On July 6, I was on my way from school when I, like any 20-something-year-old, started scrolling through my Facebook feed on my phone. I love when my friends post cute selfies (like) and when they share events and updates on their fabulous work (all the likes.) I believe myself to be generous with my likes. And then just in the midst of all my liking, I came across a photo from the July edition of LookMagazine entitled Guatemala Through Foreign Eyes.
It’s exactly what it sounds like, an entire magazine edition celebrating white women, most of whom are not Guatemalan, and are doing work to create economic opportunities for Maya women and to make “Guatemalan culture” known throughout the world.
Apart from the usurpation of Maya creativity and genius when it’s described as Guatemalan, many Maya women do need to sell their art to survive and to support their families. There should be no shame in selling your culture in response to the lack of economic opportunities in your country. Yet putting white women at the center of the conversation on the future and sustainability of Maya economies, without the input of Maya business owners and leaders, is not only extremely infuriating, but deeply problematic as well.
In LookMagazine’s interview with model and entrepreneur Francesca Kennedy, who recently gave a Ted Talk on rescuing Lake Atitlan and continued to describe Maya culture as “vanishing.” At minute 2:17 in her Ted Talk, Kennedy explicitly said, “It’s also home to a vanishing culture of Mayan people.” Translated from Spanish to English, Kennedy added that she hopes Guatemala becomes more touristic than Costa Rica, without regards to the negative impact that tourism has had on Costa Rica’s environment and local communities.
Besides centering white women in discussing Maya economies, Look’s photos within this edition are disturbing, to say the least, and points to a different type of cultural appropriation, cultural backdropping, if you will.
Cultural backdropping is not new. Friends have pointed out other publications, including Vogue, of backdropping indigenous women in order to center and uphold white beauty standards. We can see this in the posing of the models for both Look and Vogue: Francesca Kennedy, and Tiiu Kuik, Estonian model for Vogue Latin America in 2015, both command our attention as they stand front and center, surrounded by indigenous women.
As Tiiu Kuik and Francesca Kennedy pose, I wonder if the indigenous women around them were paid and if so, were they paid as much as the white models? I’m sure I’ll be disappointed with the answer. But wouldn’t it make sense for a magazine, like Look, that is writing about providing opportunities to Maya women to provide monetary compensation to the Maya models? If they are not models, what are they?
Throughout both magazine photographs, indigenous women are merely there to provide a false sense of authenticity. These women are merely reduced to props who add just the right amount of exoticism to fuel white capitalistic fantasies. Fashion is severely guilty of fueling and creating fantasies at the expense of people of color. There is a thick line between appropriation and inspiration and the fashion world continues to fail again and again.
Each photo in Look magazine reinforces the idea that indigenous women shouldn’t command too much of our attention because what kind of world would we live in if indigenous women could grace the covers and pages of magazines without the presence of white women? In the case of Vogue, indigenous women can’t stand to be beautiful on their own without the presence of any non-indigenous woman, no matter if she is white or not. We see the model Han Hye for Vogue Korea strutting past a couple of indigenous women as she “captures the spirit of Cusco.”
These photos are a sad realization that our ancestral knowledge, our tejidos, our traje tipicos, are only valuable when found on non-indigenous, thin bodies that uphold white ideals of beauty. It troubles me to see something as sacred as el huipil being worn by white women who never have and never will understand what it’s like to be indigenous. When, in reality, so many indigenous girls and women are discouraged to wear their traje tipico because of the daily racism they face for simply being indigenous.
These photos show that our indigenous economies are not only dependent on foreign money but are determined without our consultation. These photos show that women like my aunts and grandmothers, who are not thin nor tall, who are Brown and proud as they are, can be found in Vogue or Look Magazine as scenery but not as the main subjects.
When will mainstream magazines truly understand that indigenous intelligence and beauty can stand on its own? All I know is that this is simply not the way. Dislike.
Genesis Tuyuc (Maya Kaqchikel), born and raised in New York City, is a fiction writer, filmmaker and community organizer. She is an alumnus of New York University and Columbia University.