Passing The Buck and The Brown Paper Bag Test
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.