Nov 11, 2014

Muse: Lupita Nyong'o & The Redefinition Of Beauty

When Lupita Nyong'o won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in 12 Years A Slave, I let out a sigh of relief and smiled.

The Kenyan-Mexican actress became the talking point of almost every media outlet once word spread about her compelling performance in 12 Years A Slave, and from there her popularity escalated. Every corner of the media became plastered with her visage --- from dedicated Tumblr pages, to articles articulating her on-point acting performance, to talk show appearances showcasing her infectious charisma, to fashion editorial spreads and fashion critics alike going mental over her impeccable style --- Lupita Love was being spread all around.

In the last month, she was named the new face of the lush Lancôme line and was chosen as People Magazine's Most Beautiful, high honors that kept her aura aglow. Lupita fever has certainly arrived and in the heat of heat --- believe me --- I caught it. Almost immediately I began to adore her 'carefree Black girl' attitude, and her keen fashion sense (she's like the Millennial version of Audrey Hepburn for me), which has in turn pushed me into sharpening my own style game. She is my new best friend in my head, and I'm not alone in that thought, so don't give me that look.

It's no lie. We all have a tendency to gravitate towards someone who can come along and bring a uniqueness to the shifting our cultural paradigm, and it's safe to say that Lupita Nyong'o cultivates that ideal, so much so that it'll be just a matter of time before we get to see more of her --- or will we?

Now that Nyong'o has become the hottest tamale in 2014's warmer, her image has come under scrutiny, becoming the focal point in numerous fiery discussions about her and about women of color and their personal brand of beauty, and not all of the brouhaha has been bubbling sweet.

It's crazy to think in that in such a celebratory situation as this that there is doubt and disdain, but there is as the conversations from the high-brow to the low have dulled the glow around Nyong'o's overnight success story. Over the last few months, I have collected a lot of opinions about Nyong'o that have made me grimace and shake my head. They go as follows:
  • She won't be able to fit into (Whitewashed) Hollywood.
  • She is a fetish/has a beauty that is palpable for the White gaze.
  • She is overrated/ugly.
  • She earned her Oscar simply because she played a slave.
  • She's a non-American. If she was a Black American we wouldn't care so much.
  • She comes from a privileged upbringing and is an exception to the usual rule --- thus her success isn't as monumental as we believe.
Yes. Really. People are saying these things and then some and it's got me twitching like a twig in frigid winds over it.

Okay, maybe I'm an optimist who has trouble seeing beyond the practical trees, but in 2014, I just don't see how Lupita Nyong'o, her existence, and her Oscar win is a bad thing or the doom and gloom others have tried to make me think it is. Let me be real here. Lupita Nyong'o and her existence is needed. Big or small, her presence in the now is a positive, and last I checked a lot of Black women were wishing for someone like Nyong'o to come along, and here she is, and critical bricks are being thrown?

As women of color continue to find their place within such a marginalized and ivory-washed society that celebrates other forms of beauty devoid of the color spectrum, Nyong'o's beauty and classiness transcends bringing forth a new era of how we define women of color in the new century. Her presence especially brings attention to the oft ignored and ridiculed darker-skinned woman.

Nyong'o's inspiring speech during Essence's Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon electrified truth, as Lupita discussed how she had once prayed to be lighter in skin tone so she could match to the images she saw in her life. That was until she saw supermodel Alex Wek and was inspired to be herself, skin color and all. Those statements are testaments in themselves to how much representation matters, and how much incongruous value is placed upon one exclusive type of beauty in this society.

I, myself, do not share Nyong'o's complexion. I'm a light-skinned Black woman and for the longest, and always often, my kind of beauty is put on the shaky pedestal to be admired and coveted. Having light skin and being a minority racially is an awkward blessing and a perpetual curse to possess. In order to not hijack this post with my high yella tears, I'll say that it does hurt when my light-skin is the culprit for other women's pain when it's something that is not of my control.

