I Was Fed Up with the Lack of Diversity in the Magazine Industry, So I Started Writing Letters

As a black woman, I’ve had no choice but to become accustomed to the absence of black and brown faces in “mainstream” publications.
Publish date:
September 19, 2013
diversity, magazines, letter writing

There's a little tingle I get when I head to my mailbox at the beginning of every month, and open it to find thick polished pages rolled up inside. I love fashion magazines. Oh the sweet joy of that delicious moment when I nestle into my couch, glass of Pinot in hand, to get the scoop on the latest style obsessions.

Well, these were the moments I relished, until recently when something in me snapped and I began firing off frustrated letters to the editors of the very magazines I had come to love.

As a black woman, I’ve had no choice but to become accustomed to the absence of black and brown faces in “mainstream” publications. Out of the hundreds of magazines that are published each year, black women can count just two (hair magazines don’t count) that are dedicated to showcasing their beauty, style, and opinions. The sporadic cover girl of color is hardly an ode to diversity.

But what’s become increasingly troubling to me is that still today, when our style icon is an African-American First Lady, who is arguably the most fashionable since Jackie O, the images in popular magazines and the fashion industry overall continue to be white-washed.

When will the fashion industry start to accurately reflect the rich mixture of ethnicity and culture in our country?

I was so overwhelmed by the diversity of the tens of thousands of people gathered in Chicago on election night 2008. The faces of the young and old, black and brown, American flags mixed with rainbow flags -- this blend of people created the most beautiful and authentic representation of America I’d ever seen.

As news cameras panned out to the exuberant crowd, we weren’t just being introduced to the nation’s first African American First Family; we were being introduced to the New American Majority. This mass gathering of individuals were emblematic of the racially, economically and culturally diverse America that will make up the majority of our population over the next few decades.

With that said, how is it possible that a magazine can still be considered mainstream when not one person of color, not even in an advertisement, appears within 200 plus pages?

It’s this kind of nuanced racism; yes racism, which began to grade on my nerves. Especially when I realized that I was being complicit in the problem. I support the blatant neglect of women of color every time I opened my mailbox and greeted these glossies with glee. I condone the magazine industry’s disrespect of the New American Majority with every subscription and purchase.

But getting mad and just canceling my subscriptions wasn’t the answer. My one monthly payment would hardly matter to those huge publishing companies. So instead, I wrote to them.

First, I began writing letters airing my grievances at the lack of women of color in their magazines and explaining that by striving to reflect the true image of America, they would actually sell more copies. One of my favorite glossies had Beyonce on the cover last winter, the next month there wasn't one image of a woman of color throughout the entire magazine, it was as if they met their quote. Instead of throwing my copy away, I started typing. And when a publication actually did showcase diversity, I thanked them.

After a few of my letters were met with silence, I assumed that the likelihood anyone had actually read them was pretty slim. Then something brilliant happened, one of my letters was actually published!

While flipping through an issue of InStyle magazine I discovered not one but two pages profiling a party hosted by BET (the Black Entertainment Network). There were tons of fabulous photos featuring the who’s who of black Hollywood’s celebrities. My jaw hit the floor. Before I could even finish reading the article I'd already reached for my iPad to write the editor. In the letter I thanked her for their coverage of the BET event and expressed how much it meant to me that InStyle recognized the importance of diversity and urged them to keep up the good work.

Image my surprise when just two months later InStyle published a portion of my note. When I saw it inside the magazine I was shocked and then instantly elated that someone on staff understood the importance of my message -- that inclusion matters and when you embrace diversity, people will take notice. And it was in that moment that I realized that my monthly ritual of couch, wine and periodicals turned from pure entertainment into conscious activism.

As I savored my small victory, I recognized that anger without action is pretty meaningless. If I had just cancelled my subscriptions and sworn off non-inclusive magazines forever the industry would remain unchallenged. This is not to say that my letters are having a lasting impact, but it does make me value my voice and opinion more, because when I stay silent on issues I serve no one.

I still receive immense joy from flipping through glossy, stylized page, after meticulously curated page. I'm still enjoying my magazine and wine time, just with a keener eye and an iPad at the ready.