As a grown-up with confidence, swagger and “I don’t give a doggone what you think about my beauty because I know I’m cute” aplomb, it can be easy for me to overlook the importance of the representation of Black beauty in mainstream media. Case in point: though I think Oscar-nominated actress Lupita Nyong’o is deliciously stunning, I announced to my husband a couple weeks ago that I’ll be glad when she’s finished making the Academy Awards rounds so that she can sit down already. I mean, in the past couple months since she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she’s been in every magazine, on every red carpet, featured on every fashion blog and cluttering my Facebook timeline with more “Gorgeous!” and “Amazing!” and “Love Her!” and “Girl Crush” proclamations than I could possibly count. “Overkill,” I blithely announced. “I simultaneously love her and am tired of her at the same time.” I wasn’t hating, promise. Just thirsty to see this beauty, who slayed it as “Patsy” in 12 Years a Slave, get back to the work.
I’m singing a different tune today, though, after Lupita delivered a powerful, heartfelt speech at the Essence magazine Black Women in Hollywood luncheon last week. In accepting her award for Best Breakthrough Performance, Lupita revealed that she was reminded of her own personal struggles with beauty, race and colorism after reading a letter from a fan who said Lupita’s success inspired her to forgo lightening her skin. Turns out that the beauty and style icon of 2014 hated her dark skin until two other dark-skinned beauties, her mother and supermodel Alek Wek, made her come to terms with her loveliness. Witness Lupita’s words:
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up light- skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God. I told Him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if He gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word, and never lose my school sweater again if He just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened. And when I was a teenager, my self-hate grew worse.
Lupita went on to say that for all-too-long, she’d considered her complexion “an obstacle to overcome”—something to reject—until Alek Wek came on the international scene, validated not only by magazine editors and fashion houses but called “beautiful” by Oprah. “And that made it a fact,” she laughed. Somehow, she added, those words and that validation meant more to her than those from her own mother, who, despite telling Lupita repeatedly that she was beautiful, couldn’t convince her daughter of this one true thing: “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” She added:
And these words played and bothered me, I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing I could acquire or consume. It was something I just had to be. And what my mother meant when she said, ‘you can’t eat beauty’ is that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What actually sustains us—what is fundamentally beautiful—is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsy in so much trouble with her master but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit, even after the beauty of her body has faded away. And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. That there is no shade in that beauty.
Good God, yes, Lupita. YES!
Surely, I remember what it was like to feel unbeautiful because of my dark skin and surely, I know, too, how important it is to remind my daughters that the mainstream attack against Black beauty is real and poisonous and devastating if we let it seep into our beings. Nothing, after all, hurts as acutely as being constantly bombarded with images and words and pop cultural standards that consistently tell us that we are not… enough. That we never can be, at least by those standards.
What a productive counterbalance, then, is Lupita, with her dope natural hair and her silky dark chocolate skin and her perfect-in-every-way beauty, sending bat signals to chocolate girlpies near and far that you… are… gorgeous… just… the… way… you… ARE… and to other girlpies of other races, too, that beauty… comes… in… all… colors. Best recognize.
As mothers, most of us are more inclined to want our daughters to understand exactly what Lupita’s mother was trying to tell her own child: that harping on whether you fit into someone else’s beauty standard is a waste of valuable time and emotional energy. Still, we must understand that there is value, too, in our daughters—and sons!—feeling good about their physical selves. Not using their beauty for some greater gain. Or thinking themselves better than others. But certainly value in feeling good about themselves—good enough to know that they are enough. Now if even one little girl finds that value in pictures of Lupita Nyong’o on red carpets from here to Zumunda, I’m here for it. Walk that red carpet, honey. Rock those magazine pages, money. Do that for yourself and for our little girls.
[Watch Lupita’s speech in the video above and read the words in their entirety at Essence.com]
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.