Vice President Kamala Harris graced the February cover of Vogue magazine wearing her signature Converse sneakers, a dark jacket, and skinny pants, paired with a white top. This casual image of the first female vice president drew considerable criticism for failing to capture Harris in a pose and outfit more appropriate for her historic position in American government. Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chef, and others defended the cover picture by noting that this image best reflects the events of the moment—but has now announced a re-do, with a new limited edition cover for Kamala Harris as a result of the widespread backlash. The cover photo controversy is much more than a disagreement over a styling choice. Madam Vice-President’s racial identity is central to understanding why some take exception to this cover. Black women’s bodies are political. Their styling choices have cultural meanings that are deeply rooted in cultural norms that carry the legacies of racism, sexism, and respectability politics. Thus, the uproar over Kamala Harris’s Vogue cover must be read through a socio-cultural lens that acknowledges the intersectional salience of her racialized and gendered body.
Outside of her historic victory, Kamala Harris’s appearance also affords her some possibilities, such as this Vogue cover, not open to other Black women candidates. This multi-ethnic Black woman was once called the “best-looking attorney general in the country” by President Barack Obama. She’s also appeared on the Hill’s 50 Most Beautiful list. Contrast the recognition of Kamala Harris’ beauty to the experiences of Stacey Abrams. The former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and founder of Fair Fight plainly stated to the co-hosts of The Breakfast Club, a syndicated hip-hop/urban radio show based in New York City, that “They [doubters] don’t think I’m viable, because I’m a Black woman with natural hair.” Harris and Abrams have received differential treatment that is not shaped by their political ideologies, fitness for an elected position, nor their ability to represent constituents.
Black women political elites experience this complicated relationship between genetic makeup, personal styling choices, and the cultural norms that prioritize Euro-American standards of beauty. They must weigh decisions about their self-presentation against stereotypical tropes, cultural norms that denigrate Blackness, and European beauty standards, in addition to the historical legacies of racism, colorism, sexism, and heteropatriarchy. As such, Black women candidates face unique pulls and pushes in how to present themselves as acceptable in the eyes of voters—or, in Harris’ case, the eyes of Vogue readers.
The premier fashion magazine allowed Vice President Harris to wear her own clothes for the photo shoot to reflect her personal sense of style. Tyler Mitchell, the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover, captured Kamala Harris’ image against a backdrop of pink and green—an ode to her sorority’s colors. As a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority Inc., the first Black collegiate sorority, founded on the campus of Howard University in 1908, Kamala Harris chose to present herself to readers by displaying Black American cultural symbols. Black Congresswomen highlight their membership in Black sororities, civil rights organizations, and degrees from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to signal to constituents that they are connected to Black communities.
Kamala Harris’ symbolic use of her sorority may have been muted by efforts to make her appear more Euro-American and perhaps more appealing to White audiences. The Vogue cover photo of the first female vice president of Black and South Indian descent has noticeable lighting issues in which Kamala Harris appears to have lighter skin tone than her actual coloring. White-washing or lightening the skin tone of women of color in major fashion magazines reveals racial bias in photography. Black women political elites are cognizant of the role of colorism—a preference for lighter skin—within electoral politics. Indeed, a senator in the Missouri state house shared that “this is troubling. Because what was defined as ‘beauty’ within the African American community, with the first 50 elected officials, you had to almost look like a White person.” In other words, Black women’s beauty is deeply tied to racialized and gendered stereotypes and voter preferences that prioritize a non-Afrocentric phenotype. Furthermore, Black women candidates must conform to Eurocentric beauty norms even when running in a majority Black district. Colorism is not simply an issue for how Black women political elites are viewed by Whites, but also by Blacks.
While Kamala Harris is rightly lauded for being the first woman of color vice president, the Vogue cover controversary demonstrates that she will be viewed within socio-cultural constructions. Even when she is able to control how she is presented, her image may be manipulated or read in ways that are distinctly racialized and gendered. Indeed, Black women political elites acknowledge the politicization of their bodies. Like Kamala Harris, they all desire to present themselves in a professional manner but prevailing race/gender stereotypes continue to stigmatize Black women in politics. Unfortunately, I expect to see other instances where Madam Vice President’s body is the subject of discussion rather than her politics. For Black women political elites, their bodies are often the focus of inquiry just as much as their policy preferences and political stances.
Feature image by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)