Who would ever thought that magazine cover starring Scandal megastar Kerry Washington would incite a kerfuffle?
A legitimate style icon and cultural goal post, Washington continually wows us with both her style choices and her ability to thwart international political crises with the drop of her white hat every Thursday night.
But the release of her InStyle March 2015 cover this week caused a ruckus. Gladiators immediately stormed Twitter, upset with what they believed to be a “whitewashing” of the notable African-American actress. Claiming she more closely resembled British actress Helen Mirren than the venerable Olivia Pope, fans raised an uproar. Most believed it to be another instance of mainstream magazines digitally lightening people of color — which has become a much-discussed problem within the publishing industry.
InStyle was quick to comment on the furor brewing around the issue, writing an impassioned missive detailing their respect for Washington. It reads:
We are super fans of Kerry Washington here at InStyle. To feature her on the cover of our March spring fashion issue is both an honor and a delight. We have heard from those who have spoken out about our newsstand cover photograph, concerned that Kerry’s skin tone was lightened. While we did not digitally lighten Kerry’s skin tone, our cover lighting has likely contributed to this concern. We understand that this has resulted in disappointment and hurt. We are listening, and the feedback has been valuable. We are committed to ensuring that this experience has a positive influence on the ways in which we present all women going forward.
Washington followed up this mea culpa with a tweet of support, claiming the discussion of representation within media was an important one to broach.
While Washington dazzles here — draped in a shimmery gown that hinting at springtime — admittedly, she is demonstrably washed out and her skin is lighter. As InStyle explains, their cover lighting formula is indeed an effect many photographers and magazines employ, but it equally underscores the error of the invention itself: racial bias is rooted in photography’s origins.
In the early days of photography, the development of “Shirley cards” — color performance cards — were used to determine the color-balance in still-photography printing. Photo lab technicians in the 1940s and 1950s, however, used a white female dressed in brightly colored clothes as their stasis for this criterion — a white woman was the standard by which all colors were compared.
As Syreeta McFadden so saliently argues in her article, “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin,” “With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.” This move, McFadden believes, was a deliberate choice made not to capture darker skin tones accurately. Kodak would eventually expand their film calibration to include to include darker tones, but the practice of using Shirley cards only became extinct in the mid-1990s.
So, while InStyle was earnest in its explanation over Washington’s altered appearance, the real issue remains that photography, at its core, has never been developed to perfectly capture and truly see people of color. We need to see an industry-wide shift in implementation, rather than an unrelenting obstinance to adhere to standards that just don’t apply to everyone.
The issue is dire enough that it prompted Bollywood star/former Miss Universe Aishwarya Rai to threaten to sue Elle India for dramatically lightening her skin for her 2010 cover story. She simply wanted to see an accurate portrayal of herself and she was certainly owed much more.
Read further to see nine more times stars of color have been subjected to skin lightening.