Porcelain skin. Flawless makeup. Shimmering eyes. Lustrous hair. This is the breathtaking image of Beyoncé Knowles—best known simply as Beyoncé—in the L’Oréal Paris 2008 Féria ad. Naturally, Photoshop technicians were assigned to retouch the dull original still shot into this exquisite frame. These skilled wizards may have over-fiddled with their magical enhancements: The final edit features a significantly lighter-skinned, almost Caucasian Beyoncé, the natural mocha pigment of the iconic celebrity’s skin somehow faded in the misguided abyss of the editing room. It is ironic that the same female singer who famously coined the term “bootylicious” to praise the voluptuous figures of black women allowed this digitally manipulated white version of herself to represent, or more accurately misrepresent, her black image in a national beauty campaign. Beyoncé gives off the impression of two contradicting images of a black woman: one, a proud, curvaceous woman, and the other, a pale-skinned glamazon. With white standards of beauty dominating the market, black celebrities such as Beyoncé are pressured to create two separate identities to deal with society’s questionable appreciation of the black aesthetic. The question remains: Which identity is a more positive representation of the black aesthetic, one that casts black beauty in the starkest of lights or one that embellishes ethnicity to meet so-called universalizing beauty standards?
As expected, L’Oréal released a statement denying they had tampered with Beyoncé’s coloring, stating, “It is categorically untrue that L’Oréal Paris altered Ms. Knowles’ features or skin tone in the campaign for Féria hair color” (McMillon). Even so, bell hooks, author of “In Our Glory,” would likely view Beyoncé’s whitened ad as a wake-up call to the black community that “the field of representation remains a crucial realm of struggle, as important as the question of equal access, if not more important” (57-8). Hooks suggests that blacks use photography to seize control over their own imagery and to combat demeaning representations of blackness created by white racists (59). Applying hooks’ argument, the color distortion of Beyoncé’s skin emphasizes a failure of the image to establish a black “sense of self and identity” (63). The L’Or éal ad highlights the continued white stigma regarding black appearance and that little progress has been made toward appreciating blackness. The physicality of blacks does not fit the exact mold of conventional white beauty standards. Rather than challenging this attitude through positive ethnic representations, Beyoncé’s image instead “promote[s] notions of essence and identity that ultimately restric[t] and confin[e] black image production” (58). Hooks argues that the campaign for black representation is stagnant and this torpor has destructive effects in the formulation of the black identity, causing blacks simply to accept the perceptions of the “dominant culture” and ultimately foster an internalized racism (59).
Fair skin and light eyes have long been celebrated by white society, the rarity of these characteristics accounting for their glamour. Society upholds these qualities as aesthetic ideals, and these standards of beauty carry over into white culture’s reception of black beauty. Black beauty is unusual to the white consumer, and thus not preferred when matched up against conventional beauty standards. One black designer commented on the apparent preference for the white aesthetic: “It’s absolutely true that black models will be not as popular for advertising companies and magazine covers as white girls” (Eden). Until blacks gradually ease whites into the black aesthetic, blacks will have to adapt themselves to match white conventional ideas about beauty. Therefore, Photoshopping Beyoncé’s complexion may not have been entirely a criticism of black beauty, but rather a conformation of black skin to preexisting standards of white beauty. Hooks, however, condemns such acquiescence, maintaining that blacks should not attempt to “remak[e] black bodies in the image of whiteness . . . [and] attemp[t] to perfect the image for a white-supremacist gaze” (62). She insists that photos should be used “to construct radical identities” and “images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye” (64).
Beyoncé’s lightened black skin tone can be understood as a black desire to be a whiter black. When blacks make the attempt to be whiter in both black and white campaigns, they only contribute to the “colonizing aesthetic.” Hooks might argue that intra-black communal rankings based on lightness of skin are “practices that reinscrib[e] colonial ways of looking and capturing the images of the black ‘other’” (62). Confirming hooks’ theories, Beyoncé yielded the opportunity to create an image promoting her ethnicity, and did not help in any way to strengthen the confidence of those blacks who harbor an internalized hatred of their dark skin.
