Lupita Nyong’o Redefines Beauty

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7th Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon
Lupita Nyong’o won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the 86th Annual Academy Awards. AFP Photo / Kevork Djansezian

Too fat, too thin, too pale, too dark. Many girls grow up with insecurities about themselves and often do not grow out of them, wasting precious time trying to achieve what is perceived as the ideal look.

But amid all the dieting craze and skin whitening frenzy, women like Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o emerge and remind us that we are beautiful the way we are and that true beauty comes from within.

Nyong’o was honoured for her work in the film 12 Years a Slave with the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at Essence Magazine’s 7th Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon last week.

Here are excerpts from her acceptance speech:

“I received a letter from a girl: ‘Dear Lupita, 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.’

“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 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 had been the day before.

“When I was a teenager, my self-hate grew worse. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was 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. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. 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.

“I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the faraway 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.’ I didn’t really understand them until finally I realised 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.

“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 shade to that beauty.”

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