February 2014 marks the reappearance of Elle‘s annual Women in TV issue, and this year there are four different glossy covers celebrating some of television’s favorite leading ladies. But when the covers were revealed this week, it was immediately pointed out that one cover is completely different from the other three. While Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler, and Allison Williams — all thin, White women — have full-body, full-color shots of themselves gracing their Elle covers, Mindy Kaling — a self-described “chubby Indian girl” — has a cropped, black and white headshot for hers.
Color me not surprised.
Despite being a highly successful writer, producer, director, comedian and actress, most of the questions Kaling is asked to answer have to do with her skin color, her fashion choices, and her body. She is the creator, head writer and star of “The Mindy Project” and has had years of experience on “The Office”. In 2011, she released an autobiography entitled Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), and in 2013 she followed up with a second book entitled Questions I Ask When I Want to Talk About Myself. Kaling has plenty of things to talk about that are far more interesting than her looks, though people don’t seem interested in asking those types of questions.
In an interview with Parade in September 2013, Kaling said,
“There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them. But while I’m talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art.”
Apparently, Elle cares as much about Kaling’s incredible career as the White, male-dominated comedy world does. Not only is her February cover in black and white (hiding Kaling’s skin color, something a Tumblr user corrected with some Photoshop magic), it’s also cropped so that her figure isn’t visible. Take note: Kaling has gone on record that she is a size 8, making her an “average size”. But in Hollywood, “average” is considered “big”. It isn’t the first time Elle has cropped or hidden the figures of fuller women, and you can be sure that it won’t be the last. But it’s disturbing that even in an issue that is supposedly dedicated to celebrating women in television, “flaws” like dark skin and a full figure are hidden from the get-go on newsstands. As another Tumblr user pointed out, Elle isn’t the only magazine guilty of this double standard. Vanity also gave full-color covers to White women and a black and white cover to a woman of color in its Power of Women issue.
Shouldn’t Elle be focusing on the important things, like Kaling’s outrageously popular television show, or her two books, or even her brief stint as a playwright who imitated Ben Affleck in an Off-Broadway show based on his friendship with Matt Damon? Shouldn’t Elle be empowering women and girls, rather than suggesting that non-White, non-skinny women should be edited to look “elegant” in black and white headshots? (Following Internet reactions to the cover, Kaling tweeted on Tuesday that she “loves” it — but it still doesn’t sit right.)
As Kaling pointed out in the same Parade interview, there’s a serious issue with the way we approach women with confidence:
“I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’”
Why, indeed? Even when the focus of a “women’s magazine” is on the talents and careers of empowered, incredible women who seek to empower others on an everyday basis, that magazine still takes the time to single out women who, like Kaling, don’t fit the right beauty standard. And that’s sending a hell of a lot of bad messages.