Beyonce knows how to turn heads. And this week was no different when she stepped out in a particularly daring dress designed to showcase her perfectly honed curves.
As someone who has worn her fair share of revealing outfits, I didn’t bat an eyelid at the perilously plunging neckline or risqué thigh-slit. What did catch my attention, though, was something far more subtle.
The moment I saw the photos, I thought she looked different somehow. Closer inspection confirmed the reason — not only was her skin paler than ever, but her features seemed more refined. Whether down to clever contoured make-up or a skilful surgeon’s knife, the bridge of her nose seemed slimmer, giving her face a more pointed appearance.
Not only does it imprint upon every impressionable young woman of colour the message that she is not good enough as she is, it also suggests that, despite her meteroic success, Queen Bee thinks she must alter the very fabric of her being to make herself more palatable to the masses. The singer has long been accused of lightening her skin. In 2008, L’Oreal was accused of ‘whitewashing’ the star in an advert by digitally lightening her flesh tone.
Then there was the promotional shot for her fourth album in 2012, where she posed seductively on a leopard-print couch wearing a blonde wig and not much else, her skin positively glowing white.
It has even been alleged that in the early days of her girl group Destiny’s Child, her African-American father, Mathew Knowles, persuaded her to use skin treatments to remain the lightest-complexioned member of the band.
Now, I like Beyonce: I’ve met her twice (once at a music awards show when she was in Destiny’s Child, and more recently at a party in London) and she’s very friendly and as absolutely gorgeous in the flesh as any airbrushed image.
The thought that someone so staggeringly beautiful would want to alter themselves in any way at all is bewildering.
She has always been relatively light-skinned, naturally: she gets her honey-toned complexion from her mother, Tina. But looking at these recent pictures, she has, it seems to me, turned a whiter shade of pale. Look back at her dusky complexion on her first solo album cover and you’ll see what I mean.
Lopez’s skin, it seems to me, is far lighter than when she first arrived on the scene, and Eva’s appeared so in a big brand cosmetic advert.
I have no doubt that the widely held belief that to be darker makes you in some way inferior is to blame for this trend — something that undoubtedly harks way back to the days of colonialism and slavery, where the children born of affairs with masters were granted better jobs on account of their paler skin.
You might well ask why such views persist at a time when the U.S. President is half-Kenyan and the likes of stunning 12 Years A Slave actress Lupita Nyong’o are winning Oscars.
In my opinion, it’s because Lupita, with her very dark complexion, is a rarity. And even then, last year Vanity Fair was accused of lightening her skin on the cover of its January issue.
Unhappiness with skin colour does not just haunt the darker skinned among us, either. At the other end of the spectrum, many white people seem to dislike being so pale.
Only this week, the widely respected columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris wrote an extraordinary article saying that, if he had the choice, he ‘wouldn’t be a whitey’ because he feels pale skin looks like ‘a kind of mutation, as though some key pigment were missing from birth’. Plenty of women appear to agree — cue gallons of fake tan to achieve a fashionable sun-kissed appearance.
And this isn’t just about colour. What we are really looking at here is the mass cloning of womankind.
If you look around the red carpet these days, it is little more than a clone parade. Regardless of the ethnicity of the women concerned, it’s all washboard stomachs, nipped-in waists, pneumatic bosoms, full lips, tiny, straight noses, wide eyes and manes of thick, ironed hair.
But where such homogenising becomes most concerning is where it involves women effectively seeking to change their race. And that certainly isn’t confined to celebrities.
With her tumbling blonde hair, the world’s highest-paid black music star of all time looked more Caucasian when she appeared this week
Skin-lightening has become a massive industry. According to a report by Global Industry Analysts in 2012, it was set to be worth $10 billion (£6.5 billion) worldwide by this year.
A particularly worrying trend, which we can only hope does not make it to UK shores, has recently emerged in Kenya.
