CREDIT: AP Images/Richard Shotwell
At Essence’s Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon, Lupita Nyong’o, who’s been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress In A Supporting Role for her performance in 12 Years A Slave, used her acceptance speech for Best Breakthrough Performance, to talk about how she’d found herself in the position that model Alek Wek once played for her: as an inspiration to women with darker skin. “I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you,” Nyong’o told the audience. “‘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.’” She explained that:
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.
Or maybe He was preserving Nyong’o’s skin tone for her, keeping it in trust for the day it would be part of the reason people find her so striking. As my friend Nichole Perkins put it, “Yes, we are pressed about Lupita. We are *thirsty* for beauty such as hers.” It’s a beauty that means Nyong’o can wear jewel tones that would wash out women with lighter complexions. Her skin tone means that she can sport dramatic eye makeup and lip color that would overwhelm the features of other actresses, rather than accentuating them. Nyong’o’s ascent as a fashion icon is a reminder that the variety of beauty she represents is an asset: there are clothes only she can wear to their best advantage, red carpet monotonies that she can shatter. These may be small compensation for missed opportunities past, for directors who might have been foolish enough not to cast her because of her color. But at least this recognition is arriving now.
It’s understandable why, as a girl, Nyong’o might have wanted to lighten her skin, just as girls of all races are tempted to whittle themselves down to nothingness, to dye their hair the proper shade, to obscure their skin with layers of makeup that give it a homogenized evenness. The disincentives for being different are often astonishingly high, whether they’re articulated in impersonal fashion by culture, or with close-at-hand cruelty. And not all of us will reap the astonishing rewards for sticking the course on our individuality and humanity the way Nyong’o has.
But lightening your skin because of the value society places on whiteness, or, in response to other prejudices starving yourself into compliance, are both survival strategies based on the idea that it is safer to be invisible. If you meet a standard of perfection, the thinking goes, you will access the privileges that come with meeting that standard. But reaching for that standard, rather than being born into it, always involves a risk of falling short, of trying to be white enough and thin enough, and failing, and being ridiculed for the effort. Even if those efforts succeed, they’ll do so at the cost of rendering yourself less specific, less recognizable. We may not be able to promise everyone the adoration Nyong’o is presently, and justly, receiving. But we’re shamefully overdue on delivering the more modest goal of an environment where the expense of erasing yourself is more substantial than the gains of conformity.