Sunday, May 13, 2012

Normative Whiteness in South African Publications

If you asked the editors of Glamour, Marie Claire, Elle, Vogue or any  other international publication if their magazines were made for white people, they would all deny it profusely. They would claim their magazines are for all women. They would point to the times they put Beyoncé or Rihanna on the cover and the number of one-page feature articles about a strong black woman as proof they are not racist publications. But the proof is there on the page – even in countries where white women are not the statistical majority, these magazines continue to publish images of white models and actresses as if whiteness were the standard for everything that is beautiful, talented and human.
Whenever I am in the Johannesburg airport, I like to pick up a few magazines to take home with me to Angola. South Africa has its own editions of Glamour, Marie Claire and Elle. It even has its own edition of GQ. It has long struck me as strange and even offensive that these magazines – as they are representing an African country – always have white women on the covers, and always have more white women as models in the advertisements and fashion spreads than women of color.

From 2001 census data, the most recent available online, we see that the vast majority of South Africans are black.

79% black    9.6% white  8.9% colored  2.5% Indian

Now, these categories totally erase the cultural diversity of the country, I know. Within “black” there are numerous ethnic groups such as Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele. Within “white” there are two primary groups, Afrikaaners and people of British descent. But the numbers serve the purpose of showing that black people make up the majority in South Africa. 

So why is this not reflected in the South Africa editions of these magazines?



I did an experiment. I looked through two South African editions of international magazines, Glamour and GQ, to assess their demographic make-up. I counted all the female figures in the magazine and divided them by race. Here were my results:

Glamour South Africa April 2012
total female figures 341
white 61.6% (210)
black  35.5% (111)
Indian .029% (10)
Other .029% (10)




For GQ I counted the male figures, being that GQ is a men’s magazine. Here are the results:

GQ South Africa April 2012

total male figures 181
white 76.8% (139)
black 19.3% (35)
Indian .02% (4)
Other .01% (3)

Clearly, the South African editions of these magazines are not even trying to represent all South Africans. What could be the reasons for this? Why do they see white South Africans as their principal audience, over the black majority? Keep in mind, these magazines do not say they are the “white” edition – they simply say South Africa below the main title.

Both magazines are remarkably local. All prices are in ZAR, there are articles on fashionable restaurants and stores in Cape Town and Durban, they even feature clothes by South African designers. There is clear pride in all things South African – except for people of color. Without declaring it in their titles, Glamour and GQ are magazines for white people. They don´t have to announce it – white people don´t even have to think about it. White privilege means never having to doubt that a product was made for you. That´s why US publications Essence and Ebony are black magazines and Glamour and GQ are simply magazines. 

Here is an interesting blog post about the same issue in Brazilian magazines:


It would be easy to discount the lack of diversity in the South African magazines as some sort of hold over from Apartheid. But this is an international issue. These magazines lack diversity in every country where they are sold. You would never know the US is very diverse either, if you based your information on fashion magazines.

About the Methodology

To make the tallies, I counted all individual images of female or male figures, even if the images were of the same person. Kirsten Dunst was on the cover of Glamour and there were about 20 photos of her throughout the magazine. I counted each image separately with the idea that each image takes up a certain amount of space on the page. So, 61.6% of all female images in Glamour were of white women. I want to recognize that I know you cannot really tell someone´s race by looking at a photo in a magazine. I also want to be clear that I was counting race and not ethnicity – I know that Zoe Saldaña is Latina, that Alessandra Ambrosio is Brazilian, but Zoe´s race is black, and Alessandra´s is white – even if culturally they identify as something else. I did not use the South African category of “Colored” because as an American I do not really understand it and also, Americans tend to categorize all people with any visible African ancestry as black. So just know that is how black was categorized. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Mariah Carey may not register as black to many Africans because of their European ancestry, but I believe those women identify as black. The “other” category was made of the very few Asians who were not Indian, and a few Latinas that do not identify as white or black, like Jennifer Lopez. Not a perfect system, and I´m not advocating for placing people in boxes on sight. But for the purposes of this experiment it worked to show that even though white people are a minority in South Africa, you would never know it by looking at these magazines.



1 comment:

Gatas Negras said...

Great post! And also thanks for linking in my article! I think that this information is valuable for people of color who continuously emulate the European phenotype as well as white people who don't seem to care or even notice how the media portrays them as representative of beauty, intelligence and indeed humanity itself. A clear promotion of white supremacy when the vast majority of people on the planet, according to their own ideals, are people of color. I will also create a link of your article on my post. This information should be shared on a global level so that people understand that it is not simply this country or that country but rather a global phenom.