Century-Old Cover Girl

Century-Old Cover Girl: Examining the Effects of a Eurocentric Standard of Beauty

By: Stephanie DeVaux, Third Year, Media Studies; English

In all that it achieves, the American media largely serves as a tool of patriarchy that preserves white male dominance. In the same way that the media communicates “normative” ideas of everything from morality to sexuality, it also manipulates the desire for beauty with a constant bombardment of visual media. Specifically by exploring the cover pages of Vogue, we can see how America’s white, Eurocentric concept of beauty has been historically constructed. By reaffirming ideas of how femininity looks, Vogue applies a blanket definition of beauty that disregards race, ethnicity, class, and genetics. Colorism has infected the black community and a hierarchy of “beauty” power has emerged. As women across racial borders chase after this visual manifestation of femininity in hopes of attaining social power, they submit themselves to the toxic effects of beauty. Tragically, women’s struggle for power by adhering to these images is ironic and illusory; since the media is largely produced and managed by white males, women search for power by chasing after images that are inherently oppressive. Damaging in virtually every aspect, the images of “ideal beauty” that saturate the media serve to maintain social hierarchies of power, ultimately constructing a narrative of visual femininity that disempowers all women.

Media has historically played a key role in American culture, and the shift from written to visual media created an ideal environment for a homogenous definition of beauty. Before images circulated throughout the culture, those who generated the media employed written stories to construct ideas such as gender. The introduction of visual media shifts the task from interpreting a mental image to simply reproducing a visual one. This renders the construction and promotion of traditional gender roles much more effective. As Susan Bordo explains in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, “In newspapers and magazines we daily encounter stories that promote traditional gender relations and prey on anxieties about change.”[1] In today’s visual culture, these “stories” are not necessarily written down, but presented to us in an in-your-face kind of fashion. Visual images tell stories of masculinity, of femininity, of beauty—and they convey these narratives to us in a second, without requiring us to pause and read or even listen. Bordo terms this as a process in which “the rules for femininity have come to be culturally transmitted more and more through standardized visual images.”[2] According to this mode of thinking, beauty has taken on one standardized look, communicated over and over again by visual media. Consequently, magazines like Vogue capitalize on a single image of beauty, reproducing and presenting one feminine ideal to its audience.

Looking at Vogue’s cover pages from 1902 to present day, it is striking to notice the essentially unchanging image of beauty that they portray. The fashion magazine’s cover art has historically perpetuated a Eurocentric image of femininity: glorifying the thin, pale, blonde woman with seductive red lips, long black eyelashes, and a slight, dainty nose. Looking back to the turn of the century, the cover of the November 1902 issue boasts a sketch of a white woman who wears a stylish hat indicative of fashion, wealth, and social class. Years later, the April 1910 issue adheres to the same general pattern, featuring a white woman whose clothes are faded to even further accentuate her white skin. Drawn as if choosing between two styles of hats, the cover art similarly implies her great wealth and sense of fashion. Vogue’s cover in the midst of the roaring twenties, over a decade and a half later, features a more modern version of essentially the same woman. As the spectacle of the magazine’s noteworthy September issue, this 1926 cover model is sketched pencil-thin, displaying bleached skin and dressed in all white. Moreover, she is placed on a backdrop of color, which effectively showcases her pure “whiteness” even more. Throughout these two decades of Vogue, the cover images presented by the magazine’s editors conform to essentially the same ideal. Their deliberate decision to sketch cover girls that look like this certainly helps us to realize the extent to which the media can manipulate ideas of beauty.

