The fact that every step Beyoncé (or her family) takes attracts interest is nothing new, and neither is the attention that spans beyond her career and includes any part of her personal life, the clothes she chooses for the concert, her new hairstyle or even the color of her skin. And that’s not just a figure of speech.
Last weekend, the singer attended the premiere of the documentary Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé in Los Angeles, sporting a silver dress designed by Donatella Versace, who was quick to share a photo of the artist in the outfit on her Instagram account. The post received more than 500,000 likes and around 6,000 comments not so much focused on the garment but on her skin tone, which is much lighter than usual, and her straight platinum blonde hair. Some even compared her to the Kardashians, and one commenter bemoaned that the singer “wasn’t proud of her origins and bleached her image to fit in with another race.”
In an article in the El Español newspaper, two experts analyzed the images and agree that the controversy is unfounded, because the fact that she looks almost white is not necessarily the result of depigmentation, but rather the quality of the photo, the use of the flash or the chromatic effect caused by the dress itself. If the answer were so simple, why has such an uproar ensued and what lies behind it? A whole bunch of questions must be addressed.
To begin with, successful women tend to be put under the microscope and judged very harshly — this was already occurring in the pre-social media era, although today it has magnified. Opinions are expressed about their clothes, their physique, their looks and sometimes even about their work.
On the other hand, there is a feeling of déjà vu here, as this is not the first time this has happened. In 2008, L’Oreal came under fire for using a photo that showed Beyoncé in a very clear light. At the time, the brand denied manipulating the image.
However, color matters, and so does the shade of Black. The study conducted at the University of Chicago in 2008, before Barack Obama’s election victory, is proof of this. In the study, three photos were used of the future president of the United States, one with his real color, another in which he appeared lighter, and the third was darker. Most of the people who intended to vote for him believed that his real tone was the lighter one, and yet those who favored the Republican Party thought that the real picture was the one in which he came out darker. Therefore, having a better perception of Obama went hand in hand with viewing him as less Black. This may seem somewhat racist to us, but this even happened within his own party. An advertising campaign in support of Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the primaries, was slammed for supposedly “blackening” the man who would go on to occupy the White House.
This speaks of biraciality, whose perception can be very contextual, as is the case with race itself, which is a social construct. There are mestizo people who are perceived as white in Africa, as Black in the West or with one of the thousand or so caste designations left by Spain in Latin America. Nevertheless, it is also linked to colorism, a term coined by the African American writer Alice Walker. The author who, while admitting that all Black people experience racism, points out that those with darker skin, thicker lips or wider noses face greater discrimination, are perceived as more dangerous and less beautiful.
Colorism is usually related to texturism, which is the same but applied to hair. Therefore, curly hair, which is not so curly but that is wavier than afro hair, enjoys a greater social acceptance. In fact, last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that prohibits discrimination on the basis of having natural afro-textured hair, and this serves as evidence that this discrimination exists and is not a subjective perception stemming from extreme fragility.
You only have to take a look at the movie industry or the fashion catwalks to see for yourself. And no, Lupita Nyong’o or Viola Davis are not the rule, but rather the exception. However, moving away from the celebrity scene, when it comes to hiring people for customer service or care jobs, a kind of meter of Blackness exists, which means that it is not so easy to find dark-skinned, curly-haired Black people performing certain jobs in particular places.
This obviously has consequences. Voluntary depigmentation using chemicals is widespread in several African and some Caribbean countries, where some people use cosmetics with incredibly high percentages of hydroquinone in order to bring down their skin tone by a few shades. The aesthetic role models who appear on television, on magazine covers or on billboards are Rihanna-like — in other words, with lighter skin — and they aspire to look like these celebrities. The trouble is that Black people are this way as a form of adaptation and natural protection in an environment where the sun and its effects can be very damaging in lighter shades. Indeed, this is already the situation: cases of skin cancer are on the rise and, as if that were not enough, as the dermis becomes thinner, in the event of surgery, suturing becomes more complicated. This practice is more common among women and though some men lighten up (former baseball player Sammy Sosa and dancehall singer Vybz Kartel are the best-known cases), the vast majority of women do it because they are under much more pressure to be aesthetically pleasing.
And then there is the issue of hair. Many girls have grown up hearing that their hair is wrong as if, in the words of Cuban rapper and cosmetologist Robe L Ninho, they were criminals just because they grew looking to the clouds instead of their waistlines. From this perspective, the application of aggressive concoctions, the countless hours and money spent at the hairdresser’s and the hair straightening done by many generations of women, have not been a mere aesthetic whim but a product of the need to adapt to a context where who they were and are is considered bad, not enough or not formal enough.
The good news is that there are more and more associations, media outlets and individuals who are using new cultural and aesthetic approaches to provide other reference points. There are also countries, such as the Ivory Coast, Rwanda and Senegal, which have opted to ban the use of depigmenting agents and/or the broadcasting of commercials that advertise them. The common goal is to fight to eradicate impossible, harmful, racist and colonial norms. Now the message needs to spread.
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