One of the most interesting things about this cover is that Elle.com itself published an essay criticizing it.
Hang on, let’s get the superficial stuff out of the way first, like how this cover is busier than Blake Lively. It is a visual traffic jam, everything packed in there tightly with nowhere to move or breathe. Not only are we blanketed with text, but FKA Twigs’ outfit is every bit as cluttered. I count a tank dress, a sheath, a corset, a belt, a purse, and at least two large skeleton keys, in addition to a whole lot of jewelry on her head and arms. [Edited to add: Many of you in the comments pointed out that it looks problematically like she’s wearing a collar and/or in bondage or chains, which is ALSO a good point. FKA Twigs tends toward a bondage aesthetic sometimes, as you can see on this other cover, so I think that’s why I skated by it — but I also think it’s an astute and worthy thing to bring up, and that it shouldn’t be skated past, regardless of whether we’re used to it from her.] The text, I get; FKA Twigs is not a household name here — and if she is, it might be because people recall her engagement to Robert Pattinson (by the way, “catnip love life” is an absurd way to describe that) — and so there is heavy-lifting being done to contextualize her. Fine, sure. But styled right, I think the photo could have piqued people’s interest along with a very simple compliment that she is the new Prince. Done. Let’s not blow a gasket addressing notes the public haven’t even given, you know? Stand by your cover subject. Let her attempt to speak volumes. (And indeed, some of the interior photos are really striking. She has very soulful eyes.)
But: Melissa Harris-Perry, a former MSNBC anchor, joined Elle in April and published an essay about this entitled, “What Do You See When You Look At This Cover?” In it, she describes her reaction to seeing a “Becky With The Good Hair” joke plonked so prominently next to FKA Twigs’ own.
I was not the first person to point out the complications of this cover line. It does not really matter who was. What matters is this: within the ELLE family, some folks looked at this image and saw “hell yes!” and some folks looked at it and saw “what the hell?” […] The question of whether ELLE has committed a racial faux pas or even an egregious act of racism by inserting the “Becky with the good hair” reference right next to the lovely visage of FKA twigs on our August cover is not merely a matter of opinion, taste, or aesthetic; it is a matter of race, power, privilege, and ongoing issues of diversity and representation in the industry. […] When our cover asks, “Becky who?” some editors saw a reference to a now-famous subversive Beyoncé lyric. It is that. Other editors see a reference to painful, and at times divisive, racial history, where white women stole the culture, the lives, and the loves of black women, and black women fought back by discursively diminishing them as “Beckys” in return. It is that too.
It’s a very interesting piece that touches on the fact that many people, including those in the author’s own family, saw different things and had different views of this cover and this line’s place on it. She also eloquently contextualizes the weight of the words “good hair” and the ways in which black women feel subverted by them, especially in an industry whose fashion magazines have not always been egalitarian about race. And indeed, another focal point of her argument is the interior pages of the issue:
My initial reaction to the Becky/ good hair reference on the cover was… meh. But I got mad when I turned to page 110 as referenced in the tease. There I found a full-page image of a white woman with platinum blond hair with the word BEAUTY emblazoned across her bangs and “America’s Most Wanted” beneath her chin. Now I was pissed. Eyes red and swirly, smoke coming out of my ears, mad. I thought the “good hair” reference next to FKA twigs could potentially be subversive, suggesting that her dark, stylish locks are an alternate definition of “good hair” displacing all the Beckys of the world. I dislike good/bad dichotomous thinking about hair, but I was willing to read this as a disruption of Eurocentric standards—a kind of interesting inversion. But page 110 was downright triggering!