The Implicit Racism in Magazines

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There’s an underlying bias against people of color in national magazines aimed at a female readership.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Are you shocked by how much racism reared its head this past election? In hindsight, there were clues everywhere—even in the photo spreads of magazines aimed at women readers.

Newly published research examines the images found in 17 popular publications. It reports more than 90 percent of black, Asian, or Latina women had either light- or medium-toned skin.

Psychologists Leah Boepple and J. Kevin Thompson of the University of South Florida reveal their findings in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. They examined the June 2014 issues of the 17 highest-circulation American magazines geared toward female readerships, including Elle, Seventeen, InStyle, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan.

They examined all 6,527 photographic images in the magazines, both from advertisements and editorial copy. A range of variables were coded to classify the 3,440 women who were pictured, including race, age, skin tone, facial features, and hair (including texture, length, and styling, or lack thereof).

They found the percentages of Latina, Asian, and Native American women represented in the magazines were below their actual share of the population—in the case of Latinas, far below: Latinas represented just 2.4 percent of the women pictured although they make up about 17 percent of the population.

When you exclude magazines specifically targeted at African Americans, black women accounted for 10.35 percent of the images, which is reasonably close to their 13 percent of the population.

However, “among black women, the majority (63 percent) had artificially straightened hair, and a portion had blonde hair,” the researchers note. “These appearance norms reflect Caucasian standards of beauty.”

That is apparently also true when it comes to skin tone. In their most striking finding, “Ninety-six percent of black women, 91.67 percent of Asian women, and 96.61 percent of Latina women had either light- or medium-toned skin.”

“It might be expected that magazines directed toward black audiences may relax mainstream appearance standards,” Boepple and Thompson write. “However, roughly the same percentage of women in these magazines had light skin tones.”

Turning to noses (which were categorized as narrow or wide) and lips (thin or full), they found that “42 percent of black women, 100 percent of Asian women, and 54 percent of Latina women had smaller facial features consistent with Caucasian norms.”

While that suggests “small facial features may be an idealized feature for Asian American women,” the fact that a majority of black women had larger features provides hope that “appearance standards are perhaps becoming more egalitarian, and are incorporating a wider conceptualization of beauty for black women.”

Nevertheless, the skin-tone standards seem quite strict, and clearly apply to all minority women. This finding raises two important questions: How does such imagery affect darker-skinned women who read these magazines? And what does it say about the narrowness of our cultural assumptions regarding beauty?

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