Image: Kendall Jenner on the new cover of Vogue India. Image Source.
Perhaps Kendall Jenner thought it was convincing enough. Perhaps she—with her thick eyelashes, and dark hair—thought the global landscape wouldn’t… notice. Framed by Sushant Singh Rajput—a notable South Asian actor—she collapsed into his steady embrace, profiting off the support of India—a multifaceted country containing over one billion members (not to mention the many that exist in the international Diaspora), and his features, in more ways than one. It may have even been the first time she had ever visited India: frolicking about Jaipur with confidence.
After endless critique and dubious silence, Vogue made a statement on their Instagram: stating that “we have lined-up a series of special issues for this entire year to celebrate our 10th anniversary, starting with the May 2017 Collector’s Edition, which is not the anniversary issue. The actual 10th anniversary is October 2017”—as if that is at all—in any way, shape or form—relevant.
Kendall Jenner isn’t an Indian woman. In fact, she isn’t a South Asian woman generally. Kendall Jenner isn’t Armenian, either—like many of her sisters. Kendall Jenner is an American woman, with European ancestry: predominantly Dutch, Scottish and Irish. And whilst, in this shoot, her ‘features’—namely her thick eyelashes no doubt amplified by dusty, black eyeshadow, and her black hair—work to appease the prescribed beauty standards of an ethnicity (most certainly not hers), this only makes her exposure more dangerous. It deems her look a standard that is achievable. The performative nature of her hair almost works to dangle this particular issue of Vogue India in front of the hungry eyes of a sea of ambitious, brown women being forced to ‘find themselves’ in Kendall’s unsympathetic pose.
The issue of representation doesn’t stop at Kendall Jenner’s flagrant insensitivity. There are, undeniably, South Asian women with skin as fair as Kendall Jenner’s. Colonisation has worked to dismantle cities, and lay the foundations of racialised wars in many parts of the world—namely, Sri Lanka. Colonisation is, in essence, invasion: invasion of the soil, the body and the spirit of any given country. And thus, European minorities are brought about—resulting in the emergence of slightly fairer, albeit South Asian, communities. South Asia is a part of the world where Eurocentric ideologies feel, act out, and exist in ways just as poignant and disturbing as more Westernised areas. India, and Sri Lanka, were too colonised by white people—with white power—who created a standard of worth married intimately to a pigmentation (or lack thereof).
Racial bigotry, therefore, works to isolate the darkest: the blackest women—no doubt with hair as charcoal as Kendall Jenner’s, but with skin so politicised and deemed unworthy, there is no way Vogue India would’ve cared for it. Therefore, the debate surrounding representation is much more nuanced than simply hiring a South Asian woman to do Kendall Jenner’s job. Whilst it would have inexplicably packed much less of a sting, to deem only one type of brown beautiful—the type that digresses as far away from ‘brown’ as possible—is to demand two, rather disturbing things. Firstly, that there is only one way to be a woman. And secondly, that there is only one way to be a Brown woman.
Skin-lightening products are rampant in South Asia. They occupy convenience stores with an urgency and normalcy mirrored to that of toothbrushes. They remind women—as Kendall Jenner so effortlessly did, with a hefty paycheque, no doubt—that their skin is both all-of-the-things, and none-of-the-things. Their skin is at least noticed when draped in the silver and gold sari’s, and delightful jewellery—when it is made sense of in poetic, Sanskrit phrases and Ayurvedic medicine. In other words, Eurocentric ideals are happy to erase the Indian woman from the ‘Indian affair’—the gold text so brazenly pasted on top of Kendall Jenner’s black garment. Eurocentric ideals are even happy to copy-and-paste a thin, white Kendall Jenner next to Sushant Singh Rajput: an intentional display of misogyny, as Sushant—albeit ‘naturally’ fair-skinned—was not stripped of his cultural identity and deemed instead an accessory in ways that the anonymous, Indian woman-archetype Kendall Jenner replaced was. I’m genuinely surprised she didn’t think to paste a first-prize bindi between her eyes.
It must be noted that what makes Indian woman Katrina Kaif, for example—and Sri Lankan woman Jacqueline Fernandez—so ‘beautiful’ is not their cultural loyalty, or anything to do with the integrity or authenticity of their brownness, but rather how marketable their illusive whiteness is. Their fair skin has isolated them from other members of their culture and their beauty has assimilated itself in palatable ways. This, we mustn’t forget. Representation and ethnicity are complex, and often representation isn’t as ‘noble’ as it seems.
I, like Kendall Jenner, have dark hair and thick eyelashes. I, like Kendall Jenner, have a somewhat olive complexion. I, unlike Kendall Jenner, have a Sri Lankan mother. Whilst Kendall Jenner’s flagrant disregard for race, representation and even profiting off of the exclusion of marginalised people does annoy me, it doesn’t hurt me in ways it hurts my grandmother. It is lazy, tired and predictable—but the issue doesn’t stop with Kendall Jenner. When a brown woman—brown like soil, like chocolate, like leather—graces the cover of Vogue India; a woman who cannot find herself in Kendall Jenner’s illusive features, or even that of Jacqueline Fernandez and Katrina Kaif. That is when we will rejoice.
Read more by Madison!