Mass Media and Western Ideals of Beauty
Western ideals of beauty are idealized all over the world as they serve as a point of reference for what is considered attractive and what is deemed as acceptable in relation to societal norms. The features of western women are not only glorified but they hold influence over fashion and pop culture trends. Kim Kardashian is coined as an important figure in contemporary Western culture and her appearance on the cover of Vogue India’s March edition stirred some controversy regarding cultural appropriation and prioritizing white women over women of colour. By analyzing the visual features of the magazine cover including the close angles shots, the Indian styled wardrobe and the medium, the cultural issue for the lack of representation for Indian women is highlighted. This adds to the existing conversation of discrimination against women of colour by acknowledging the importance and relevance of visual culture; then using it as a lens to demonstrate how the production and consumption of the magazine influences western ideals of beauty. This examination contributes to the discourse through recognizing the power of angles, gaze and posture and how they frame and manipulate the public’s understanding of reality and both idealized appearances and lifestyles.
Topic of Study : Cultural Appropriation
I will analyze the visual aspects of Kim Kardashian on the cover of Vogue India in order to reveal how the production and consumption of the images raises problems within the South-Asian community regarding colorism and the lack of representation for women of colour through the idealization of Western beauty ideals. This critical analysis will be done through acknowledging the history behind traditional clothing and theorizing how it is disrespected through both sexualization and commodification. Additionally I will examine how the theme of the photos relate to cultural appropriation and the negative effects that are caused by it, including insecurity and dissociation. Finally, I will finish by speaking on my own experience as a double minority in order to underline the problems with the media industry capitalizing off of insecurity and neglecting history and culture.
Analyzing the Cover
In order to understand the weight of Hindu cultural appropriation, it is necessary to understand the historic value of the sari pictured on Kim’s body. In Jones’s article, she states that the sari was worn as a symbol of resistance against the British colonizer’s who tried to impose their own textile industries and fashion (Jones). The sari symbolizes Indian womanhood dealing with modesty and devotion to both their families and deep culture, it is not an aesthetic to be capitalized off of. Also, the Khadi garment (pure cotton version of the sari) was worn by Gandhi in a trousers form, as he attempted to eradicate notions of class and social statuses which is the opposite of the materialistic magazine culture and the Kardashians represent (Jones). This choice of wardrobe and the inappropriate use of saris shown in provocative poses exposes the selfish pursuits of the fashion industry who prioritize appearance and aesthetics over revolutionary historical context. The depiction of a garment that has heavy cultural meanings tied with a resistance movement for equality and modesty is exploited and disrespected to gain profit and exposure.
In one of the photos, Kim Kardashian is pictured with a sari blouse hanging off of her almost naked body as she makes eye contact with the audience. She is centered in the frame and the light falls onto her face and body while the rest of the background is in the shadows. The effect of the strong eye contact both encourages the audience to identify with the image through seeing themselves in her position but also dehumanizes them as they aspire to be her through emphasizing their differences. This technique of capturing Kim as she holds your gaze succeeds in instilling a sense of attraction to her and her features and arouses an emotional response (Johnson and Senju). Kim is humanized through her eyes as she is both vulnerable with the gaze but also her barely clothed body. She is an object of desire and her gaze lures in any insecure consumers into the perfectionist, attractive and sultry atmosphere of the image.
Consequently, cultural appropriation is defined as the process of exploiting the culture of a marginalized group through imitation of their lifestyle without acknowledging their colonized past (Green and Kaiser). The same features that are mocked when a person of colour displays them are instead praised and fetishized when adopted by someone in a privileged position. In relation to the Kardashian sporting a sari and appearing as the epitome of beauty, Vogue India is not only allowing, but encouraging Western dominance over the South Asian identity.
The onus of not representing a South-Asian woman along with the cultural appropriation should be mainly held by Vogue India. It is a clever move on the Kardashian’s part because it helped her gain publicity from a foreign demographic and widened her audience. However, people glorify these publicised images and its consumers are mainly people of colour, therefore their ideal of beauty are skewed with images of “lightskin” Western women.
In relation to the significance of visual culture, the lack of presence and celebration of diverse bodies contributes to the dissociation that women of colour feel. Indian women are missing from the March cover of Vogue India and by acknowledging that print media is a substantial socializing agent the problem becomes increasingly important. Visual culture consists of women admiring and idealizing the images that both replicate and romanticize reality, and the lack of faces with skin tones similar to theirs causes dissociation and an internalization of insecurity. They are forced to compare themselves with features that they cannot relate with, in this way Western popular culture dictates the levels of desirability for women of colour through convincing them that the problem is within themselves and not the system.
Furthermore, this ties into how the British colonisation of India lead to damaging mentalities surrounding skin pigmentation in the modern world. India continues to recover from its colonized past and its toxic effects of the Europeans trying to enforce their reign onto the subjugated peoples beyond simply stealing their resources and land. In terms of visual culture, the insecurity that South Asian women feel maintains its negative influence through images of lightskin women ; It becomes embedded into an endless attempt to become “beautiful” which is synonymous to fairness.