Historically moving from sketched cover art to photographed models, Vogue continues to represent beauty in a Eurocentric fashion. In the November 1939 issue, Vogue’s past sketches are brought to life; three beautiful women lay on the ground—a blonde model posed in between two brunette models—who all share red lips, thin groomed eyebrows, a dainty nose, and pale skin. Draped in jewelry, their poise, fashion, and beauty mirror that of the sketched models from previous issues. Three decades later, Vogue’s cover still perpetuates this same image. The December 1958 issue blends into the January 1976 issue, summing up twenty years with two identically slender, white, and glamorous models. The 1980’s cover pages tell much of the same story, and even today—with the switch from featuring models to celebrities—Vogue still showcases women with white skin, long silky hair, delicate features and a slender figure. Modern Hollywood faces, which tend to conform to these historical patterns of beauty, line the shelves of consumer America and subsequently communicate a Eurocentric ideal to society. Anne Becker, Mako Fitz, and Lisa Rubin suggest that “mainstream Western media imagery tends to homogenize female beauty, removing racial, ethnic, and sexual differences that disturb Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual expectations and identifications.”[3] After examining over a century’s worth of Vogue cover pages, this seems to be exactly what these visual representations are doing. By perpetuating a singular image of beauty, it becomes clear that the media has made no room for alternative images.

Without any real images of black beauty, black women today find themselves chasing after this Eurocentric ideal. Rose Weitz, in “What We Do For Love,” explains that “within the black community attractiveness still primarily centers on having light skin and long, straight hair.”[4] This idea of colorism—which celebrates black women with lighter skin and Eurocentric features—pervades the black community, and has found its way onto the few covers of Vogue that do feature black models. In 1966, Vogue presented their first black cover model: supermodel Donyale Luna. Instead of being posed like her white counterparts, her hand was strategically placed over her nose and mouth, hiding her more African features: a wider nose and full lips. Vogue’s decision to feature Donyale in this way attests to the way they—and the rest of society—perceive a Eurocentric appearance as the only representation of true beauty. Vogue’s celebration of colorism did not stop with a half-covered picture of Donyale, either. Celebrating their 100th year anniversary, the magazine’s April 1992 issue displays ten beautiful, thin models dressed in white and posed around a ladder. Interestingly enough, the single model posed on the ladder is black. However, at first glance you can barely tell because her long straight hair reaches down the length of her entire back and her skin is barely a few shades darker than any of the white models. In isolation, this photo speaks to a past when Eurocentric beauty was at the forefront, and black women were pressured into conforming to this image. Vogue’s May 2007 cover recreates almost an exact replica of the myriad of models from the 1992 issue. Strangely enough, it identically displays ten models posed around a ladder. The single black girl that it features is strikingly posed in virtually the exact way as her 1992 counterpart: placed on the ladder, as if she was climbing. This more contemporary model has identically light skin, black long straight hair, and overall “white” features, ultimately attesting to the way that, even years later, racial representations of American beauty have remained stagnant.

After the switch to featuring celebrities, the October 1998 issue of Vogue displays Oprah Winfrey lounging on a lavish cushion. In this instance, Vogue seems to be celebrating Oprah’s social success and wealth more than her beauty, however her appearances are still significant. Her hair looks straight and soft, and her waist is extremely petite. Indeed, Ben Arogundade reports on the story behind Oprah’s small figure. According to his article, Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour suggested that Oprah lose twenty pounds before the photo shoot. Arogundade reports:

“Winfrey packed herself off to her retreat in Telluride, Colorado with her personal trainer and cook, where she embarked upon a rigorous diet and exercise program to drop the crucial pounds in preparation for the photo shoot with fashion photographer Steven Meisel.”[5]

When faced with the pressure to conform to a Eurocentric style of beauty, even Oprah sought after the body figure of thin models. After all, as Bordo writes, “The ideal of slenderness, then, and the diet and exercise regiments that have become inseparable from it offer the illusion of meeting…the contemporary ideology of femininity.”[6] In this case, Oprah lost weight in order to achieve the image that media presents as feminine: Eurocentric beauty.

Modern celebrities Beyoncé Knowles, Rihanna, and Halle Berry are no exception to the “colorism” rule. In September of 2010, Halle Berry appeared on Vogue’s cover with short, straight hair, light skin, high cheekbones, and a dainty nose. The April 2011 issue featured Rihanna, clad in a sheer, bejeweled dress that clings to the contours of her body and accentuates her slim shape. Although Barbadian, the recording artist’s skin color is extremely light and her long, bright red hair softly frames her face. Even Beyoncé, who appeared on the cover of Vogue March in 2013 and was voted People’s Most Beautiful Woman in 2012, emulates this Eurocentric ideal. Boasting a slender figure, defined cheekbones, light skin and long hair styled in an impeccable updo, she graces the cover of Vogue as a black woman that looks virtually white. All of these modern celebrities have traded in their natural hair for chemically straightened hair or weave, managed their waist with diet and exercise routines, and invested their money in beauty and makeup products. From 1966, with the first black cover model, to present day, the pages of Vogue reflect a greater social tendency to associate beauty with white, Eurocentric features.

