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Racism in the Fashion Industry

The fashion and beauty business already has problems when it comes to focusing on super thin models, creating images and standards for girls and women that are nearly impossible to live up to. But another problem in the business that is getting more attention is the racism that is inherent in the fashion world. 

Flip through any number of American or European fashion magazines and the shortage of women of color is astounding. Look at video or attend any of the major runway shows in New York, Paris or Milan and you can usually count on one finger the number of black models walking. There have been too many cases, here and in Europe, of black models being told some version of, “we already have one black model.”

What is the message the industry is sending? Are they saying women of color are not beautiful? That they can’t find enough to feature?

No, what they are saying is that many of the people who make the decisions, the editors for the magazines, and the show directors and fashion designers, are either lazy or just plain racist. It has to be one or the other.

Jezebel, the women-focused online media source, did a great report not long ago on just how bad the situation was at New York’s Fashion Week, one of the biggest fashion events in the world. In their report, they noted that of all the models participating 82.7 percent were white. Black models accounted for 6 percent, Latinas accounted for 2 percent and Asian models were 9 percent of those seen. 

So why is this a problem you might ask. Well first, there is the problem it creates for the women of color in the industry and then there is what it does for girls and women everywhere. Jezebel wrote this as a conclusion to its report on Fashion Week:

There are many negative effects of the industry’s preference for white skin — within fashion, it forces models of color to compete against each other for the one or two runway spots that might go to a non-white girl, it provides downward pressure on non-white models’ wages, and it makes agencies less willing to invest in models of color, given that fewer opportunities mean a lower lifetime earning potential. And outside the industry — because the models who rise to the top of the heap doing runway are the models who go on to do the magazine covers, the cosmetics campaigns, the luxury brand ads, the billboards, and the TV commercials that girls all over the world can’t help but grow up consuming — it promotes the idea that beauty means having white skin.

And that to me is the real problem, not that it isn’t enough that women of color in the business don’t get fair opportunities. But the fashion business – the magazine covers and ads, the billboards for clothes and make-up, the images of thin, white women – creates a standard for what gets into the heads of everyone for what beauty is. Women of color, or more importantly young girls whose skin color is not white have to grow up seeing the message quite clearly that they are not the standard for beauty. And it is not just girls and women that are impacted. So are men who buy into this whole thing too and thus also get caught up buying into thinking, pale white skin and thin women are what they should be desiring. So what the beauty and fashion business does is not just an isolated problem. It is a huge and worldwide problem.

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