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“Colourism is a seed that was planted by white supremacy and watered within our own communities”

Lupita Nyongo

Colourism is a facet of racism, which stems from negative stereotypes regarding darker-skinned individuals. Through racialised depictions in the media, these stereotypes are normalised. Colourism refers to the notion that people who are lighter in complexion and those who exhibit stronger Eurocentric features, have more privilege than people with darker complexions and Afrocentric features. In the modelling industry, colourism has led to individuals with darker skin being underrepresented and the negative societal perceptions of darker complexions has essentially put limits on the opportunities and career progression of dark-skinned models and actors in the industry. Society has been indoctrinated into believing western beauty standards are the ‘ideal’ global standard of beauty.

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Ugandan and Malawian model Mitchelle Daka shared her thoughts on colourism in the modelling industry. “I really realised that the world functions in this way when I moved to South Africa because in South Africa there is like a huge divide. It’s like light-skinned girls deserve the rich men, nice cars and the lifestyle and the dark-skinned girls are just really treated like trash”.

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Additionally, Vogue’s 2020 YouTube series titled “The Models”, gives audiences first-hand accounts of established models’ experiences of colourism and discrimination in the industry. The series features famous Sudanese models Anok Yai and Adut Akech among others. BET also created a YouTube series in 2018 titled “Black like Me”. An episode featuring British model Leomi Anderson, showed famous dark-skinned models talking in depth, about times they had experienced colourism in the industry. 

“According to the Fashion Spot’s diversity report, black models made up 7.4 percent of the total models who walked the Paris Fashion Week fall 2015 season and 8.5 percent of the models who walked the spring 2016 season”. In 2016 the movement “Black Models Matter” started, after Ashley B. Chew, a fine arts graduate, created tote bags which read “Black Models Matter”. These bags were seen on famous people in the fashion industry like Cindy Bruna, Ajak Deng and Miss J Alexander. The movement signified the lack of diversity in the industry and aimed to challenge the existing façade of inclusion. The Black Models Matter movement was ignited again in 2016 during Paris Fashion Week when British based model Indie Irvin, began to protest outside the Balenciaga Show, confronting the brand’s lack of diversity. Additionally, Scarlett L. Newman, discusses the underrepresentation of models of colour in fashion. Her findings convey that in 2017, only 6 percent of models in the US had darker skin tones. 

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However, modelling agencies are being called out for exploiting the stereotypes in order to benefit financially. There has also been a push for more inclusion because even though racial and ethnic diversity in the modelling industry has improved, dark-skinned women are still not getting enough representation. 

Vogue has existed in the industry for over a century, but the company only began to book models with darker skin tones in the last decade. Famous tennis player Serena Williams was the first dark in complexion woman to feature on the cover of Vogue Magazine in 2012. Subsequently, we saw celebrities with dark skin tones like Lupita Nyongo and Michelle Obama on Vogue covers, which signifies progress. However, Vogue’s readership consists of over 24.4 million people globally and a more equal representation of models with different shades is necessary. People all around the world need to see the normality of dark-skinned models, fashion magazines, brands and blogs. Furthermore, the existence of colourism needs to be acknowledged and models with darker skin tones should be uplifted and included.

Famous super model Naomi Campbell has used her platform to speak on colourism and share her experiences of being a black model. In an interview with the BBC she said, “Diversity is not a trend…All skin tones should stay”. 

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Tokenism refers to the way in which only a few people from a minority group are included and are then used to represent the entire group. “Designers have told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you anymore”. Chanel Iman shared this during her interview with the Times of London. This practice is the norm in the modelling industry and once a client or agency has found 1 or a few black models, they no longer scout potential and keep rebooking the same faces for campaigns and shows. Furthermore, the representation of darker skinned models is disproportionately less than that of lighter skinned models.

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Racism and colourism are so pervasive in this industry and although the topic of race is a common discussion in the entertainment and modelling industry, colourism is only just starting to be addressed. Its origins are still embedded in mainstream media. It is based on the notion that we exist on a colour coded spectrum in which the lighter you are, the closer you are to being white and therefore the more superior you are. This idea is reproduced in wider society and whiter society everyday through the marketing and the media. 

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