This week, actress Lupita Nyong’o was given the Best Breakthrough Performance award at Essence’s Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon. At the beginning of her acceptance speech, she described a letter she received from a young fan, who’d been considering buying skin-lightening cream before Nyong’o rose to fame. For Nyong’o, the sentiment was all too familiar.
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 had been the day before.
Nyong’o explained that seeing images of supermodel Alek Wek was a turning point for her. “Even Oprah called her beautiful,” she said, “and that made it a fact.” By witnessing media that portrayed beauty as something other than blond, white, and pale, Nyong’o came to realize that “beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.”
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.
If there’s one topic I will never tire of writing about, it’s the importance of representation. There is something about our brains that makes it damn well impossible to feel okay about ourselves unless we are able to see someone like us. It is crucial that we create and support media that celebrates the human body in every color, shape, and size — not just for the sake of how others perceive us, but for how we perceive ourselves. I have not experienced the feelings Nyong’o and her fan describe, but I know such things will continue unless we all work to make it better. And we can make it better. It’s all a matter of the stories we tell and the images we share.