While Hollywood is crowning Lupita Nyong'o with accolades for her amazing acting skills, women everywhere are looking up to her for a different reason: her skin color. She represents successful Black women in film, and seeing a gorgeous, dark-skinned, intellectual young woman gracing the major red carpets and topping best-dressed lists inspires us all.
And while the 12 Years a Slave star is rapidly gaining fans in the beauty world for her colorful makeup style and awesome Afro, she admitted at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon that she hasn't always been so confident in her beauty. Like many young women of color, there was a moment when she cursed her own deep skin. Read her moving speech below:
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, Black beauty, dark beauty. 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."
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 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.
It was just a little over a decade ago when Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for best actress. But Lupita's dark mahogany complexion goes beyond the caramel brown we typically see on movie screens and enters another class of beauty. It was ebony models like Alek Wek who helped Lupita overcome her self-hatred.
But a flower couldn't help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek [Wek], 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 my skin prevailed, to the courters 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.
Magazine editors, television anchors, and fashion designers can't stop talking about the beauty of Lupita's glowing complexion, and that's a positive thing. Just maybe her It-girl status will not only boost the self-image of other Black women, but perhaps the rest of the world will take notice, too, making women like Alek and Lupita the norm instead of a novelty.