Which of these magazine covers is not like the others?

Well, ELLE magazine can cross “Get everyone talking about race and body image” off their list New Year’s resolutions list.

For their “Women in TV” special, the mag released four separate covers: Alison Williams from Girls, Zooey Deschanel from New Girl, Amy Poehler from Parks and Recreation, and Mindy Kaling from The Mindy Project. All superb, intelligent, fierce women completely worth celebrating (I’ve already vowed to wallpaper my entire house with the Amy Poehler cover because she is my spirit animal).

But one cover is not quite like the others, is it?

Here is Mindy’s cover:

And here are all four covers:

Mindy Kaling’s is cropped in tight (like a headshot) and given a black & white filter. The three other women are in full colour, featuring about 75% of their bodies. Kaling is the only black woman, and the only one with a fuller figure (she’s an American size 8, which is a size 12 here in Australia).

Whichever way you look at it – through a race or body shape lense – this is a game of Which Of These Is Not Like The Other? And that troubles me. It troubled Madeline West over at Jezebel, and it troubled Julia Sonenshein at The Gloss. Did it trouble Mindy? Apparently not.

Desperate to hear straight from Mindy (Had she chosen the image? Was she happy with the cover? Did she know the other women would be shown differently?), I spent a long time refreshing her Twitter feed. And at last! She responded to the controversy, with her typically excellent wit:

ELLE magazine released a statement too: “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.”

I completely agree – her cover is glamourous, cool, sexy, beautiful and chic. Which is unsurprising, because she walks around being all of those things all the time.

But there’s so much more going on here. If you’re releasing a set of four covers, why make one stand out for so many politically charged reasons? Why crop a beautiful, healthy woman at the shoulders and disguise her dark skin, when you know that curvy women and black women – hell, all women – would celebrate Mindy being on the cover?

Kerry Washington on the cover of Vanity Fair.

It’s still a really big deal to put a dark skinned person on a cover – it shouldn’t be, but it is. When Kerry Washington was on the cover of Vanity Fair last year (If you’re not watching her as Olivia Pope in Scandal, what are you doing with your life?), it was really significant.

Putting someone bigger than a size 6 is also a really big deal in the magazine world (remember, they’re eons behind in terms of embracing diversity). ELLE even did it recently, with Melissa McCarthy on the cover in an oversized coat, and got a similar backlash.

Which makes me think this was a rather clever strategy (or depending how you look at it, a desperate attempt to stay talked-about). Are the team over at ELLE actually not racist or fat-ist, but wily and smart for baiting us all into this very conversation?

You don’t make a stark aesthetic choice like cropping and colouring a cover star without assessing how people might react. And here we all are, making ELLE seem relevant again with every outraged tweet or comment.

The representation of women, race, power, and body image in the media is always an important conversation to have. But really, in 2014, why should it be revolutionary to put an intelligent, successful woman in her full glory on the cover of a mag? While we wait for magazines to catch up and embrace diversity, it’s worth listening to the woman we’re all talking about, when she says that all this talk about body image might be a distraction from real equality in show biz:

“I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. 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?'” She told E! online. “There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them. But while I’m talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art.”

Girl, you get back to making that art – because your show is funny as hell and we love you.

Why do you think the Mindy Kaling cover was cropped so closely? Do you think the choice to make one cover black and white and the others coloured, was fair?