The consensus among industry professionals in fashion is that although great progress has been achieved in the profession, great amounts of work are needed to make it more accessible for models of color. One of the first black models, Bethann Hardison was quoted by the New York Times as saying “Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work.” In 2007, several of the leading black supermodels launched a campaign against race-based discrimination in the fashion industry.
We cannot know for certain the logic and prejudices in a designer's model selection, or the daily experience behind the catwalk for models of color. What is more certain is that the traditionally white-dominated publishing industry, the public and accessible face of fashion, is changing with the appointment of the first African American Senior Health and beauty editor for Teen Vogue, Elaine Welteroth.
With a total circulation of 1.18 million readers and a total audience of 3.4 million, Teen Vogue is one of Conde Nast's established publications. Reaching an audience that is 93% female and relatively young (on average teens to early 20s), Teen Vogue's appointment of an African American beauty editor has the potential to affect perceptions of beauty and race in an industry famous for its static conceptions of pulchritude. Teen Vogue's appointment is following a greater trend of the diversification of the fashion magazine industry, a change that is occurring with the introduction of publications like the bi-lingual Glamour Belleza Latina and the appointment of Ying Chu as Glamour beauty editor, in the past year.
As a rather young editor, Welteroth sees her appointment as an opportunity to appeal to a younger, digitally connected demographic and a chance to establish a stronger connection between Teen Vogue and its readers of color. Prior to Teen Vogue, Welteroth worked as beauty writer and editor for Glamour magazine, and beauty and style editor for Ebony magazine. In an interview with Racked.com, she commented that “beauty is an important space to see a range of perspectives, because it's a particularly personal topic. We write about products you wear on your skin and in your hair, which come in a wide range of shades and textures. A sense of trust is established when your reader feels like there is someone on the masthead who understands them and can speak up for them on these topics.”
One example of the ways in which Welteroth's diverse experiences add to the magazine's profile can be found in an article about maintaining (and loving!) her curly hair. Sharing an anecdote of her personal struggle with “torturous, hours-long hair-straightening sessions”, the new beauty editor admits that as a teen “sleek, silky strands made me feel prettier” and that she “was completely clueless about how to deal with ... curls!” For anyone informed of the politics of aesthetics and race in African-American and Afro-Latin American communities, the dilemma of posed by so-called "unruly" curly and kinky hair is a familiar one. To leave the hair natural and defy traditional conceptions of beauty or to straighten and chemically alter hair in order to fit them? Welteroth's candid admission in the middle of a beauty and style article shows confidence in her head of bouncy curls and her African American heritage.
“I might have straightened my hair for every event in high school from picture day to prom,” she writes. “But for this dream-job debut, it's all about the curls. The bigger, the better.” In an increasingly multicultural society, statements like these might inspire young Teen Vogue readers to defy the conventions that assign social value to certain aesthetic features over others and embrace more of their authentic selves.