COLORISM AS AN EMBLEMATIC ISSUE THAT PLAGUES THE INDUSTRY
A resurfaced clip from the long-running reality television show America’s Next Top Model has caused an earthshaking commotion on Twitter, causing many to reevaluate show host Tyra Banks’s treatment of black models. The clip depicted Banks forcing model Danielle Evans to close the gap in her teeth, claiming that it “wasn’t marketable.” People across social media were quick to condemn Banks for this affront to Evans, several of them citing examples of successful gap-toothed models such as Slick Woods and Georgia May Jagger. Furthermore, others pointed out that nine seasons later Banks would encourage a white model, Chelsey Hersley, to widen the gap in her teeth because of how “unique and captivating it would be.”
More incriminating evidence of Banks’s discriminatory practices emerged online, with another clip revealing a moment of cultural insensitivity and, worst of all, photos of models engaging in blackface. In this second clip, Banks, despite being African-American herself, chastised contestant Yaya DaCosta for taking such overt pride in her African heritage that she perceived it as zealotry. Additionally, Banks critiqued DaCosta’s Afrocentric look for not being glamorous enough for her standards. Lastly, Banks’s most egregious offense came in the form of her race-swap challenges, in which white and light-skinned models were painted with makeup that darkened their skin.
The conclusion to be drawn from these immoralities is that Tyra Banks has been harsher to black and dark-skinned models than those of lighter complexions and more Eurocentric features. Banks is a fashion icon and authority, and as such her actions are emblematic of an issue that plagues the industry: colorism.
The aforementioned clips and photos may have been from over a decade ago, but the fashion industry is still a hostile environment for dark-skinned black women. Dark-skinned models do not receive the same amount of exposure as their lighter-skinned counterparts, and therefore their careers often stagnate. Vogue has been in business for well over a century, yet the first dark-skinned model to grace one of their covers was Serena Williams in 2012. Gucci and Prada recently stoked mass outrage with their inclusion of blackface in each of their shows. At best, modeling agencies employ tokenism, bare-minimum inclusion of a single dark-skinned model amongst a sea of white models.
There are dire consequences of perpetuating the falsehood that dark skin is not fashionable. Dark-skinned people are pressured to purchase skin-bleaching products, which cause irreparable physical damage, and surgically alter their facial features in order to make them appear more Eurocentric. As a prime example, 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products. The fashion industry has a responsibility to its vast worldwide audiences to be far more inclusive of dark-skinned black women, thereby sending the correct message that all complexions are beautiful.
In spite of the rampant colorism in the fashion industry, there are a few beacons of hope. A shining embodiment of skin color inclusivity is Choco Models, London’s first black modeling agency. Founded by former model Kereen Hurley in 2016, this modeling agency centers around boosting the careers of models who are otherwise overlooked because of colorist prejudices. Hurley has had numerous experiences with colorism, being rejected by agencies that did not want to hire more than one dark-skinned model and encountering makeup artists that did not work with black models. Now a modeling agent herself, she has created a space accepting of women of all skin colors, and even sizes. Hurley strives to gain mainstream attention for Choco Models, boldly sending her models to the same casting calls that she attended during her own career. Sure enough, she regularly receives calls from models eager to join her modeling agency, thus further demonstrating the power of positive representation.
While colorism continues to be an overwhelming hurdle in the fashion industry, brands becoming more cognizant of this internalized bigotry and amplifying the voices of dark-skinned women will create more inclusive runways in the future.