For this reason, it is perplexing to discover that this same celebrity, who very publicly had her signature face lightened for the L’Oréal ad, previously recorded a nationally famous, chart-topping song that extolled black beauty. In May 2001, in an effort to encourage black women to embrace their fuller figures, Beyoncé, then lead singer of R&B group Destiny’s Child, wrote these iconic words, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly. I don’t think you’re ready for this, ’cause my body’s too bootylicious for ya babe” (Destiny’s Child). Beyoncé has expressed that “the song was just telling everyone just forget what people are saying, you’re bootylicious. That’s all. It’s a celebration of curves and a celebration of women’s bodies” (IMdB). The rallying words of the melody embolden black women to be proud and confident about their physical appearance. Praising the black aesthetic, the song is among the first to feature a female artist proposing that a black women’s shapely physique is more attractive to males than the pin-thin frame typically associated with white celebrities. Hooks would probably support Beyoncé’s effort to assert black identity and promote distinguishing black qualities as beautiful in their own right. The words of the song have the power “to make the images live” (63) and “announc[e] our visual complexity” (61) to a society that has not thus far opened their eyes to black beauty.
It seems then that Beyoncé straddles two diametrically opposed identities within the two exhibits—the “Bootylicious” song that glorifies the black aesthetic and the L’Oréal ad that stigmatizes it. Nevertheless, it is not as simple as black or white. It is possible that one could infer the opposite distinction from Beyoncé’s two exhibits. One can interpret the L’Oréal ad as actually the more positive of the two images and the song as more disparaging to black identity. The L’Oréal ad, though widely perceived to be attacking black aesthetics could potentially be more of a glorification of black beauty than “Bootylicious.” The advertisement depicts Beyoncé as a breathtaking woman with enviable skin and magnificent hair. Even though her complexion is whiter, Beyoncé is still noticeably black in the photograph. Many women that see that photo will wish they looked just like Beyoncé, no matter that she is African American. The L’Oréal ad in no way diminishes her indisputable beauty, but instead gives the white consumer an opportunity to appreciate it. The song “Bootylicious,” however, contains lyrics that characterize black women’s bodies in a carnal and purely sexualized way. The song refers to black woman as though they are just sexual conquests for males. The lyrics describe the black aesthetic using derogatory terminology, casting the black physique in a negative light. Therefore, one can say that an ad that works to reduce the traces of blackness—namely the L’Oréal endorsement—in actuality, applauds the black aesthetic more so than a song that comments on the black female’s curves—namely “Bootylicious”— but disrespects the black figure.
It is possible that both of Beyoncé’s contradictory exhibitions help in constructing her own black identity. One can speculate that the reasoning for her paradoxical behavior is her desire to appeal to multiple publics. As a celebrity, Beyoncé feels the pressure to appeal to all people, sometimes by obliging societal expectations and sometimes by making controversial claims in lyrics that challenge those very same conventions. For the aesthetic market dominated by ideal beauty standards, Beyoncé knows a whiter image will help sell more products. For the black community, embracing her ethnicity will help captivate her audience. She is able to miraculously be both a black advocate and a white conformist. In a way, Beyoncé is a bridge between the two worlds, paving new grounds in white society’s recognition of ethnic beauty and introducing Caucasian principles to black society. Still, one cannot effectively deduce Beyoncé’s for taking on seemingly conflicting identities. Why she chooses to be these separate people is beyond what one can theorize about, and Beyoncé declined to comment on the L’Oreal scandal. One can only hope that in the future there will be no need for any ethnic figure to create two divergent identities to please separate masses. Hopefully all societies will be ready for this jelly and the black body won’t be too bootylicious for ya babe.
Destiny’s Child. Bootylicious. Columbia, 2001. CD.
Eden, Richard. “Naomi Campbell Attacks Companies for ‘Dropping’ Black Models in Recession.” The Telegraph 29 Aug. 2009. Web.
30 Sep. 2009.
hooks, bell. “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” Art of My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New Press, 1995. 54-64.
IMdB. “Biography for Beyoncé Knowles.” IMdB.com, 2009. Web. 5 Oct. 2009.
McMillon, Erin T. “Photoshop? Beyonce & L’Oreal Is the Feria Ad offensive?” Suite101.com, 12 Aug. 2008. Web. 5 Oct. 2009.