Women there are illegally injecting skin-bleaching creams intended to be applied topically, because they are said to work much faster that way. The lotions contain mercury and are totally unregulated.
Meanwhile, in India, where the caste system reinforces the desire for paler skin, nearly two thirds of the dermatological market consists of skin-lightening products.
Closer to home, dozens of perfectly legal skin-lightening products are widely available — from high-end Elizabeth Arden and Clinique to household brands such as Garnier and Vaseline.
Last year, High Street health store Holland & Barrett came under fire for selling a legal skin-whitening product, which it insisted was specifically for use on skin blemishes such as age spots, scars and freckles.
More concerning is the booming market in illegal creams, soaps and pills, many containing highly damaging ingredients such as mercury, bleach and acid. The worst of these, a chemical called hydroquinone, is officially banned in the EU, but can still be prescribed by dermatologists for cosmetic reasons — and isn’t hard to find in the UK.
So why do all these women want to be whiter? Because the beauty ideal they all aspire to is blonde, blue-eyed; Aryan, no less.
As a performer myself, have I ever felt the need to make my appearance more Caucasian?
No. I’m the darkest of three sisters and love that fact — but I will admit to having felt the insidious pressure to conform that comes with any degree of fame. For me, it manifested itself in an attempt to be skinnier than I naturally am. Something Beyonce also battles with.
The pressure on famous women — of all races — to attain a certain ideal is enormous. And, despite the advances of feminism, I believe the expectations placed on our shoulders are heavier than ever. You can tell by how little today’s stars wear that titillation trumps talent. No one is saying the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna aren’t eminently talented; it’s just that this fact is drowned out by all the emphasis on their looks.
Why this worrying regression? I put it down to the rise of the cult of celebrity and the increase in cosmetic surgery over the past 30 years or so. Not only is it easier to change your appearance fundamentally, it’s positively expected.
Other stars, including the Hispanic Eva Longoria (left) and Jennifer Lopez (right), appear to have reached for the skin-lightening cream
And the boom in plastic surgery has made it easier for those ethnic women seeking to look more ‘Western’. Two years ago, figures from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons showed that South Koreans were having more plastic surgery than any other nation.
One of the most popular surgical procedures being double eyelid surgery — was reduces excess skin in the upper eyelid to make the eyes appear bigger, more ‘Western’.
It was said the rise of the country’s music industry was to blame, with patients visiting clinics armed with photos of American stars.
Mica Paris says the finger of blame must be pointed at the fat cats calling the shots behind the scenes
Going to such extreme lengths also serves to make skin-lightening seem less invasive, less concerning: what’s a dab of cream compared to major surgery?
Anything goes now: you can turn from male to female, from black to white. But whereas one brings liberation, the other the polar opposite.
Which brings us back to Beyonce and her newly refined features. Whether it’s make-up or something far more permanent, the impact on her many fans will remain the same.
At the outset, women flocked to Beyonce precisely because she seemed so powerful yet ‘real’ — voluptuously beautiful yet human; within her anthemic songs, there is a feeling of empathy, solidarity.
But, like so many others who have seemingly lightened their skin, she only started doing so after she attained global success. Once caught up in the race to be the biggest and best, she is gradually erasing everything we loved about her.
By subscribing to the international beauty prototype, Queen Bee is telling the world that she isn’t happy in her own skin. Whether she herself is aware of that pernicious message or not.
I’ve been on many a tour and it’s as exhausting as it is thrilling. I can well believe the whirlwind of touring and promoting albums weakens any resolve to remain true to yourself.
The overwhelming fatigue — Beyonce is only human, after all — undoubtedly makes you more vulnerable to the stringent desires of a record company or a global brand using your face to sell its wares.
Although I want so shake her and her ilk for failing to stand up for themselves — for their fans — the finger of blame must be pointed at the fat cats calling the shots behind the scenes.
After all, if they can make a globally revered star like Beyonce feel she’s not good enough, what hope is there for the rest of us?