What Gabby Sidibe’s Cover Tells Us About “Looking Good” in Print

Editors talk about how--and why--they manipulate images of women.

By Ayana Byrd Sep 25, 2010

Was Gabourey Sidibe lightened on the cover of the September issue of "Elle"? The fashion magazine claims no, she was not. The blogosphere and most people with no more expertise than clear eyesight can discern the difference between the darker-skinned Sidibe and the lighter version on the cover. And the outrage it sparked has been loud and enduring, causing Elle to issue a formal defense of their 25th anniversary edition.

The did-they-lighten-her debate could go on forever. But the controversy Elle stirred highlights broader questions for the consumer magazine and website world. In an industry that leans heavily on Photoshop and other techy tricks to make women of all sorts look "good" and "beautiful," what is really going on behind the scenes, in darkrooms and art departments, photo studios and production houses, to build the pictures of women of color that we consume?

"It is our responsibility as editors to give a damn about how images will affect the minds of the women it serves," says Joicelyn Dingle, one of the founding editors of "Honey," a now-digital magazine targeting black women. "Magazines should invite women to aspire."

But aspire to what? If aspiration is in fact the goal, then perhaps it’s helpful to understand how the Sidibe cover could have happened in the first place. We know a very brown woman walked into the studio, just as we know a milk chocolate face hit the newsstands. Was it bad lighting? Or overzealous Photoshopping? And how often do similar things happen in the fashion magazine world?

"Let’s be honest. Skin lightening is a common practice on photos of white women. All the time. But no one gets mad or notices," says Denise See, an art director who has worked at "Latina," "Vibe Vixen" and "Jane." "Also, it’s never called that. You’d never see a Post-it or get an email telling you to lighten skin. You’re told ‘open it up so we can see more detail’ or ‘brighten the image overall.’ "

The reasons for "brightening" an image run the gamut. Sometimes it’s wanting more "pop" from the eyes. Or as photo editor Meagan Ziegler-Haynes explains, in more artistic shots editors manipulate skin to fit into the overall look of the image. "You see yellow skin a lot that is totally unnatural, but in sync with what the photographer wants to convey. That said, for a more ‘natural’ cover like ‘Elle,’ it’s weird to make her so light. But people mess around with post-production a lot these days. It’s not like back in the film times."

Dingle, who has also worked in photo production at "Essence" and "Vibe Vixen," remembers when film still reigned supreme. "At ‘Honey’, we had an old-school retouch artist who did the work by hand. He gave us three versions of a photo of Kim Porter and kept referring to the lightest one as the more beautiful one," she recalls. "We were able to choose the one that actually looked like her."

As the editor in charge of the magazine’s look, Dingle could be heavily involved with the post-production process. Now with digital, as Ziegler-Haynes explains, it is the photographer who exercises more control of how the image is manipulated once it is shot.

"Nowadays, the photographer has a huge amount in the budget for retouching," she explain. "Digital pictures are not as beautiful as film, so they need a fair amount of work done on them. And there’s soooo much room for change to make the picture look its best, it can get out of hand."

Of course, that brings you back to the question of what looks best. If the beholder’s eye deems blackness less attractive, then what will he do to get to something he considers beautiful? And is the solution to insure that there are more black people, more lovers of African features behind the cameras and atop the art departments?

"Yes," answers blogger Lori Tharps, who writes about race and multiculturalism daily on My American Melting Pot. "I think we have a lot more positive representations of the diversity of black beauty now as a result of more black people working in media."

Dingle disagrees, explaining, "I never thought it was the responsibility of mainstream magazines to portray my lifestyle in print. Magazines generally are very niche. The editors at most of those books are reflecting the lifestyle they experience or aspire to." The answer, says Dingle, isn’t black staffers at white dominated publications; it’s more publications who speak to the experiences of communities of color. "If things were to change it would not be about getting a job at Conde Nast. Black people and people of color must start their own publishing ventures if they want to see and experience themselves."

That may be true, but what does happen on-set at, say, an "Elle" shoot deeply impacts the way women of color are represented in the broader culture. And it’s not just about lighting and skin. For many, the greatest tragedy of Sidibe’s Elle cover is the wig or weave or whatever they’ve done to her hair. It is in this area–styling hair–that black women can be at the greatest disadvantage on set.

"It is totally unacceptable to send a hairdresser without experience working with black hair or make-up," says Ziegler-Haynes. "And it’s easy in the hustle of production to forget that [working with black hair is] experience that not all make-up and hair people have."

All of this, just to make a cover model look her "best." All of this, in a tail-chasing game with the notion of a singular standard for "looking good." Thighs are erased, wrinkles are demolished, noses are whittled away. And Gabby Sidibe’s beautifully rich skin is washed out and away.