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OPINION: Shedding light on controversial magazine covers

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Creative Commons | The Daily Wildcat

A photo of Vice President Kamala Harris.  "Kamala Harris"  by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

On Jan. 20, the Vogue Instagram account announced that they will release a special edition cover of Vice President Kamala Harris for the February 2021 issue in honor of the inauguration. This major announcement follows the backlash the publication received on social media platforms after two photos from the shoot got leaked to the public. 

One photo featured Harris mid-laugh with a casual demeanor — wearing Converse in lighting that did not seem as though it was meant for a woman of color — while the other displayed a close-up photo of the confident, bold powerhouse Harris truly is. The reason for the backlash: They chose the first photo to be the cover of the issue. 

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Harris is making history as the first woman, first Black and first Asian person to hold office as the vice president, and her presence on the first cover Vogue released of her does not reflect this incredible feat. The cover expresses a lack of care that was put into showcasing a woman of color who has broken down many barriers and paved the way for many women across the country. 

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While Vogue was quick to fix their mistake and release a special edition cover of the "bold" Harris following the mass amount of backlash they received, this is, sadly, not a sole incident.  

This July, American gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles was also featured on the cover of Vogue. She was going to tell her story about Larry Nassar, the U.S. Olympic team doctor who sexually abused many women in the U.S. gymnastics program, including Biles. The story was set to make headlines due to the emotional account of her abuse and her account of how she persevered through the aftermath. Her story is what should have made news, but instead, readers were drawn to the shocking photos of Biles in ill lighting. The cover photo pictured Biles with her back to the camera in lighting that made her skin significantly lighter, and the other photos in the spread displayed disrespect and carelessness that was put into the profile on Biles.

What should have been an informative and emotional story about the sexual abuse in the U.S. gymnastics program, which has many dark secrets, was overshadowed by a poor choice of photography. Especially in a magazine that has traditionally used photography as a means of getting their story across, the lack of respect given to Biles in this shoot negatively reflects the publication and the industry as a whole.

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The magazine industry has been treating women of color inherently differently when it is their turn to be featured. Skin lightening, whether it be through photoshop or bad lighting, can discredit the journey of the person pictured and take away an important piece of their story. 

We are living in a world that is constantly changing; glass ceilings are being broken and incredible firsts are happening before our very eyes. What is the magazine industry doing about this? They are struggling to catch up with the times. While attempts are being made to showcase these changing times, they are falling extremely flat. 

When I found out that Harris was going to be on the cover of Vogue, I was extremely hopeful for the future of the magazine industry. I was ready for publications to showcase women who have made a major difference in society, and not just celebrities, but when I saw the photo that was going to be on the cover, my heart sank. I knew that this treatment of the new vice president was not “industry standard” and that Vogue, one of the most prestigious fashion magazines in the country, could do better. 

Magazines, such as Vogue, have an immense influence over society. The magazine has over 800,000 readers and the reach of their social media is much more. The amount of power that is given to this publication has given Vogue the ability to make a substantial impact on society. More efforts need to be made to ensure that they are using this impact to move us forward and not hold us back.  


Follow Payton Toomey on Twitter



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Payton Toomey is a sophomore majoring in journalism and information sciences and eSociety. She loves to cook and golf in her free time. 


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