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What Is The Colour of Beauty?

May 27, 2010

Sharon Haywood is a body image activist, writer, editor, and feminist. As with all labels, that’s not the sum and substance of who she is.

  • She’s also an adventurer who took to backpacking in her late 20’s as a way of re-evaluating her professional goals. She traveled from her home in Toronto, Canada through Mexico, Southeast Asia and most of South America.
  • She found a second home in Buenos Aires, Argentina and now writes and edits for a living.
  • She’s the associate editor of,  a site that promotes healthy self-image for all sizes, cultures & races and writes informative posts like the one you’re about to read.

    What is the Colour of Beauty?

    According to a 2008 survey about models in New York fashion week:

    • Six percent are black
    • Six percent are asian
    • One percent are latina
    • Eighty-seven percent are white

    When the modeling world is criticized, the media, activists, and the general public focus in on the fact that the standard size zero of today’s models represents a very small percentage of women in the real world. But size is not the only way the fashion industry excludes. A new short documentary, “The Colour of Beauty,” examines how the ideal in fashion is not only rail thin, but also white. The documentary’s creator Elizabeth St. Philip, highlights Renee Thompson’s experience as a black model in a white world:

    Renee Thompson is trying to make it as a top fashion model in New York. She’s got the looks, the walk and the drive. But she’s a black model in a world where white women represent the standard of beauty. Agencies rarely hire black models. And when they do, they want them to look “like white girls dipped in chocolate.”

    “The Colour of Beauty,” is part of the Work for All series, a Canadian project that makes “films against racism in the workplace.” View St. Philip’s documentary and learn more here.

    Addendum To The Post – Questions Not In The Documentary

    1. How do girls of color feel when they don’t see their skin color and their physical features celebrated as beautiful in the fashion industry?

    2.If, as I believe, the fashion industry’s self-declared standard of beauty has a negative impact on girls’ and women’s body image and self-esteem  (e.g., how can one “compete” with digitally enhanced body images that slim thighs, elongate necks, change jawlines, remove blemishes and more) then have women of color possibly benefitted from not being compared to unrealistic body types and looks?  

    What do you think?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2010 8:51 am

    As always, Cherry, you raise a compelling question. The whole issue is simply baffling to me. For some reason, I thought that fashion week was an occasion to showcase new styles, accessories, and fabrics. I thought it was about the clothes. So you’d think the skin color of the model would be irrelevant. Guess not!

  2. May 27, 2010 11:18 am

    Cherry great piece. Dawn, you know I love you but I have to respectfully disagree. :)

    Fashion is just as much about skin color of the models as it is about clothes. Fashion ideally should be color blind because all people wear clothes. Well most people but that’s a different story! From a business perspective, a designer should want to sell as many clothes as possible to whomever would like to buy them. Women of color tend to have more curves but there are fashionable clothing for us as well. What’s going to motivate me as a woman of color to want to buy a design if I don’t see it on someone that looks like me?

    The fashion industry has it’s standards and I get that. But there are tons of women of color, exotic women who have what it takes to be top models. But because of the loudly silent racism that keeps them off the runway they don’t get seen. Where are the examples for the little girls of color who want to be models? We can all just rely on Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model to see images of ourselves competing to be thought of as good enough to represent on the runway.

    In an “ideal” world, it would be just about the clothes. In the “realistic world” it’s much deeper than that. I would challenge people of color in buying and decision making positions to boycott fashion week if there isn’t fair representation. How do I look, a buyer at say Macy’s, knowing I have a multicultural customer base with varying proportions, only buying what appears to fit the typical model type: white, slim and young? Step back and think of it from that perspective. I’m not saying there aren’t Black, Asian, Latina (etc) slim young women out there. I’m saying that there is no representation of that. On the other side of this discussion what about the plus size women? Why can’t we see the same type of clothing for them as well?

    Women love to be fashionable. Why can’t we have a fair representation of that?

    I’ll step off my soapbox now. :)

    • May 27, 2010 6:50 pm

      What a wonderful soapbox it was Adrienne. Thanks for adding to the discussion.
      You are so right about women of all sizes wanting fashionable clothes. Someone had written in on another post and said she was short and chunky and could only find box shaped clothes or baggy, saggy things. Ridiculous.

      And yes, runways are also about the color of the model’s skin. See Charlotte Hunt’s comment, she use to be a runway model.

    • May 27, 2010 8:11 pm

      Love you back, Adrienne. I guess my tongue-in-cheek sarcastic quip at the end of my comment missed its mark! I’m with you all the way and am thrilled that Cherry is doing so much to keep these issues front and center, keeping the dialogue going, and poking a stick in these nests!

      BTW, congrats on your upcoming anniversary! You’ve really worked hard for this party! Great to hear from you here and everywhere! Best, ~Dawn

  3. Born To Motivate permalink
    May 27, 2010 12:31 pm

    Fashion is about putting women on pedestals. Adorning them with clothes and jewelry and all the works that will create a work of art in human form. White women have this luxury globally. The luxury of being considered works of art in clothes, or models. Society has sold us this tall, slender, pale image and has called it beautiful so many times that we now believe that nothing else is beautiful. But what happens when the lights are shut off & the curtain goes down? The same thing that happened at night when the Master of the slave plantation’s family went to sleep. He would go into the slave quarters, choose the blackest, roundest slave he had, and have sex with her. Probably every night. Her fat curves and dark, dark skin were enough to make her beautiful then.

