Mirror, Mirror: Another gain for dark-skinned beauty, but work remains

Nyong'o projects an undeniable radiant beauty.
Nyong'o projects an undeniable radiant beauty. (VALERIE MACON / Getty Images)
Posted: May 08, 2014

While chatting with People senior writer Julie Jordan about the magazine's decision to crown Lupita Nyong'o "Most Beautiful," I started to wonder: Were the perennial arbiters of beauty really starting to get it?

"Lupita is not a stereotype of African American beauty," Jordan said. "She's not what you see on television; she's not the Hollywood mold. The beauty spectrum is so very wide. It doesn't have to be so cookie-cutter."

Then - without any prompting from me - Jordan lauded Nyong'o's short natural hair, her ebony skin, and her long limbs, saying these features were as desirable as People's 2013 pick, blond and pale Gwyneth Paltrow, on the opposite end of the beauty spectrum.

And because Nyong'o possesses an undeniable radiance, Jordan said, she doesn't seem to have as many haters as Paltrow did, if disparaging tweets are any indication.

Jordan articulated what many black women have been saying in salons and to their daughters for years. And that made my heart leap a little higher than it did the night Nyong'o appeared at the Academy Awards wearing a tiara. Maybe she won't be another "exotic" exception , but rather proof that the definition of beauty is finally diversifying.  

"I believe Lupita is a game-changer," agreed Constance White, style expert and former editor-in-chief of Essence. "Lupita connects to the larger issue that a whole group in our society is put at the bottom of what's beautiful and alluring."

This is People magazine's 25th Most Beautiful issue, and Nyong'o is the third black woman to grace the cover. Halle Berry and Beyonce, both lighter-skinned, were previous choices.

Shortly after completing her master's degree at Yale's School of Drama, Nyong'o landed the painful role of Patsey in British director Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.

During awards season, she was all glam in Prada and Gucci gowns on more than 65 red carpets. Miuccia Prada snagged her as a celebrity model for its sporty Miu Miu brand, and a few weeks before the People coronation, Lancome tapped her as its brand ambassador.

It doesn't mean her style choices won't be dissected. Nyong'o took a chance at Monday night's star-studded Met Gala in New York. She stunned (and angered) the style traditionalists in her brown Prada sheath boldly layered under a floor-length kelly-green gown made from netting and feathers. The interesting choice challenged what many think is red-carpet appropriate. I liked it.

In our increasingly optic world, where dark-skinned women aren't valued, let alone treated as status symbols or placed on pedestals, red-carpet love is major. Nyong'o, who said she used to pray to God for lighter skin, has challenged all of our notions of beauty - including her own.

During an emotional speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon days before the Oscars, she addressed the topic directly. She said she hoped that her "presence on your screens and in 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."

While a black woman being thought of as "Most Beautiful" is a step in the right direction, it doesn't erase decades of discrimination that has created a legacy of self-hatred in black communities.

If social media's #teamlightskinned and #teamdarkskinned factions aren't bad enough, just look at the news as proof that the lives of black women are less valuable: The kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by an Islamic militant group on April 14 evoked little reaction until a few days ago.

And then there was comedian Leslie Jones' self-loathing slave-breeding skit on Saturday Night Live last weekend that ironically was commentary on Nyong'o's winning Most Beautiful.  

Just because a magazine (or social media) tells a brown girl she's beautiful doesn't mean she's going to believe - just ask the editors at Essence. But for each Lupita Nyong'o we see receiving princess treatment, a few more brown girls might just know their beauty and eventually own it.

The real test is if they also end up on magazine covers.


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704

@ewellingtonphl

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