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Social Studies

Light, Bright...

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 8/13/2008

I don't know . . . B. looks a li'l light to me in that picture, too. As I get older, I tend not to jump on these random racialized-complaint things, whether it's LeBron James looking like King Kong or Cristal not wanting to bring down its brand by being associated with hip-hop. But when critics questioned whether or not the fine folks at L'Oreal had lightened Beyoncé's face in their new ad, well, again, she looks damn light, and God knows Beyoncé was never the most chocolate sister to begin with. In the ad, she looks like that old Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy dressed up like a white man. The thing is, though, this ain't the first time her look has changed.

I pretty much ignored the whole Destiny's Child thing the first go-round because, well, I'm a grownup, and they made music for children. As far as I was concerned, if I'm listening to a song called "Bug a Boo," I might as well have been listening to the Wiggles or something. But one day they were playing a whole slot of DC videos, and while, as The Boondocks said so succinctly, you really do just have BET on in the background, I was pulled out of whatever I was doing and struck by the way Beyoncé has visually changed over the years. Seriously, go look at the "No, No, No" video. I'll wait. See what I mean? While you can argue she hasn't been significantly lightened, she's certainly been Anglicized. Her hair has lightened over the years, the makeup's a little less pronounced, the whole package has been redone as time has gone by in a way that makes Beyoncé a li'l bit more palatable to middle America.

And I'm not trying to just throw salt on Beyoncé's game, because everybody does it. Go look at Jennifer Lopez's transformation over the years. When she was on In Living Color, she was dramatically darker and more ethnic-looking than she's been in almost 10 years. You can do this exercise with a lot of folks, too. From Halle Berry to Lil' Kim, many people of color get to Hollywood and, as they get more famous, they all get a little more sculpted, a little more packaged . . . a little more white. I mean, we can get into a whole "images of beauty" thing, but, hey, BET's on. Just raise your head up from the paper and look at the videos.

Then, of course, there's Michael Jackson. What can I say about Jackson and his appearance that hasn't been said already? Y'know, one of my favorite T-shirts features a huge closeup picture of Mike at about 11 years old. He's got the Afro and the wacky clothes, but what's striking is the sad, haunted look in his eyes. I love the shirt because I think it captures the pain and pathos of one of music's most fascinating figures at that flashpoint in time when it all went horribly wrong. Here's the thing, though: My daughter asked me a couple of weeks ago who it was on my shirt. And when I told her, she looked confused, because she likes the "Remember the Time" video that gets played on the playing-in-the-background BET. I have to say, I figured I had a couple of years for the "Are we going to die?" conversation and the "birds and bees" one, but, boy, I wasn't ready for the "Why's Michael Jackson so light now?" one.

That's because the answer to that question isn't just about Jackson. I know I'm a Jackson apologist, but I maintain that joking about his various surgeries is something people should be easy about, because, if we're brutally honest, a lot of black folks would have done the same thing if they had the resources. Into the early '90s, the back of any issue of Ebony magazine featured advertisements for skin-lightning creams, and it wasn't Michael Jackson buying them. The stars may have made it manifest, but a whole bunch of people have been grappling with a Eurocentric definition of beauty for years.

So, yeah, it does look to me like there's a bit of the okey-doke going on with that L'Oreal ad. When you're dealing with this level of professionalism and the amount of money that goes along with it, I find it hard to believe that anything, much less an iconic face like Beyoncé's, is altered by accident. But, if we're going to get up in arms about images of beauty, let's not pretend that the makeup company is the one that made it up.

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