    Matter of fact, Black women have ALWAYS been considered exotic “things” to play with, make babies with, and keep in the back of the house. What does this have to do with your article today? Well… No master would ever MARRY this dark Black mammy that worked in his house. He would never sit her on a pedestal in front of the WORLD to show off, adorn, & call BEAUTIFUL. That is what his wife was for… his tall, slender, pale WIFE. But the one whom he kept fat and dark and working for attention and in labor… his adoration for her could never be seen in the light, LET ALONE ON A RUNWAY TO BE PRAISED??

    Now to answer your question… do women of color wish they were under that kind of scrutiny, just to have a place in the insane world of bulimia & cat-scratches?? probably not. I can’t speak for Women of Color, though… There are millions of voices in that category and I only have 1. However, I do know that from what I have seen, WOC have their OWN standard of beauty that is in NO way endangered by the maniacal standards that have been superimposed upon us or anyone else. Sure, all little girls want to be superskinny at some point in life b/c of what we see on the covers, but when reality sets in, and we begin to love our womanly features – and when self-esteem sets in & we begin to adore what is OURS and no one elses – we’re okay. I believe.

    However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Black girls are immune from that insanity that is the model world b/c that would be to diminish self-esteem problems in our communities, that stem from many, many places. We suffer from bulimia, anorexia, and a host of other esteem-related issues, as well… However, a huge chunk of the standard of beauty in Black America comes from our African roots, OR what the people who control the media – who are NOT Black or Latino – want us to believe are our roots. UGH!

    I must stop now! This comment is taking TOO many turns. I can’t even delve as deeply as I WANT to right now. Here, watch this link, and you’ll understand what I mean. The treatment of Sara Bartmann explains a LOT about why we can’t be seen on the runway….

    • May 27, 2010 11:26 pm

      There were a lot of twists and turns and you still remained true to your beliefs – that black women still don’t make it to the Big House/The Runway.

      Your passion is invigoratingly palpable. The video link was powerful, disturbing and a reminder how cruel people can be. I don’t think we should ever forget that lest we overlook things, look away or join “the group.”

      You are a voice of 1 and a strong 1. Cherry

  4. May 27, 2010 2:16 pm

    I second that Adrienne. Why is the only acceptable female form to showcase clothing the Eurocentric ideal? Women come in all sizes and races. I agree that more women need to make their voices heard by boycotting such events that clearly lack fair representation.

    Thanks for keeping this conversation going Cherry.

    • May 27, 2010 11:27 pm

      You’re welcome Sharon. Without you I wouldn’t have been able to keep it going. AdiosBarbie.

  5. May 27, 2010 5:43 pm

    I totally agree with your post. As a former international runway model who is black, the standard has always been thin and white. Unfortunately, the thin of my time was a size 7-8. Now, the size is 0-2. That’s crazy!

    I remember being in fashion shows where the clients had specifically told the producer not to have more than 2 blacks in the show because it would look “too black”.

    All that to say, yes the modeling industry certainly still has work to do.


    • May 27, 2010 11:34 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience, it added value to the discussion.

      Size-wise we need our models to get back to 7-8. Ashley Graham, (last post) is a size 16 and having a good career, so that’s an improvement. I’d like to see models of all sizes, colors, “looks” etc. – true diversity and representation of the entire range of women in the world.

  6. May 27, 2010 9:30 pm

    Charlotte said it all when she said “the modeling industry certainly still has work to do” … on so many levels. Anorexic models, where eating disorders are the norm rather than the exception, predominantly white models, and designers who insist on that. Such a sad reflection of our society.

    • May 27, 2010 11:36 pm

      It is a sad reflection of our society. AdiosBarbie/Sharon also has a post about how the anorexia and dehydration tactics are now becoming common in the male modeling industry as well. So unfortunate.
      Thanks for stopping by Shelly, always good to have your input, Cherry

  7. May 28, 2010 9:56 am

    Must thank Born to Motivate for the insightful post and providing Sara Baartman’s story via YouTube. Absolutely heart-wrenching. More of us must combine our efforts to make the 21st century about celebrating diversity. The modeling industry must be challenged to change its current face and body. It simply just isn’t acceptable as is.

  8. June 2, 2010 11:52 am

    If fashion is about putting women on pedestals, how come the body types are standardized? If the ratio for women of color in modeling is so low, could it be that other women of “majority” seek to enter the profession of modeling at a greater ratio?

    I can say that having a fashion background and some experience in modeling, as a woman of color, there are a lot of stereotypes that people choose to be obstacles. Many of my friends focus more on the fashion than the model, without a thought to how they would compare in that body type. They see how they may wear the clothes and not how they would live in the skin.

    I would like to think that esteeming ourselves, comparing ourselves against a standard, would not be necessary and definitely not taught to children as they grow up. Why do we not acknowledge the uniqueness of each child and celebrate it with a focus on living healthy lives instead of comparing from one’s standard of beauty. In the end, self-esteem is a learned behaviour and mainly taught as an example of the comparisons people make of their bodies (usually with a lack of gratitude and appreciation), instead of teaching and exampling self-love and appreciation and celebrating what is uniquely ours. Many women and girls who fit into the standard that fashion and modeling outline are scrutinized and get mixed signals from those around regarding their body image, making it very difficult to enjoy the bodies they were gifted with and can lead to many dysfunctional behaviours as a result. I would ask myself constantly if I had friends whose photos were in magazines and bodies criticized if I would stand by and watch them be attacked or if I would stand up and celebrate their uniqueness as well.

    We see the photo from this side of the page. What does it look like from the other side?

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