Lupita Nyong’o’s grace and wisdom were evident not only in her speech on the night of her Oscar win for “12 Years A Slave,” but also while being honored at this year’s ESSENCE Magazine Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. Reading a fan letter she had received from a girl who felt self-loathing because of her very dark skin, Ms. Nyong’o shared that she, too, “got teased and taunted about [her] night-shaded skin.” Her yearning to change her appearance was so great, she tried to “negotiate with God,” asking that her skin be lightened to match the images of beauty with which we are bombarded daily:
“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.””
Please take a moment to listen to her entire speech — moving, insightful and powerful from beginning to end:
I cannot pretend to speak to the experience of feeling rejected or outcast because of black skin. I can tell you that I cried along with her as she spoke. Like many women, I have felt “unbeautiful,” wanting to fix, chop off or otherwise mend a part of myself in order to conform and therefore, I thought, to win. To win what? Acceptance? Popularity? Career? Love?
Words are like bricks. Use the right ones and you can break the glass house in which some others live. Hear the right words and you can shatter your own glass house, too.
Such a brick is the “seduction of inadequacy.” Ms. Nyongo’s words resonated because I had never thought of my own habit of beating myself up for my perceived imperfections as “seductive.” Her phrase made me squirm a little, because she’s right. It was a bad habit to run myself down for not being beautiful enough, for not getting the job, for not getting everything right. The habit of self-loathing was a perverse but comfortable discomfort. Perhaps the practice of cursing some shortcoming in my appearance was better than admitting to life’s randomness. The fact is, even in attaining perfection, I still might not have gotten the cookie.
Whatever my perfectionism about any product I might generate, the worst hatred was always reserved for the mirror. To my mind, just slightly larger eyes, a more perfect nose, more cooperative hair or longer legs would have somehow magically turned a loss into a win.
The classic version of beauty we are fed on the TV screen every day, the ‘Barbie’ beauty, if you will, is a standard to which most could never aspire. In part because it is not real. Behind the quest for ‘Barbie’ beauty is a multi-billion dollar industry designed to make us all feel somehow less than, needing a thing, a product, a change outside ourselves in order to feel acceptable. The “seduction of inadequacy,” then, has been marketed to us very successfully. If it were not, even women who are thought to be stunning would not go under a surgeon’s knife in an insatiable pursuit of even greater beauty.
Ms. Nyong’o was making a point about the caste system of dark versus light skin, but perhaps another point is that we need to remember, as she so eloquently put it, to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”
On this International Women’s Day, I thank her for the reminder that “what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you.”
Lupita Nyong’o, along with teenaged activist Malala Yousafzai (who almost lost her life fighting for the right to education), and Julia Bluhm, (the 8th grader who collected 80,000 signatures to urge Seventeen magazine to stop retouching photos of young girls) are just a few of the women and girls representing new generations who already understand that our voices are our strength and our beauty cannot be defined by prejudice, a magazine cover or someone else’s critical voice ringing in our ears.
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