Colorism is an ugly thing, it has been the division between families, countries, and kingdoms for centuries. If you were light, you were the "acceptable" member of your race, able to blend in and be "beautiful". The darker you were, you were not offered this assimilation "luxury". Exacerbated by Whites and followed through by clueless individuals within the minority races, colorism has caused a resurgence since Lupita Nyong'o has been touted for her style and look. With us being so conditioned on negative stereotypes and non-representation of other non-White beauty, some can't believe that such positive traits can be embodied in a Black body. It's down-right bothersome and confusing for some people to see someone who shatters such ingrained stereotypes.

For women of color, especially Black women, colorism has been upheld in the guise of select Black men, those who go out of their way to spew stereotypes and say hurtful things in order to champion White women and to feel superiority. The thirst is real. When we have articles like Ebony's 'Why Black Boys Need Lupita Nyong'o', articles that have to explain to young Black men why we need to celebrate all shades of Black beauty, we have a problem, a huge one, and that problem is colorism.

Ever since her arrival, the discussions about skin color and its involvement in mainstream beauty has become a big conversation. Not that the issue ever died out, just that its long curated mechanisms have been electrified to where Nyong'o has become sort of an unofficial spokesperson to educate on the ills of colorism. Though we shouldn't rely just on one person's experience with skin color, I'm glad she's one of many intelligent orators speaking on it. When Nyong'o sat down with Glamour after recently being crowned the magazine's Woman Of The Year, she offered once again food for thought about how truly ignorant people can be about skin color and how that ignorance can be a harmful influence:
European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world—the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in the second grade, one of my teachers said, "Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?" I was mortified. I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn't get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn't hearing this from my immediate family—my mother never said anything to that effect—but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents. 
I'm not here for the division between light-skinned Black people and dark-skinned Black people, as I feel that to absolve the rifts bit-by-bit we must learn to listen and see from each sides perspective. It's why as a light-skinned sister, I support and feel that it's essential and refreshing for Nyong'o's image to be out there. Why it's important to show black, brown, and fair working girls in Living Single and Girlfriends. Important for Shonda Rhimes' decision to intentionally push for Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope and Viola Davis' Annalise Keating as intelligent 'take-charge' dames with flawed dimensions. Important as the day when I saw Mariah Carey for the first time in the 1990s and realized a woman who looked like me and who talked candidly about her multiculturalism could be accepted and successful. Important to see Nicole Beharie and Lyndie Greenwood get caught up in crazy macabre ish on Sleepy Hollow and come out alive to live for another episode. Important that little girls get to see Disney's Doctor McStuffins treat toys in need. Important to view Quvenzhané Wallis capturing the heart of Jamie Foxx in the upcoming Annie musical reboot.

Black beauty doesn't fall under one default shade. This is no "us" against "them". No challenge dances in a beauty parlor to discuss "good and bad hair whether you're dark or you're fair". We need to redefine, and realize that all of these positive images and personalities are needed in order for Black women of all shades, all walks of life, to feel a sense of beauty, a sense of capability, a sense of belonging.

So what is so got damn wrong with that?

Some say that all the fawning and celebrating towards Lupita Nyong'o and her beauty is patronizing. Nyong'o can't possibly be told she's beautiful, that her skin can't be called flawless or her whole look marveled because when we say it, when non-Blacks say it, there is falsity to it. Okay, I get calling her "chocolate flawlessness" or "mocha enchantress" is silly, but so is calling a Latina woman "spicy" or a fair skin White woman being described as having skin as "creamy as milk". I mean, did we walk on the set of The Chew? Also the fact that media outlets have been dressing her up as a doe-eyed virginal Disney Princess is new to me (especially when it comes to Black women who are often never portrayed as virginal nor innocent) and has a creepy tinge to it. But we can't sit here and say that Nyong'o's skin isn't beautiful when it really is? What's wrong with that? Oh, it's because she's an African and we'd look like we're treating her with exotic lace gloves on to where this question (which comes from a panel over on Buzzfeed), is raised: "Is her beauty worshiped because she’s black, or because she’s somehow transcended our superficial idea of what black is?"

