Every day, the world we live in is increasingly diverse. The people that surround and interact with us now come in countless shapes and colors. You would think our definition of what’s beautiful would naturally evolve and diversify accordingly, but, on the contrary, we are still bound by uncompromising expectations of what beauty ought to look like. We can’t seem to shake this pressure to alter our natural skin color, among other things, to be “more beautiful.”
Digital photo editing technology like Photoshop has enabled this trend to hurtle out of control. Celebrities and supermodels now appear so flawless that fans and viewers can’t even hope to compare. We aspire to embody the qualities we see printed on glossy magazine pages and beaming down at us from HD screens, but the beauty we admire has in fact been manufactured. Edited. Manipulated. Altered.
This puts unhealthy and unnecessary pressure on the public to live up to impossible, unrealistic standards. People with pale skin are pressured to be darker while dark-skinned people struggle to look pale. The irony and absurdity of this astounds me, but it doesn’t stop this pressure from affecting people all around the world.
A South African musician, Jeremy Taylor, addressed this issue in the 1960s, long before Photoshop came into play. In his song “Black-White Calypso,” he wonders, “why all the black people want to go white and all the white people want to go black.” He sings about flipping through magazines, and noticing:
Advertisements for special cream in every section
Give you a soft and pale complexion
Make your black skin lighter
Creamier and whiter
It seems that the white people have a notion
To make them selves black with the Sun Tan Lotion
Why is everyone so insecure in his or her own skin? What’s so wrong with the color that we came in? Skin tone is such a trivial and arbitrary feature. What exactly are we trying to accomplish by lightening the darker skin and darkening the lighter skin?
A couple years ago, H&M was criticized for dramatically darkening the skin tone of a model, Isabeli Fontana, in one of their bikini ads. The darkening was done, presumably, on Photoshop, because had Fontana used some other means of darkening her skin to this extent, she would likely have died of skin cancer, assuming she hadn’t already fried to death under the sun or in the tanning bed. Jenna Sauers made a clever point on Jezebel, reporting on the incident: If H&M was so heart-set on featuring such a dark model in the first place, why not use someone whose skin is naturally that color to begin with?
Likewise, dark-skinned icons like Beyoncé often tend to take on lighter shades in published photographs. Beyoncé is by no means the only celebrity guilty of giving in to this unhealthy trend, but she’s an excellent example. Beyoncé is successful, highly influential over fans and listeners, the envy of many women and an object of desire to men and women alike. She is a symbol of a strong, sexy, successful, talented and independent, self-made woman—qualities sought after by many women—and yet she sets a damaging example to them all. Beyoncé’s artificially lightened skin implies that she could not achieve the same success without it. Rather than submitting to this pressure—thus imposing it on others—why Bey can’t just be a distinguished and iconic, dark-skinned woman is beyond me. Deliberately altering her skin tone suggests that she is asking to be judged by the color of her skin, versus the content of her character.
The implication is that Beyoncé’s natural, dark skin would have hindered her acceptance and success, which just perpetuates the problem even further. “It tells me,” says Ernest Owens, writer for the Huffington Post, “that…an independent, confident and successful woman of color still struggles to have the confidence to fully embrace the skin she is in. If one of the most powerful women in entertainment feels she has to lighten her skin for projection, what does that say for the rest of us?”
Another Huff-Post reporter, Ben Arogudande, wrote: “Critics have accused [Beyoncé] of setting a bad example to young people of color around the world, who may be negatively influenced into believing that light skin is more attractive. These are the kinds of concerns that are believed to be driving the market for dangerous skin-lightening creams that are currently used within ethnic communities.“
This pressure to conform to artificial, manufactured beauty exists all over the world. An article on TIME featured a picture of a woman juxtaposed against the same image manipulated to meet the various ideals of ten different countries. The original image features a relatively pale woman. Her skin was lightened in the Indian and Argentinian ideal, and most dramatically lightened in the German adaptation, to an unsettling degree. I’d like to point out that the Philippines made no adjustments whatsoever, except to dress her.
Ultimately, society needs to accept that people come in different colors. We come in all shades and tones, and none of them are any lesser than the rest. There’s no reason we should feel so pressured to repair something that isn’t broken. Our skin tone is arbitrary. Beauty comes in any color.
If we insist on Photoshopping models’ skin, for “better contrast” or any other reason, we could avoid this problem altogether by using colors that are obviously not intended to look natural—Andy Warhol style. What if we had models rocking red, green, blue and purple skin? The public wouldn’t be subjected to this pressure to adjust their skin color accordingly. It would be clear that sexy comes in any color, and the skin you’re in is perfect as it is.
I set out to prove this theory with a photo shoot featuring a coworker, Jason Dean, and me. The shoot was done on Handley Rock in Redwood City, California. The boulder is adorned with carvings and graffiti, ranging from tasteful to obscene. I thought the rock would be a fitting place to stage the shoot, since visitors often complain that the graffiti on the rock diminishes its natural beauty, which is ironically exactly what we do when we alter people’s skin tones in their pictures. The photographer, Michael Housewright, manipulated our skin tones to illustrate that we are just as beautiful regardless of the color of our skin.