In 1994 Meg Ryan reigned as People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman” during the peak of her run as America’s romantic comedy darling. Michelle Pfeiffer has covered the issue twice, while Julia Roberts seems to be the magazine’s go-to girl with four covers of her own. Last year, Jennifer Lopez made history as the only Latina to ever grace the front of the issue, and in 2012, People finally seemed poised to take diversity more serious when it was announced that Beyoncé would be crowned this year’s beauty.
The pop superstar, currently caught in the glow of new motherhood, is only the second African-American behind Halle Berry to earn the title of People’s “Most Beautiful Woman.” The thing is, you’d be hard-pressed to tell from eyeing the magazine’s photo spread.
Conversations on complexion are far from new in relation to race, and for decades many individuals of color have had to live in defense of their skin tone from a myriad of tired hang-ups and misconceptions. In a nation where we rarely engage or even acknowledge the difference between race and ethnicity, we are often slaves to aesthetic, rushing to characterize beings based exclusively on what can be seen. Accordingly, we’ve developed a space where people – especially entertainers – are absolutely their hair, skin, waistline or apparel, and where thoughtful ethnic and cultural engagement comes second to Twitter-ready terms like #TeamLightSkin.
With all of that in mind, it certainly may not be best practice to discuss issues of diversity from a perspective of sight, but in this case – Beyoncé fundamentally does not look like that.
More or less swaddled exclusively in blond since the success of her first solo outing, it’s easy to forget that Beyoncé’s trademark locks were once a darker hue. Since 2003 we’ve seen the singer flirt with various looks from video to video, and occasional film role, but always return to the buttery shade with which she seems most comfortable. And it’s been okay, because though she has rarely engaged race in any specific terms, there’s hardly been a sense that Beyoncé resists the legacy of her heritage in favor of fame. Scholarly debate aside, sociopolitical lenses dulled: maybe Beyoncé looks in that mirror every day and smiles at her hair because it’s what she likes, and not because Britney made millions swinging the same 36 inches.
The problem here is People. The inset photo (of the normally, absolutely beautiful) performer sees her features airbrushed within an inch of existing. Lips so muted in size, shape and color that it’s a wonder she’d ever be able to form syllables. Skin so dulled and saturated with light that if we didn’t know Beyoncé, we’d absolutely assume we were looking at the photo of some life-sized, racially ambiguous blowup doll. There’s no agency to Beyoncé’s beauty here because these aren’t Beyoncé’s features, and that’s certainly not her skin tone.
Beyoncé isn’t just African-American, and her skin certainly is not the sum of her beauty, but what People seems to be saying this year is that Beyoncé is beautiful because she saturates well; or because her blond locks cascade to her waistline in loose curls. Thinned lips, paled skin, fair hair – that she’s beautiful in spite of what comes natural.