Once we understand the scope of women who celebrate a Eurocentric style of beauty as superior, it raises the question of why women try to emulate these images of beauty in the first place. The answer has to do with social power. Weitz explores this idea when she links beauty with power, citing that “studies also have found that men choose their dates based more on women’s looks than on women’s earning potential, personality, or other factors.”[7] In this sense, more beautiful women are able to gain social power by the type of men they attract. Weitz goes on to suggest that traditionally feminine women—those who adhere to these images of beauty—occupy a more accepted social position. She writes, “Using our hair to look attractive is particularly important for those of us whose femininity is sometimes questioned.”[8] Her statement refers to how, in America’s patriarchal society, men and women are expected to conform to their gender roles: traditional masculinity and femininity, respectively. Since the media presents beauty as the image of visual femininity, then beautiful women are seen to fulfill their social roles more successfully, and are thus rewarded with a greater degree of social power. Alternatively, women who are not or do not look traditionally “feminine” are labeled as social deviants, cast out, and effectively stripped of social power. Women recreate these images of femininity as a means of empowerment—not only to attract husbands but also to procure social acceptance. Bordo describes it as the pursuit of a “homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity—a pursuit without terminus, requiring that women constantly attend to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion.”[9] However, Bordo also demonstrates how the power associated with images of femininity is an illusion. These visual representations are actually oppressive and harmful through the beauty practices that result. She writes: “Between the media images of self-containment and self-mastery and the reality of constant, everyday stress and anxiety about one’s appearance lies the chasm that produces bodies habituated to self-monitoring and self-normalization.”[10] This “self-monitoring” that Bordo references manifests in various physically and financially damaging beauty practices. Weitz agrees that “attractiveness offers only a fragile sort of power, achieved one day at a time through concentrated effort and expenditures of time and money.”[11] Women who mimic the images seen in Vogue are ironically looking for power in a realm of manipulation and oppression. Indeed, true social power lies with the men who have the privilege to look and admire this beauty, without feeling any pressures to conform to these images themselves. This “male gaze,” an idea championed by Laura Mulvey in her “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” explores the kind of voyeurism at work within visual media.[12] While Mulvey focuses on film, the same can be applied to the covers of Vogue. The woman exists as an image—a bearer of meaning—while the man has exclusive power as the maker of meaning. Only the looker—in this case, the male voyeur—has power via the inherently objectifying act of looking. Yet as women today still kill themselves (both figuratively, and tragically, literally) to achieve an impossible standard of “beauty,” we see one of patriarchy’s biggest tricks at work.

The images of beauty that adorn the cover of magazines, like Vogue, are oppressive for all women who feel pressure to emulate the appearance of airbrushed supermodels. In order to do so, they endure toxic beauty practices that lead to social, psychological, and physical damage.

