Gabourey Sidibe is a (Much Lighter) Elle Cover Girl

When is landing a fashion magazine cover more a snub than a coup?

By Julianne Hing Sep 13, 2010

Gabourey Sidibe has landed her first fashion magazine cover, kind of. The 25-year-old ingenue is the solo cover for the October issue of Elle magazine. Starting next month, you can pick up a copy of Elle with Sidibe flashing her pearly whites and glamming it up for the cameras in an emerald green Tadashi Shoji dress.

Except look closely, and you’ll notice there’s something off in Sidibe’s cover photo. Sidibe’s skin is noticeably lighter than usual. Elle clearly couldn’t handle Sidibe’s real skin color, and traded away her actual color for something dramatically lighter.

It’s a common, tired practice, and the routine is well-practiced: beauty companies and fashion magazines regularly lighten women’s skin (and darken the faces of black men), pissed off consumers shout back, and sometimes an apology is issued. But come the next fall collection or election season, photo retouchers are inevitably back to trying to make women of color more attractive by lightening them, and darkening the skin of men of color to make them seem more dangerous and suspect. Color, still, is everything.

And that’s just one thing Elle got wrong with its Sidibe cover. By cropping Sidibe’s cover photo so close, Elle may have been trying to hide her full-figured body–its own travesty–but they only made her seem bigger. Sidibe doesn’t get the standard female cover photo treatment: three-quarters of the woman’s body centered with strong margins of white space on either side of the woman. She gets a uniquely awkward cropped shot.

And I’ll just say what I know you’re thinking: the weave Elle gave her is not doing Sidibe any favors. It’s the kind of unflattering and embarrassingly obvious weave that a fashion magazine should be ashamed to put on anyone. (And Elle’s done it to Beyonce in the past, too.)

Landing a cover is a big deal for any star, more so for Sidibe, whose skin color and wise-cracking smarts and body type make her something of an obvious outsider in Hollywood. Sidibe’s also been famously snubbed by fashion magazines. She was reportedly passed over by Vogue, because she was too big. And in March, Sidibe was left off a Vanity Fair cover of nine young actresses for the magazine’s "Young Hollywood 2010!" spread. The women who made the cut were, you guessed it, all white.

At the time, Access Hollywood asked her about how it felt to be sidelined in favor of five nearly identical pale white female actresses. Sidibe, with her characteristically tough mettle, shrugged it off:

"Was I satisfied? Yeah, well… I mean, I come from a world where I’m not on covers and I’m not in magazines at all," Gabourey said. "And so I was happy to be in the magazine.

"At first I thought, ‘Hmm, should I be there?" she continued, about the cover shoot. "Then I very quickly got over it. I think if I were a part of that shoot I would have felt a little left out anyway."

And judging from October’s Elle, it may have been just as well that Sidibe was left off the Vanity Fair cover. The fashion industry clearly gets flummoxed by any woman whose body and skin color are outside American society’s narrow definitions of beauty. In 2007, Vogue also ran an unflattering photo of Jennifer Hudson when they gave her a cover. It’s illustrative of all the ways that when it comes to full-figured women of color, landing a fashion magazine cover isn’t always a compliment. Too bad for the fashion industry; it pays time and again for its racial faux pas with ridicule from the rest of the world. But unfortunately for us, fashion magazines don’t operate in a vacuum. If only the fashion and beauty industries were not a reflection of our culture and our society, our own ignorance. It’d be so much easier to make fun of.

h/t Womanist Musings