Laurie and Debbie say:
To understand what Elle did with its cover photo of Mindy Kaling, you need only look at this array of the magazine’s cover photos for its Women in TV issue:
Kaling, who started out on The Office as a writer, and continues to write after stepping into the role of Kelly Kapoor, is South Asian. She is an absolutely horrifying-to-Hollywood size 8. (Oh, no!) You can see in this spread how the other three actresses (Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler, and Alison Williams) are portrayed as three different stereotypes of high-fashion hot chicks: the demure, the check-me-out, and the fuck-me. Kaling, on the other hand, is the only one whose photo is black-and-white (which downplays her skin color) and the only one whose body isn’t shown (because *shudder* curves). Beyond a doubt, Elle did this because they were uncomfortable about, and unwilling to, showcase Kaling as a hot chick.
So, unintentionally, they showcased her as the only one of the four women who seems real, who has personality and presence.
Despite criticism that the magazine was unwilling to show Kaling’s whole body because of her weight, according to E News:
Elle stands by its cover treatment… “Mindy looks sexy, beautiful and chic. We think it is a striking and sophisticated cover and are thrilled to celebrate her in our Women in TV Issue.”
E News also quotes Julia Sonenshein from The Gloss:
… something that’s long overdue: a woman of color and some size who’s known as much for her talent, intelligence, and humor as she’s known for her looks land a major cover. This shouldn’t be a thing. This shouldn’t be news. We shouldn’t be this excited to see Kaling, or any woman of color who’s not ‘model-thin’ on a major magazine cover. But we are excited, and worse, applauding Elle for doing so, as if it’s some brave stand to feature a person on the cover of their magazine, instead of the fact that major magazines are woefully behind the times.
While we basically agree with Sonenshein, it is disturbing (if unsurprising) to see size 8 described as “some size.” Of course, you could say that size 1 is also “some size,” but that’s not what she means.
Speaking as a portrait photographer, Laurie says: “I really liked the strong black and white portrait of Kaling. The image gives us a sense of her individual reality. Her direct gaze at the viewer asserts a personal presence that strongly contrasts with the objectified images of the other actresses.”
Finally, while Kaling has apparently not said much about the cover or the shoot (except that she thinks the controversy is “weird”), she is brilliantly outspoken about her body confidence.
I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting,” the Office vet admits. “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?’
Although it almost certainly wasn’t their intent, Elle gave her a cover photo of a woman who is incontrovertibly worth something. If we were Deschanel, Poehler, and Williams, we might be envious of Kaling’s cover. We don’t admire the magazine’s motives, but we applaud the results.