Confession: I’d never heard of actress and singer Zendaya Coleman until last year, at which time she was already a Disney phenomenon. Forgive me, I don’t watch a lot of kid TV.
Anyway, she popped on my radar when she signed on to do the ultimately highly watched and highly criticized Aaliyah biopic, then signed off. Zendaya was known to Disney but was relatively unknown to die-hard Aaliyah fans—who have the fervent devotion of Beyoncé’s Beyhive or Rihanna’s Navy—and a lot of people weren’t feeling her in the role, even after she released a video that showed off her physical transformation into Aaliyah and demonstrated that she had the dance moves. She ended up quitting, not because of the outcry, she said in an Instagram video, but because she was not “morally OK” with the film, since the late singer’s parents had not authorized it.
Was that a public relations line? A convenient excuse to get out of the hot seat? Or, gulp, was this young Zendaya girl one of those rare Hollywood types with a conscience and common sense?
She’s proving to be the latter. Earlier this week, a French magazine released pictures from a recent photo shoot with Zendaya. The publication had taken the hatchet—or, er, the edit button—to Zendaya’s images and morphed her from a perfectly healthy-looking (and beautiful) woman into a distorted ideal.
While Anthony Mackie was speaking out in support of Trump and dissing black directors, Zendaya was using her platform to boldly speak out against the re-created images of her and the harm that photo retouching does to women’s body images:
“Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated,” Zendaya wrote on her Instagram page. “These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have. Anyone who knows who I am knows that I stand for honest and pure self love. So I took it upon myself to release the real pic (right side) and I love it[.] Thank you @modelistemagazine for pulling down the images and fixing this retouch issue.”
Nearly every photo published these days has some tweaking done. Let’s not be naive. Even Instagram has filters to enhance images, and there are plenty of apps that offer users the ability to tweak their proportions, much as Modeliste magazine did to Zendaya. In some ways, a lot of us are seeking the perfect photo.
What I take issue with is the idea of “perfect.” Zendaya, with no photoshopping, has a healthy, realistic-looking figure (because it’s actually real). Even going by mainstream standards of beauty, she fits comfortably within the narrow margins. At best, she’s maybe a size 4—hardly in need of having her waist and thighs whittled down to about a 0. As Zendaya points out, it’s unrealistic.
The retouched image is additionally problematic not just for making a small woman much smaller but also for subjecting a healthy woman of color to mainstream beauty extremes. The implication is that something is wrong with her—and women who look like her—that needs to be fixed in order to be presentable or celebrated by others. This is flatly untrue.
Finally, without being all too deep about it, the subjective truth is (and many people agree), her original picture looks 1,000 times better than the altered version. What you shouldn’t do is mess up a perfectly good photo. I mean, if Photoshop must be used, at least create a picture that looks better. Even without looking at the retouched and original pictures side by side, you can see that something looks off in the edited photo. For one, Zendaya is orange!
I’m as happy that Zendaya spoke up as I am that the magazine pulled the images. I look forward to seeing what the editors will put out next, but in the meantime, I have to wonder, what were they thinking?
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.