The Art of Light(en)ing


In yesterday’s Guardian blog Bim Adewunmi asks, “So what if Beyoncé’s skin colour is looking lighter?”, a question which I think has many more answers than she cares to give.

In response to the furore surrounding Beyoncé’s new album cover, Adewunmi makes the perfectly valid point that, of course, black people’s skin colour “changes with the seasons” and so is sometimes simply lighter. Adewunmi puts the fact that Beyoncé is far whiter in this picture than could possibly be accounted for by a lack of sun, down to lighting and retouching, and then considers her case closed. But look at the picture: what Adewunmi has failed to observe is that in post-production the singer has been deliberately turned into a white woman. She is blonde. With pale skin and a heavily made-up face that bears no resemblance at all to any other images of Beyoncé.

The implication is that Beyoncé’s image was not acceptable in its original form, requiring a complete overhaul from black woman to white.

In countries all over the world there are centuries-old prejudices in favour of pale skin, usually signifying higher class and moral purity – the UK, US, India and China are a few examples. However, that cannot be the case for Beyoncé, considering the composition of the image: she is near-naked and draped over leopard skins. Moral purity is evidently not a concern.

My research addresses what happens when human flesh is turned into art. Here we have one example: what happens is that the model’s flesh is no longer their own, modified beyond recognition into a clearly established Western ideal of beauty (in this case very much conflated with sexiness). The philosophies of Plato and St Augustine argue that the more flesh is reified into an abstract ideal of beauty, the more moral that beauty is. The further we get from the actual, tempting flesh, the purer the image becomes. But oddly, in the case of Beyoncé, her post-production team have reified her image into an ideal in an effort to make her more tempting, discarding every hope of moral integrity in the process.

Is it simply racism? A rather archaic devotion to the Marilyn Monroe ideal of beauty? A direct consequence of the continuation of such attitudes is the popularity of products like skin lightening creams. What is most pertinent and worrying is that the image will certainly be aspirational for many.

3 responses to “The Art of Light(en)ing

  • Nyarlathotep

    Adewunmi’s article is completely content-free, which makes it pretty easy (or is it difficult?) to bash it. The final paragraph is painfully weak, where she actually gets around to an off-hand list of real issues and effectively says: ‘Yeah, so problems (a), (b) and (c) exist but Beyonce was never that black anyway so there’. Revolucionarcoiris’s comment below the line is a good rejoinder to this puff piece.

    The point about ‘pale skin prejudice’ is fair enough as a starting point, though race discourse and imagery has moved on very quickly from there, supercharged by colonial discourse and exactly the kind of media that is the subject of this post.

    Not sure the stuff about ‘morals’ is that convincing. Historically, does nudity equal immorality in the timeframe you are using? Is sexualisation inherently ‘immoral’? Does a Platonic idea of ‘moral beauty’ translate directly to a Daily Mail idea of morality as you suggest here? Is it really at the post-production ‘retouching’ stage that this iniquitous and shallow industry loses its ‘moral integrity’?

    I’m interested in the difference between beauty and sexiness. You make a clear distinction here which I can guess at the significance of, but any chance of it being explored at greater length elsewhere?

    • carinaintheory

      These are good questions about morality and sexuality in relation to beauty, thanks for those. It’s particularly interesting in relation to race (warning: I’m going to make a generalisation here), since beauty as an ideal of moral purity has often been a very white one, whereas you’ll know how much non-white women and men have been sexualised and exoticised in historical representation.

      Of course ideas of race (and we know they are ideas rather than facts) have become increasingly murky, and the US/European mainstream media (quite possibly others but I am no authority) now represent sexiness as a white ideal too. Which is where Beyonce comes in: as Adewunmi says, she was never ‘all that black’ anyway, but she has been made up, lit and retouched to look whiter many times, and this has been pointed out frequently on the internet.

      I think that beauty and sexiness have become conflated in current representations, which is one reason for the existence of this blog: sexy beauty is a tough ideal to aspire to, since it requires a sort of untouchable and impossible purity (this reminds me of skincare adverts) as well as an exaggerated appearance of sexual availability. And who can do that without Photoshop (and bodyguards)?

  • BroadBlogs

    I can’t believe Beyonce approved this album cover. And I can’t believe it would be put out without her approval.

    On the one hand, maybe she thought it would help sales given the reality of living in a racist world? Yet now the product lacks her face. It doesn’t look like her at all. You’d think that could hurt sales.

    And, she is hugely successful as a black woman, and in that role can help to change notions of racism. I wish that were where she directed her efforts. And I would think it would be much more satisfying than becoming whitewashed.

    Thanks for the post.

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