Naomi Campbell’s name is synonymous with beauty. For nearly long as most millennials have been alive, Campbell’s image has radiated aloof glamour from magazine covers across the globe.
This week, pictures of Campbell gracing the cover of Vogue Thailand’s November issue hit the internet. As a 20-something dark-skinned black woman, I enjoy having Campbell’s stunning visage greet me like a familiar friend from the front of my favorite glossies. This time, however, I found that the woman the cover was somewhat less than recognizable.
And I wasn’t the only one.
EOnline’s Jennifer Chan writes: "Campbell's rich creamy skin tone looks several shades lighter, while her pretty brown eyes are suddenly a curious shade of grayish blue on the cover. Her nose also looks strikingly slimmer, and her long locks are styled in a cropped bob paired with soft bangs, which is a dramatic departure from her signature sleek runway-ready look. Upon closer inspection, she looks just like…Snow White!"
While I’m not sure Campbell is channeling a white Disney Princess, she probably looks more like a Snow White than she ever has.
For me Campbell has always been a brilliant beacon of black beauty. Growing up I watched her incandescent dark skin, an unequivocal marker of her blackness, shine in photos like the polished wood of the African combs my Liberian mother hung on our living room walls. It is troubling to see that distinctive part of her beauty watered down.
Earlier this year, OkayAfrica editor Derica Shields blogged about another image of Campbell, one that will likely never see the level of exposure her Vogue Thailand cover:
"Seeing the darker skin at Naomi Campbell’s joints is the reason for this post," Shields writes. "This is skin usually evened out for editorials to create smooth lengths of mahogany and ebony. Here we’re confronted by the skin’s life and history.".
In the photo Shields refers to, Campbell reclines like the subject of a classical painting. She is bereft of make-up and Photoshop's caress.
Unlike the Vogue Thailand cover, this photo doesn’t tamper with Campbell’s blackness. It doesn’t succumb to the temptation to smooth over the idiosyncrasies of black skin and, by proxy, the nuances of blackness.
I know the temptation to "smooth" over blackness, to edit — not my skin — but my way of being in certain spaces. Many a black girl grew up being chided for "staying in the sun" for extended periods of time lest they become "too black." The politics of colorism didn’t figure largely in my immigrant family, but somehow I still left childhood with a hyper-awareness of being "too black." A fear of letting my vernacular become too loose, my hair too large, my slang palatable enough for the mainstream.
Editing my blackness, I've learned, results in the erasure of my self. I’ve realized that there are far too many black women who fought and won ideological and political battles in the name of black womanhood for me to shrink in the shadow of white privilege.
In 2013 the narrative of black beauty has been disrupted in a positive and complicated way. That’s why its so disheartening to see Campbell’s image, arguably black beauty’s global face, be distorted by beauty standards that belong to another time.