“…the way people treat you is affected by your ethnicity, and how you are treated has a role in how your identity gets shaped. And your gender, too… has profound effects on your experience and identity” (Maasik 617) This quote by Jack Solomon and Sonia Maasik from their book Signs of Life in the USA shows how the portrayal of black women in the fashion industry affects the self-esteem and acceptance of women around the world, who are of black ethnicity. The number of minority models (especially black models) used in the fashion industry is extremely low. When they do appear, they are often depicted in an overly sexualized manner with animal prints, shackles, or jungle motif. This is reminiscent of slavery and connotes subservience of black women to people of white ethnicity (reference the above photos). A consequence of this constant portrayal of black models in the fashion industry in a stereotypical manner is an overall increase in the dissatisfaction of black women with their ethnicity.
The In Black campaign perfume advertisement, placed on one of the pages of a Vogue Latinoamerica issue published in April 2009, is such an ad produced by the fashion industry that created dissatisfaction of black women with their ethnicity. This advertisement has two target audiences. The women of Latin America are the primary target audience and boyfriends/husbands are the secondary target audience. The unsuspecting female viewer perceives the In Black campaign as a beautiful print advertisement for perfume depicting the model in a respectful way. Moreover, the unsuspecting female viewer may notice the campaign’s use of sexuality to appeal to her “innate” yearning to be desirable to others in the successful marketing of the product. Naomi Wolf in her book entitled, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women refers to this tendency of women to want others to acknowledge their beauty (which many women consider their sexuality) as the “beauty myth”. Through a vast stretch of imagination, the unsuspecting female viewer can go as far as to interpret the campaign as one of empowerment, inviting black women to embrace their ethnicity and sexuality. On the other hand, the unsuspecting male viewer is easily persuaded under false pretenses into believing the purchase of this perfume will produce a more exciting sex-life with his wife or girlfriend.
The interpretations given by the incognizant viewers must be discredited on the basis of their incomprehensiveness in analysis and conception. Upon careful inspection of this campaign, one notices the abundance of discretely placed subliminal messages with either negative or black epithet. This campaign denotes racism in the most obvious way, with its use of a black model for a perfume called In Black. In a less obvious way, this campaign denotes racism in its portrayal of the model and its strategic placement of the dove next to her body. The model is cast in the shadow of the dove; she is dressed in a skimpy outfit (practically naked), with stylized chains, and her hair (probably kinky) hidden by white petals. Since a white object, the petals completely hides her hair, it is implied black kinky hair is not beautiful. The model’s head is thrown back, as though all hope is gone, which is the common feeling of a slave, learned hopelessness. It is obvious by her passive demeanour that she has succumbed to her restricted position in society as a black woman.
On the other hand, the white dove symbolizes two things: freedom and people of white ethnicity. The dove is depicted above the model with open claws flying towards the model’s bare chest in the midst of an attack, essentially restricting and overpowering the black model (the negative creature, the shadow). The model as a black figure is so overcome by the supreme white power of the white dove, and what it represents, that she finds it impossible to look into the eyes of the bird. The dove appears to be attacking the very immediate blackness of the model, who is simultaneously embracing the “whiteness’ all around her, as evident by the white petal holding her hair back and the white foliage surrounding her. In other words the dove, the “white man” is only attacking the black model, because she is a negative obstacle in his “white” kingdom. The contrast of the model’s condition against the dove’s condition, amplifies the inference of black oppression in the presence of white supremacy. This serves as the ultimate statement of irony an animal has freedom, yet a human, which is normally thought of as the most civilized of all animals, a black women, has no freedom and is shackled in her place.
This campaign is also sexist. The sexist imagery leads to low self-esteem, with the exception of the incognizant women who embrace the sexist logic. The incognizant women probably view this manner of behaviour, promiscuity, as a means of getting out of poverty. The black model is depicted in a provocative way, with her breast bulging for onlookers to gaze at. This feature is commonly associated with prostitutes, who are characterized as ignorant people lacking intelligence and having low morals. The combined effect of the exotic depiction of the dark-skinned model, the perfume bottle displayed next to her body having a shape resembling a flaccid phallus, and the orchids in the background, which are commonly associated with the vagina, are very suggestive and promotes this ad’s implicit message, female subservience: the existence of the woman solely to pleasure the man. This ad was deliberately vulgar to appeal the white male consumer. Black female sexuality has always been attractive and in sync with the white male’s sexual inclination and fantasies across the color line during slavery and even today. The promotion of female subservience works well for this campaign considering the rigid gender roles established under the machismo system existing in Latin America. Such an image, would of course appeal to the women brainwashed by a macho culture.
Not only is this advertisement degrading to the model portrayed, it also degrading to the black women that view it. The effects of a campaign like this, which depicts a black female model in a stereotypical way, are seen universally in female black populations around the globe. For example in Brazil, the more black and curly-haired you are, the more distant you are from what has been constructed as the superior model: white characteristics. In the In Brazil Its Not Fun Being Black article, the author, Santorri Chamley, elaborates on anti-black racism describing it as, “… an ignored hidden evil… A disease…[that] is silently killing the self-esteem of…black children and forcing many Afro-Brazilians to deny they are black.” This trend towards denying and hating their ethnicity in black women has resulted in the skin-bleaching phenomenon as talked about in the Tyra Banks Show reference the youtube video below, which is an exerpt from the show.
While fellow blogger Madiha Watsi in a post entitled Wild Things: Black Women and Hypersexuality says, “…hyper sexualized Black women…the term ‘exotic’ is imposed…the Black female [is portrayed as] biologically apt to sexual activity. This went along with the narrative of the ‘Welfare Queen’, and protection of the moral code in comparison to white women.” This advertisement, like countless others of the fashion industry, is responsible for the brainwashing of the black women into believing white characteristics are better. The fashion industry’s idea of beauty has long revolved around the ideology of white elitism; white skin is better, therefore everything looks and will sell better on white skin. British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman attempts to justify the institutional racism present in the industry by saying that, “In a society where the mass of the consumers are white and where, on the whole, mainstream ideas sell, it’s unlikely there will be a huge rise in the number of leading black models” (qtd in Savage). The imagery here, is reminiscent of all black women who were raped by white men against their will in the name of white dominance. The black model’s beauty is inhibited through implications of domesticity, illiteracy, weakness, and subservience. The black female viewer would internalize these racist signs in this ad, and ads of this nature, as hatred toward their ethnicity.
It is not clear if the subliminal messaging placed in this ad is just a subconscious projection of the campaign creators’ implicit racism or just flat out intentional racism. The ad suggests if black woman it is expected that you be treated with all the negative connotations it represents. This ad is distasteful, and insulting to black women everywhere. Hopefully sometime in the future the fashion industry with its antique ideology of white elitism will change for the better by ideally adopting contemporary values, especially pertaining to its depiction of black female models working in the industry.
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