I will say this: when you're raised around people who look just like you, seeing an outlier is going to cause you to sort of oogle over it, to gaze at it with intrigue, and if you're frightened or threatened by this outlier it will make you fear it, become jealous of it, and thus hate and ridicule it. There isn't anything wrong with the act of sincere flattery, but a fine-line between preference and prejudice can be crossed because of non-exposure.

I understand this fully as being one of those "ambiguous Black" chicks that people like to box in a lot. For all the times I've been stared at, had my face searched, and been asked the laborious "what are you?" question, I know first-hand about the discomfort of feeling like you're an inhabitant in a zoo and having people trying to 'figure you out' when you don't match up to such fixed so-called standards.

So much so, that if I was in a relationship with someone, in the back of my mind chattering was: "Is he interested in me because I'm not *that* Black, but because it's enough Blackness/multi-raciality to piss his folks off or is it because he really does like me?" Some of this is going on with Nyong'o --- are most of us in awe because she fits a certain 'type of Black' or is it truly genuine that she's being viewed as a beauty game-changer for women of color? I don't think Nyong'o herself wants to be viewed as some sort of crystallized object of desire and personality, or the pinnacle of dark-skinned Black beauty, but I do think most of the positive comments about her are genuine, and that the negative comments about her are just seeped in a bitter brew of jealousy --- still we can't always be so final verdict about it.

I will say that in the last couple of years the stereotypes against people of color are breaking down little-by-little as more and more continue to be vocal and call out forms of media for not being representative enough to the blistering fact that people of color come in a myriad of personalities and looks, and that no two minority experiences are exactly alike. It's not all better, and one Oscar win and a Lancôme tenure can't absolve 200+ years of cultural oppression at the hands of centuries old racism, but we are making strides with each passing year, and we shouldn't belittle that.

While valid opinions and criticisms people have over Nyong'o and her redefinition of beauty, I do sense some over-reaching. People have collectively lost their damn minds over her (and all not for good reasons) and I want to bring it back to perspective that Lupita Nyong'o is a human being, with flaws, and we need to not build the pedestal so high when it comes to her.

Nyong'o wasn't the first to bring conscious to variant dark-skinned beauty (please thank the presences of Naomi Sims, Cicely Tyson, ImanGrace Jones, Naomi Campbell, etc.) and she's not the only one right now either, nor will she be the last. Nyong'o is more than the 2014 Best Supporting Actress winner, more than her stunning gowns on the red carpet, more than Jared Leto calling her his 'future ex-wife'. I wish people would talk more about her first acting gig on the MTV Kenyan mini-series, Shuga, or discuss the awesome fact that she wrote and directed a documentary, In My Genes, about albinism in her homeland, or talk about what other accomplishments in acting she could attain (the Americanah project sounds super promising!). We all just need to calm down and enjoy her presence, because we will be seeing it more often. And really to Nyong'o she's not worried about being the 'most beautiful ever', as she's discovered the secret to personal fulfillment, as she elaborated for Glamour again:
I come from a loving, supportive family, and my mother taught me that there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features. She was focused on compassion and respect, and those are the things that ended up translating to me as beauty. Beautiful people have many advantages, but so do friendly people.... I think beauty is an expression of love. [...] To rely on the way you look is empty. You're a pretty face—and then what? Your value is in yourself; the other stuff will come and go. We don't get to pick the genes we want. There's room in this world for beauty to be diverse.
These are things that need to be said, and said loud.

It is just inspiring that Lupita Nyong'o has made such headway in a small amount of time and space, and that she has unintentionally kicked open yet another door for women of color to fully embrace their own personal brand of beauty, inside and out. Who knows what can happen with this type of representation now in place? Only way is up, I say.

For now, all I know is that drinking the sour grape juice and being negative towards her talents and future doesn't push a damn thing forward. So I'll side-step the cynicism, and quell the over-analyzing and recognize that our dreams, our own personal beauty are valid and that the rise of Lupita Nyong'o is just one reminder of that.

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