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It looks like Elle Magazine had quite the white Christmas.
Recently in the news for lightening the skin of Gabourey Sidibe on the September cover, the magazine has done it again, featuring prominent Bollywood actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the January 2011 cover looking far paler than she is in real life.
I had to do a double take when I first saw the cover page. Not only does Ms. Rai-Bachchan look far whiter than she is in real life, she also looks like a red-head. Aishwarya is reportedly in shock and plans to sue the magazine if the allegations are true.
There are those who would defend the magazine for using some kind of lighting or a Photoshop trick, or who think that this is no big deal and skin lightening is similar to tanning.
To put this into context: Indian consumers have long been inundated with ads that use prominent Bollywood actors to promote skin-lightening products. In a country that produces gorgeous women of color, it is sad that Ms. Rai-Bachchan, who is relatively light-skinned, is one of the very few with some cross-over international appeal. To see magazines like Elle further enforce the color hierarchy by making Aishwarya appear lighter-skinned is a slap in the face to thousands of young Indian women who aspire to be models and actors. It also plays into systemic racism when Indian women across the world pick up a copy of Elle Magazine and can barely recognize one of their own celebrities due to the fact that her skin tone was digitally lightened.
The question then posed is, do we have to be pale white and bleach our skins to have cross-over appeal? Indeed, the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire had a British director. Ben Kingsley, a British actor, won an award for playing the iconic Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a downward spiral and it hardly helps to bolster self-confidence in millions of young women of color across the world.
It would be over the top to accuse Elle Magazine of being racist on the basis of two magazine covers. There is a deeper problem here: either Elle Magazine in India is outsourcing its artistic needs, or it really does not have staff that is qualified enough to work with images of women of color. In both cases, Elle Magazine owes Aishwarya Rai Bachchan an apology for doctoring her image in a manner highly offensive to people across the globe.