Look at this picture. It’s basically the same product but they chose to market it differently. And for what reason? Sex sells. We’ve been told that time and time again [thanks Sigmund Freud]. And honestly, with the kind of content being produced from television to the print media, as a society we’ve become pretty immune to it. However, as I peruse through international fashion magazines one thing struck me [and I wonder why I had never occurred to me before]. Doesn’t it seem peculiar that an industry trying to get you to buy expensive clothes and accessories, chooses to market them via semi or fully nude models? What’s on sale here? The product or the female body?The industry seems to have always been comfortable with nudity. If Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model is anything to go by, models must be ready to do casting calls in their knickers and at least one naked photo-shoot, either alone or with others, in their career. Of course that was big with the 90s and 2000s flock but surely the Instagirls don’t have to pose this way? But a quick search reveals most of them already have nude campaigns or covers. Some call it art, others will refer to it as objectification / hyper sexualisation.
Objectification: What is it?
Put simply, objectification is treating or viewing people as objects. However NOMAS, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, has a somewhat more in-depth clarification:
“Objectification [is] portrayals of women in ways and contexts which suggest that women are objects to be looked at, ogled, touched, or used; anonymous things or commodities to be purchased, perhaps taken; and once tired of, discarded, often to be replaced by a newer, younger edition; certainly not treated as full human beings with equal rights and needs.”
The media’s narrative of women tends to place their value on their sexual appeal that should be for the man’s gaze which not only adds to the perception of female beauty and the impossible pursuit of perfection. Whether it’s the whole body or just parts of it, this kind of objectification results in stripping women of dignity and ends up playing a role in the mistreatment of women usually for sexual gratification. And that’s not all, dehumanization of women also kicks up the level of violence against women. How fashion brands thought themes of gang rape, sexual assault, stalking, or gender based violence to mention a few would be the best catalyst to sell a dress/perfume/ earrings defeats my understanding.
The portrayal of black models
As mentioned in previous articles, despite the growth the fashion industry has made in diversity, other races apart from Caucasians are still grossly underrepresented. And when the black model is featured, historically it hasn’t been quite as rosy. From the onset, they have faced having to be compared to wild, exotic animals. An ode to colonialist views of black people as uncivilised if you will. One infamous shoot captured British model Naomi Campbell photographed in the backdrop of the great East African savannah wilderness, in animal-inspired clothing, with wild animals for Harper’s Bazaar. Taken by none other than controversial photographer, Jean-Paul Goude.If you were a fan of Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude was the guy extolled for his ‘visionary’ art of his muse and then-girlfriend in a cage. With raw meat. Under a sign that says don’t feed the wild animals. Well, he did say he had jungle fever. He then put out a book in 1981 by the same title “Jungle Fever” with the infamous picture as its cover art. Photographer and former Photo Director for Playboy Enterprises Inc., Matt Doyle then went on to recreate that shoot with American model, actress, and fashion designer, Amber Levonchuck better known as Amber Rose for Complex magazine’s September 2009 issue.
Years have passed between the two shoots but the message remains the same. Black women are wild, sexual beasts that just can’t seem to shed their animalistic spots. Oh, and remember that ‘breaking the internet’ image of Kim Kardashian for the Paper Magazine? Goude shot that image too with the original image being a black woman as the subject. Talk about a photographer that’s ready to exploit and hyper sexualise a woman’s body. But the issues with the shoot go far deeper than the nudity. They touch on an underlying racist undertone that definitely brings Saartjie Baartman (one of the most famous of the Khoikhoi women of South Africa who, due to her large buttocks (steatopygia), was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe) to mind. Kim’s hair and jewellery were styled to stereotyped images of African Americans during slavery era. And her blank stare when facing the camera has been argued to be a common tool to depict the female hyper sexuality of the black community.
Several sexual references towards black models historically lie in the slavery mentality where the black woman’s body was owned for the master’s sexual gratification or for slave breeding. According to the study ‘Stereotypes: Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans’, slave owners perpetuated the stereotype that black women had insatiable sexual appetites and were promiscuous hence they were branded with the identity of ‘Jezebel’. These jezebel stereotypes were reinforced in an international fashion magazine, Numéro, which ran an editorial spread in 2009 called ‘Best Friends’ where black model R’el Dade appeared topless in every frame next to clothed white model Melodie Dagault. R’el was staged in what appeared to be a subordinate role where she rarely makes eye contact with the camera and is the sexual object. Then there those who just go the whole nine yards in objectification of parts of the body. Terry Richardson (one could argue in the same league as Goude) photographed in really (I mean REALLY) NSFW images that featured model Vanessa Veasley in Supreme’s collection.If it’s not making a reference to their “animal instincts” or “racial stereotypes” the shoots emphasize their ‘other-ness”. Often depicted as different from the other races whether being in bold print, 1920s Harlem Renaissance or being more exposed than the other models. A 2007 Moschino ad series segregated models by ethnicity but only featured nudity in the black models section. Or Italian Vogue’s 17 page editorial spread that showed 12 black models. That was commendable and even the models noted that their bookings went up. However they once again relied on print and bold materials, chunky ‘ethnic’ jewellery, animal inspired fabrics and 1920s references. It almost feels like the magazines or fashion houses release campaigns, editorial shoots or runways stunts to cross of their annual diversity obligations off their list. Black models shouldn’t be treated as a ‘trend’. Isn’t fashion about finding novelty? It really is time to shift the narrative and feature women of colour in interesting, aesthetic situations that are original and contemporary.
Black Male model objectification
It must be noted that men too are objectified by the current media machine. However some of the depictions of black men are similar to the constructs of slavery. Take for example the February/March 2011 cover of Russh Magazine. It featured Belgian model, Delfine Bafort, surrounded by a group of doting black men, who all appear to be lusting after her. While she’s full clothed, they’re very naked.
The portrayal of black women in the fashion industry plays a part in their acceptance globally and their level of self-esteem; from the models to the black women viewing the imagery. Commodifying black women and women in general occurs when fashion refuses to recognise models as complete human beings. While the industry may have toned down with the wild safari shoots, it still reveals its dark underbelly by the continued representation of black females as sexual spectacles to be gawked at. If it is really about art and creativity surely the industry can do better? And actually show the clothes and accessories you’re selling for once.