerited hostility toward people of Multiracial Lineage.

    Write to me at soaptalk@hotmail.com and I can provide you
    to bibliography, links and other sources which prove that
    that these urban myths and legends are unfair and true.


  • light skinned dude said:

    why do you put down light skinned BLACK PEOPLE in the same breath you big up dark skinned women on this blog? esteem is not finite. Those insecurities you had, and still have clearly, do not have to be charged back to light people. There is enough room for everyone to feel good about themselves. you are actually part of the problem when you engage in that sort of behavior. speaking of your good hair gone bad posts…

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Light skinned dude
    No one is putting down light skinned people. All you’re doing is demonstrating your lack of reading comprehension.

  • light skinned dude said:

    When you state things like “light skinned men” are out of style it can be construed as a put down. This is because people are not styles or fads, they are people. When you objectify people it is insulting. Whether it is a BET video denigrating women or a blog that takes pot shots at men who have light complexions. But I’m done preaching. Take care.

  • Thembi Ford (author) said:

    @Light skinned dude
    As I said before, this is a reading comprehension issue. My writing is satirical social commentary. I discuss social trends in the black community of all sorts and skin color is not off limits in any direction. Saying that light skinned men are out of style refers to the very well known shift in the standards of beauty in Hollywood and the music industry away from light men like Christopher Williams and over to darker men like Tyson Beckford. You don’t like that FACT? Boo hoo. You don’t like that I choose to discuss that FACT – BIGGER boo hoo. These social shifts in beauty standards occur for all aspects of physical appearance for example womens weight, another thing that I discuss in my work. But since you landed on a post almost 2 years old, its obvious that you googled something in search of a slight towards light skinned people. When you look for something maliciously you usually find it, so continue your small minded, defensive quest to protect the sanctity of fair skin and don’t return to this site.

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