Psychologically, these images are oppressive in their encouragement of “bodily objectification or engaging in social comparison processes.”[13] By promoting the objectification of one’s own appearances—as well as others—these evaluations of beauty add to women’s social subordination. While men remain free from this pressure, Patricia Hill Collins argues that “part of the objectification of all women lies in evaluating how they look.”[14] The anxiety that results from this constant evaluation leads women to utilize literally toxic beauty products. From the thick layers of makeup to the cans of hairspray that women routinely use, individuals strive for the face and body featured on the cover of Vogue. However, as Bordo writes, “Female bodies pursuing these ideals, may find themselves as distracted, depressed, and physically ill.”[15] Since the images that populate magazines are generally airbrushed, the representation of beauty presented to women is literally unattainable. Therefore, after rigorous diet and exercise and thousands of dollars spent on top-brand makeup, many individuals still cannot achieve the same look represented in visual media. Especially harmful is the way individuals chase after the bodies of supermodels: through unhealthy diet practices and oftentimes eating disorders. Bordo explores the illusion of anorexia as a means “to become what is valued in our society.”[16] To become “what is valued” is to become feminine, which offers power over those who do not adhere to traditional femininity. Accordingly, women starve themselves to attain the stick-thin body types that the media portrays as feminine. However, as Bordo points out, “The anorectic’s experience of power is, of course, deeply and dangerously illusory.”[17] Indeed, she goes on to say, “the thousands of slender girls and women who strive to embody these images and who in that service suffer from eating disorders, exercise compulsions, and continual self-scrutiny and self-castigation are anything but the “masters” of their lives.”[18] Clearly, these toxic practices serve as tools of oppression for the women trying to attain beauty. Ultimately, in a society so focused on female appearance, the road to beauty is paved with insecurities and depression.

While images of beauty are harmful and oppressive for women in general, these controlling images are especially harmful for black women who do not naturally posses Eurocentric features. Bordo supports this idea in her book when she states, “The construction [of femininity] is always homogenizing and normalizing, erasing racial, class, and other differences and insisting that all women aspire to a coercive, standardized ideal.”[19] This coercion, which erases racial traditions, is oppressive for black women in its very essence. The subsequent pressure for black women to strive for Eurocentric ideals of beauty is not only socially harmful, but physically and psychologically damaging as well. For a black woman to achieve the physical body of a white model, she must forsake her natural curves. As Becker, Fitts, and Rubin explain, “Whereas these models typically represent an unhealthful ideal for any woman to achieve, they may be particularly oppressive for many women of color, whose body size, shape, and features may differ significantly from mainstream representations of female beauty.”[20] With a natural predisposition for more pronounced curves, black women face greater opposition in their struggle for the “beautiful” body image presented by the media. Experts confirm this idea, stating that “cultural representation of African American women in media imagery powerfully influence self-concept and body image among black women in Western culture.”[21] Ultimately, black women’s attempts to recreate the body image presented by media can be psychologically and physically damaging via the anxiety, depression, and eating disorders that result.

Other Eurocentric ideals besides a thin figure—light skin, delicate facial features, and straight hair—are equally sought after within the black community. With colorism a major factor in the evaluation of black beauty, skin-lightening creams are marketed to women with darker skin. Collins articulates this idea:

“Prevailing standards of beauty claim that no matter how intelligent, educated, or ‘beautiful’ a Black woman may be, those Black women whose features and skin color are most African must ‘git back.’ Within the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blonde, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other-Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair.”[22]

With appearance taking on a great significance for black women, the struggle for beauty becomes that much more important. While the transformation of dark skin relies on creams, and the altercation of noses or lips depends upon plastic surgery, the change from kinky to straight hair becomes a frequent practice among black women. In Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, he comically and yet accurately depicts the physical and financial costs of chemical straighteners or weave.[23] He explores the dangers of cream relaxers, which are composed of sodium hydroxide and capable of burning through skin. In addition to the physical risk, these hair treatments are not cheap. The alternative to relaxers—weave—can cost thousands of dollars. Although these practices are costly, painful, and damaging, black women still engage in this toxic practices in order to chase after a Eurocentric ideal. Evidently, the cost of beauty for a black woman is even greater than for a white woman. Collins sums up this racial discrepancy perfectly:

“Judging White women by their physical appearance and attractiveness to men objectifies them. But their White skin and straight hair simultaneously privilege them in a system that elevates whiteness over blackness. In contrast, African-American women experience the pain of never being able to live up to prevailing standards of beauty standards used by White men, White women, Black men, and, most painfully, one another.”[24]

Ultimately, images of beauty speak to black women in a distinctive way. Faced with greater opposition, the representations in the media lead to physical, financial, social, and psychological harm for black females in America. One of the best ways to categorize this phenomenon is through the terminology mentioned in the case study conducted by Becker, Fitts, and Rubin. They described these controlling images in relation to black women as “the new kind of slavery.”[25]

