By: Emma Federer
There is something illustrious and magical about the silky cover of a fashion magazine that pulls at a thirteen year old’s heart strings. Maybe it’s the only glamorous oasis in a forced grocery shopping trip. Maybe it’s a familiar famous face that brings a sense of comfort and intrigue. Maybe it’s just an easy read. Without fail, I would attempt to slip a copy of Vogue between the conveyor belt and our weekly pound of rice during check out.
I can name different actresses, models, and athletes (oh my!) that have been featured on the sacred cover of Vogue magazine. I can’t for the life of me, even as a proud Asian woman, name a single Asian that has stunted on a glossy magazine cover. I began to wonder what kind of representation was present in the world of printed beauty. I looked towards the Queen B of magazines, Vogue, and noticed a lack of Asian representation--even within Asian Vogues.
Zikai Xie did a study for Fordham University on all the Vogue covers in 2018 of Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Thailand and the magazines’ active audiences. His aim was to define the audience of Asian Vogue and track the magazines’ response to their audiences. Vogue Japan stuck out as an outlier. He found that that 99% of Japan’s covers specifically feature international models. According to Xie, this is a result of Vogue Japan meeting the demands of its audience for more “western beauties.” It’s frustrating to see models like Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss, and Kendall Jenner consistently being selected to cover important Asian Vogue covers.
Now, there seems to be an attempt at representation with this editorial (left) . However, I only have qualms with the “Spirit of Japan,” as the photo editorial it is centered around a white woman. There is a deceptive essence to this cover in which it appears to be prominently expressing Japanese culture through the geisha inspired looks. However, the cover still places the white model in the center of the images, effectively placing “whiteness” as the center of reader’s ideas of beauty. After further research into the editorial, I am disappointed that a white model is the predominant subject of the editorial while only one of the Japanese models, Tsugumi Nakamura, is credited.
My main issue with the editorial is the objectification of Asian models in strange poses and dramatic makeup to drastically contrast the white model looking elegant and poised. As if Asian are simply oriental props that could never compare to the “beauty” of Caucasians. While I appreciate the artistic nature and beauty of the editorial, I pose a question to Vogue: Why must an editorial be boldly labeled as “Spirit of Japan” in order to feature Japanese models? Wouldn’t it be possible to have women be featured through the lense of their talent as models instead of tokenizing their Asianness?
This problem, of course, is not limited to the covers of Vogue. There is an entire history of brands and companies failing to define Asians as their target customers, especially within Asia. Instead, these brands perpetuate that worship of the “sophisticated” European/American/Western look by using white models to sell their beauty products, clothing, or magazines. Many articles that have angrily debated this topic link early colonization of Asian countries by Western powers as a source of these beauty standards. The strong and powerful are often emulated, and those massive European colonizers were the definition of power.
Thankfully, the world has become more diverse in who is considered powerful and beautiful. The continuance of only using white models is a desperate, pathetic cry that Asian magazines need to be validated by the white gaze in order to be marketable. As an esteemed and established magazine, Vogue has the resources and capability to broaden their audience market and audience representation. If anything, the statistics prove that Asians are most marketable to an audience within Asian countries. Vogue Japan has an average of 2.8 million monthly users, which is a mere 2.27% of the Japanese population. Vogue Taiwan, who features a Taiwanese actor/actress 78% of the time, has around 4.5 million monthly readers that make up 19.24% of the population.
There is a massive market of Asian readers, giving Vogue an opportunity to expand their reach to a more diverse demographic of readers through representation. Maybe one day when I force my daughter to travel to the supermarket for our weekly groceries, the issue of Vogue that she tries to sneak into my bag will have an Asian model that looks like her, front and center.