In 2008 Beyoncé shot a print ad for L’Oreal cosmetics (left). The ad caused controversy when the blog Young Black, & Fabulous pointed out that L’Oreal tinted her skin differently in Essence (left) and Elle (right). The Telegraph also noted that both images were lighter than Beyoncé’s skin had appeared when she was photographed doing public appearances at the time. “The picture,” wrote Laura Clout, “provoked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic after commentators suggested [L’Oreal] had digitally lightened Knowles’s complexion.” The firm denied they had altered her “features of skin-tone” and Beyoncé declined to comment. Yet, three years later, it became clear that Beyoncé did have something to say about how her skin tone is presented. In particular, she seemed to want to indicate that it is something she feels comfortable altering for artistic purposes.
This time participating in a photo shoot for L’Officiel Paris with a much more explicit colorism theme, she appeared in images using a variety of skin tones (below), all depicting her as an “African Queen.” In some images (left), she appeared in a makeup combination that was fairly described as “blackface.” While the tinting of her L’Oreal ad could very well have happened without her knowledge, she was clearly aware of the skin tone choices being taken in the L’Officiel shoot.
In her most recent self-titled album, Beyoncé is using the new medium of the “visual album” to continue to play with the self-presentation of her race and skin color. And, unlike the L’Oreal or even the L’Officiel images, she is clearly the author of her image. “I don’t trust these recode labels,” she tells us in “Ghost.” “Soul not for sale.”
Beyoncé’s awareness and desire to manipulate the representation of her skin color (and race more generally) is most evident in “Ghost,” “Haunted,” “Grown Woman,” and “Pretty Hurts.”
Ghost is the song where Beyoncé deals most directly with race. Pushing further than “blackface,” where her face was covered in dark brown make-up, she presents herself in “blackbody,” covering her body and hair with thick back paint (left).
This song deals with race in more abstract ways as well. In the video a female figure, who may or may not be Beyoncé, writhes within first a white and then a black tube of elastic fabric, totally enshrouded and faceless. The figure struggles against both the black and white shrouds, perhaps indicating that confinement in any racial category is a trap.
Yet Beyoncé is a savvy business woman. She knows that her audience doesn’t necessarily care about her symbolic artistic representations of race. “Probably won’t no money off this – oh well,” she says at the end of the video.
“Pretty Hurts” is the video deals most explicitly with ideals of female beauty, in which skin color is also implicated. In the video she shows herself being spray-tanned – made darker – and in every image of that sequence she makes it clear that she finds the process annoying. In one image (left) the woman applying the tanner accidentally sprays her in the face and she grimaces.
In the song references media commandments for “blonder hair,” an explicitly racialized ideal of beauty. Yet, in that video and most of the videos on the album, Beyonce’s hair is indeed dyed blonde. She is submitting to white ideals of beauty because of her chosen profession, but wants to make clear that she find them oppressive.
Adopting this white ideal is portrayed most clearly in “Haunted” (post feature image, far left), where her hair is blonde and her skin is a rosy pink color. Contrast this with her self-presentation in “Grown Woman,” where her hair, while straightened, is dark, and her shin is shown in a deeper shade of brown (post feature image, center). “I’m a grown woman I can do whatever I want,” she sings in the song. Her visual self-presentation is part of her expression of agency.
“Underneath the pretty face is something complicated,” she sings in “No Angel.” Respect that. Bow down, bitches.
NOTE: Updated images and typos changed.