Looking at all of the different factors that attribute to these oppressive images, we can subsequently establish a hierarchy of power in terms of beauty. We must take into account the following elements: race, class, natural beauty, and social standing. Thus, impoverished black women occupy the lowest tier. Naturally divergent from a Eurocentric standard of beauty, their financial status prevents them from investing money in order to alter their appearance. Wealthy black women fall on the next level, along with black women who naturally possess “white” features. Genetically in conjunction with a Eurocentric ideal, or able to buy their way to straight hair and a lighter skin color, this group possesses a greater degree of social power than their poorer and more “African” counterparts. Impoverished white women seize the next echelon; although they cannot afford to enhance their appearance, genetics renders them naturally closer to the image of “ideal beauty.” On the upper tier, wealthy white women and naturally “beautiful” women exist, enjoying relative social power. However, the gap between this level and the next is significant. Within our American patriarchal society, the true power lies with men, who occupy the top level in this hierarchy of power. Granted the power to own the media that produces these images, as well as the privilege to look and enjoy beautiful women, men remain socially dominant. Free from the same pressures to conform to a singular appearance that women face, men possess beauty through their ability to possess women, ultimately attesting to their powerful authority within our patriarchal society.

Clearly, the ramifications of a singular Eurocentric definition of beauty extend to all women. However, these images also have implications for society as a whole. As Bordo writes, “Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup, and dress—central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women—[women] are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-modification.”[26] Refocusing the attention of half of the population from social problems to self-insecurities, these images limit social progress through their extreme control over women. Additionally, not only do these images manipulate the way women feel that they need to look, but they also reinforce male desire for a certain type of woman. Ultimately, these images perpetuate oppression and manipulation for American society at large.

As we have seen, the images that Vogue perpetuates serve to manipulate what we see as beautiful. Historically, this image of beauty has remained constant. Over a century’s worth of cover pages tell the same story: that only white, slender, made-up women can be beautiful. However, the communication of this Eurocentric ideal does not stop with Vogue. In our media-centered culture, virtually every magazine, movie, television show, billboard, or commercial reinforces a society that rewards women who fulfill their feminine role through the pursuit of Eurocentric beauty. Enamored by the social power that these images falsely promise, women engage in toxic beauty practices that can manifest in anxiety, depression, or fatal eating disorders. Particularly for African American women, whose natural features do not conform to this Eurocentric ideal, images of “beauty” as portrayed by the media are oppressive and damaging. In order for us to remedy this socially detrimental phenomenon, society must first shift its perceptions of power. Instead of granting social supremacy to anyone who fits the Eurocentric bill, we must allow for alternative images of beauty, ultimately discounting appearances and looking for empowerment that is more than skin-deep.

 Works Cited:

[1] Susan Bordo. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. (Los Angeles: University of California Press,1995), 166.

[2] Ibid.,169.

[3] Anne Becker, Mako Fitts, and Lisa Rubin. “Body Ethics and Aesthetics Among African American and Latina Women” in The Geography of Desire: Race, Place, Gender and Identity. (2003), 256.

[4] Rose Weitz. “What We Do For Love.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. (McGraw Hill, 2004), 269.

[5] Ben Arogundade, “Oprah Winfrey Cries at American Vogue Cover Shoot” in Arogundade, 1998.

[6] Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 172.

[7] Weitz, “What We Do For Love,” 50.

[8] Ibid., 52.

[9] Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 166.

[10] Ibid., 203.

[11] Weitz, “What We Do For Love,” 270.

[12] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Feminist Film Theory. 28-41.

[13] Becker, Body Ethics, 257.

[14] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000), 98.

[15] Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 184.

[16] Ibid., 179.

[17] Ibid., 179.

[18] Ibid., 182.

[19] Ibid., 168-169.

[20] Becker, Body Ethics, 256.

[21] Ibid., 261.

[22] Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 98.

[23] Good Hair. Dir. Chris Rock. Chris Rock Productions, 2009.

[24] Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 98.

[25] Becker, Body Ethics, 261.

[26] Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 166.