The superiority complex attached to fair skin is taught by the oppressor and embraced by themselves and the minority (Mishra) and in this way, Kim Kardashian appearing like a South Asian woman but sporting an Indian wardrobe represents how that mentality continues to hold its power. Indian women are yet again forced to relate to someone as she appears to be relatable through her wardrobe, however this is toxic because not only has she had plastic surgery but her features are not South Asian. The women of colour can never match her appearance because it was surgically constructed and she only sports the costume of appearing to be Indian.
Through investing her posing techniques, the Kardashian looks strong and powerful as she keeps her chin high, shoulders back and stands tall to demonstrate her superiority on the costume she is sporting (Johnson and Senju). This reveals that regardless of whatever culture she decides to wear for the day, her ability to execute it as a Western woman with power and privilege will not be questioned. Her tall and broad posture does not signify humility, instead it exudes pride of oneself and controlling the culture that she feels like profiting off of temporarily. The blatant acceptance of Indian cultures through her firm pose illustrates how Kim Kardashian is proud of her appearance, compared to how Indian women are taught to be ashamed of their ethnic identities as immigrants and the colonized “other” (Suh et al.).
Moreover, Kim Kardashian is a sex symbol and by placing her in traditional clothing with sensual poses and by branding her as the face of Vogue India, it is disrespectful towards Indian culture and history and South Asian women who cannot identify with her. This carefully thought out move by Vogue is clever capitalistically because it further accentuates dark-skinned Indian women to idolize her and gains publicity from the Indian demographic and lastly, glorifies select aspects of Desi culture that can be profited off of.
Consequently, the technique of placing a sex symbol in an item of Indian culture that can be “white-washed” and adopted by a Westerner without facing discrimination is how the magazine succeeds in selling their culture for profit. The magazine embraces tunnel vision and chooses to ignore India’s colonized past and exploits it by giving the power back to those who initially tried to assimilate it. Other aspects of Indian culture continue to be mocked like our accents, our “stinky” food, our religion and beliefs, our skin colour, etc. However, clothing has aesthetic value and you do not need to be an expert on South Asian culture to wear it and in this way, Vogue India and the Kardashian’s marketing team cleverly seem to profit off of and adopt Indian culture from the surface level and abuse it for selfish purposes.
Likewise by producing the images to look both Westernized and have an “ethnic” accent, the magazine succeeds in appealing to both the American demographic and the Indian one. These visuals were produced with a wide demographic in mind and the directors of photography and stylists ensured to include facets that both groups could relate to but not fully identify with. For the Western side, they are familiar with Kim Kardashian’s face and her facial features while they form an admiration for her and the culture she is advertising. They can obtain the features of the image that they do not have like the lengha and jewellery, resulting in potentially full consumption of the lifestyle and image. On the other hand, South Asian women can identify with the clothing styles however they may dissociate with themselves by seeing features that they were familiar with, but do not possess. They are socialised to idolise fair skin tones, small noses and big lips and this technique of almost seeing themselves in the model is toxic. The negative psychological effects include amplification of their infatuation with Western ideals of beauty and only identifying with the surface level of their culture since that is what is fetishized. The admiration of the aesthetics of South Asian culture conceals the social reality of India’s colonized past and that Western societies reap culture for whenever it is attractive to them, further carrying colonizing them through assimilation and stripping native people of their unique and complex identities. The beauty ideals and white-washed images are typically happily consumed by the magazines readers and this mirrors how Western society influences our tastes and validates feelings of insecurity.
Why is this Relevant?
Being a double minority as both a woman and a person of colour is challenging and has taught me a lot about accepting yourself in a society where whiteness is superior and my South Asian identity is fetishized when it is convenient. The glorification of Kim Kardashian in terms of Vogue India is personally disrespectful because American media often behave as “culture vultures” as they steal attractive aspects of foreign cultures. Growing up, it was difficult to accept my background as a South Asian woman and I barely saw representation for my group of people in the main media. It was nearly impossible to find role models who looked like me that I could relate to in magazines and films. I was forced to consume images of women who did not understand my struggle, perspective and background. This lack of representation resulted in dissociation until I grew older and realized the importance of my roots and I could see my younger female cousins facing the same troubles that I did. Moving forward, I celebrate accurate representations of Indian women in the media (which are rare) and I hope that large corporations that have the power to make a difference and tackle these problems like cultural appropriation, do it successfully.
In conclusion, the mass media is one of the main socializing agents which places importance on the level of accuracy on depictions of people. Vogue India’s March edition featuring Kim Kardashian adorned in South Asian clothes is a form of cultural appropriation as it exploits the aesthetics of the marginalized group while ignoring their struggle of a colonized country (Suh et al.). The sexualization of traditional Indian clothing that symbolizes humility shows how Western society and capitalistic, selfish goals are prioritized over respecting an assimilated culture (Jones). This analysis adds to the existing conversations surrounding cultural appropriation by acknowledging how manipulation of visual aspects like framing, wardrobe, posing techniques and eye contact add to the dissociative effects of fetishizing certain aspects of a culture. Ultimately, we consume these images and it is partly our responsibility to take a stand against disrespectful uses of culture and supporting demeaning publications. The way we see things influences how we feel about ourselves and we must produce more accurate depictions of reality in order to acknowledge where we stand and how to move forward.
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Unknown. Mumtaz Mahal Portrait, Nathan Hamilton, 17AD.
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