Lupita, Whitenicious and the Ownership of Beauty
The notion that Lupita Nyong’o is beautiful has been breaking news for several weeks now. I haven’t been able to participate in the public celebration of her beauty for several reasons. Because I wonder if all the people posting and reposting would have hailed Queen Lupita if they’d seen her walking down an Atlanta street in sweats. Is she beautiful to us because she is? Or is she beautiful to us because popular media made the announcement and backed it up with well-lit, Photoshopped high-fashion spreads?
Would we be celebrating Lupita’s beauty right now if only Essence had printed a spread about her?
Who owns the definition of beauty? Does Vogue own it? Is Alek Wek beautiful because she is? Or because Ford Models signed her?
Too often in the West, the media sells us an idea, and we buy into it without a thought or question. It is important that we begin to use our enlightenment to do more than reposting, repeating and regurgitating. In Lupita’s very important speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon—pasted below—she mentions the “gatekeepers of beauty.”
“I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty.”
Presumably she did this because she understands that there is a monopoly on the ownership of “beauty.” That there are a select few organizations that are permitted to give out beauty licenses. Do we have any information about the criteria they use? Can we truly say that the people who they choose to celebrate are any better looking than those they don’t celebrate? What does it take to be in a position to give out those licenses? Can they be revoked? Does the licensing organization hold the power (of the definition of beauty) or do the people hold it? What if People said Kim Kardashian is beautiful and we ignored them? What would happen? What if Applause Africa said TY Bello is the next big thing and we all went crazy over her? What would happen to the license making organizations then? Would they lose power? Would it cease to be important what they think of us? Would it strip them of the power to—in the next breath—publish something that perpetuates negative myths and stereotypes of African people?
You know what, let me stop being so diplomatic. When white folks tell us we are beautiful, talented, worthy of note, we get way too excited. Everything taken in context, the more powerful group does have more cultural influence. Expectedly so since they own a great deal more of the means of production. I’m trying to get us to realize though, that we have much more power than we use. If we want to cease being seen as criminals and sex puppets, perhaps we—and by “we” I mean those who have disposable income in any amount—focus our resources on developing more means of production, more platforms for expression and validation. More powerful platforms from which to say “Chidinma is the Next Big Thing” beyond her African borders, even into the international corners of the Diaspora, and affect her album sales exponentially.
Speaking of African musicians, Dencia, founder of Whitenicious (no you will never find a link to her products on my site) was a semi-famous musician in West Africa…until she launched the fastest-acting skin bleach on the market. Now she’s a very famous “enemy of the state.” She claims to love dark black skin…like Lupita’s…but is making crazy money off this new product that promises lighter skin within seven days. Usually I don’t give energy to such nonsense, but Lupita used this woman powerfully as an illustration of why we must love ourselves. She said that a young girl wrote her a letter stating:
“I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world [stage] and saved me.”
She then spoke about how Alek Wek was the one who inspired her to move from self-hatred to loving her skin. These stories may be all we need to see the value in the “beauty licenses” given by Big Media. If Lupita had never heard of Alek, would she ever have come to love herself so boldly that she now is a similar inspiration?
There may be power of validation in Big Media, but the power of validation that comes from self is infinitely stronger a force. When Lupita accepted internally this notion of loving her God-made self, she was able to ooze the kind of fierceness that is irresistible to “beauty license makers” of every racial persuasion. We can do more to encourage this internal self-love using platforms like African-owned media, creating a world in which no one would buy Whitenicious. Black women, I need you to ask yourselves, if and when popular media decides that Lupita is no longer their it girl, will you still find her so incredibly beautiful? Will you be capable of finding obscure versions of Lupita “drop dead gorgeous” on St. Louis streets? Will you find sisters of every shade and every shape just as attractive? With no help from Big Media, will you be capable of finding your natural self gorgeous from within?
Lupita is beautiful because her skin glows, her smile is radiant, her body is goddess-like—typical of many African women. She’s beautiful because her confidence is fundamentally anchored and real, not because W put her on their cover.
I live in Brooklyn, and my dark-skinned Black beauty is hailed even on what I would consider my ugliest days—less and less now that Crown Heights is the new yuppy’s haven. It is here that I learned that Black is beautiful because it just is, and always has been. It is here that the science of Black DNA power began to make sense. That I no longer needed Vogue or People or Calvin Klein to tell me what a “beautiful” Black person looked like. I no longer needed permission to find myself and those who look like me beautiful, I was able to finally take off the blinders caused by racism-induced self-hatred, and see black skin for what it is: the most raw, unadulterated original form of beauty there ever was on the planet.
Lupita, Alek, Pero, they’re not beautiful in spite of being Black. They’re beautiful because they’re so powerfully Black.
For my Chocolate sistren and the ones who love us,
Lupita Nyong’o’s speech at Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon
Thank you Alfre, for such an amazing, amazing introduction and celebration of my work. And thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of such an extraordinary community.
I am surrounded by people who have inspired me, women in particular whose presence on screen made me feel a little more seen and heard and understood. That it is Essence that holds this event celebrating our professional gains of the year is significant, a beauty magazine that recognizes the beauty that we not just possess but also produce.
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.”
My heart bled a little when I read those words, I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to 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.
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 conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then…Alek Wek. 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 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.
And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the 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.
There is no shame in Black beauty.