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On Beauty: Lupita Nyong’o.

Posted in Beauty, Life & Love, and Women's issues


“I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”

“My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.

“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 lighter-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 had been 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.”

These words were spoken by Lupita Nyongo, the winner of 2014’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. I wanted to share them, without too much embellishment from me (which they don’t need) because they speak to being a woman in our world. This piece is for anyone who every looked at herself in the mirror and despaired of her looks. For whatever reason. It is for anyone who has ever: “begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy” And I am going to read it to my three fabulous nieces – because I know they will have those times too:  “My loves, beauty is something you just have to BE”.

“… And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was.

Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.

And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey 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 the 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. There is no shade to that beauty.”

(Image copyright ESSENCE/Philippe Salomon.  Nyongo was speaking as  she accepted her award for Best Breakthrough Performance at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon – hosted by Essence magazine. View her speech here

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  1. Do you remember ‘Karoo Cream’? that was the popular ‘whitening’ cream in SA when I was young, and I read somewhere that it was not good for you at all.
    Pale skin is still so desired in so many cultures, African, Indian, and even Chinese. Chinese women do not like to expose their skin to the sun ‘in case it goes darker’ because to them that symbolises being a peasant who toils on the land.
    And the irony is that since the 1930s, white Western women have desired a tanned skin – presumably because it conveyed the idea that you had enough money and leisure time to go abroad and lie in the sun.
    What a wonderful speech by Lupita N’yongo, it should be required reading for ALL teenage girls.

    March 8, 2014
  2. I wish Dencia’s company would fail but nope, her cream is selling like crazy.

    It wasn’t until I went to college (and actually spent more time with black people outside my family. My suburban town was not diverse) that I started to feel that maybe I was too dark. Other people would tell me that I was pretty for dark girl. It really started to be an issue when I moved to DC. It was a difficult time.

    March 8, 2014

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