Lupita Nyong’o’s recent Oscar win as Best Supporting Actress for her breakthrough performance as Patsey, a slave in the historical drama 12 Years a Slave, has further cemented her status as the media’s latest darling. Aside from the recognition that her critically acclaimed feature film debut has received, much of the buzz surrounding Nyong’o has focused on her striking beauty. Her on-trend red-carpet looks which have landed her on a number of best-dressed lists, high-end fashion endorsement deals with the clothing brand Miu Miu, and editorial spreads in magazines like Vogue Italia, highlight her rising standing as a style and beauty icon. These media accolades highlight that Nyong’o has gotten the seal of approval from some of the self-designated “gatekeepers of beauty.” Her “obscurity-to-Oscar fame” fairy tale was further topped-off by the awareness that praising her dark-skin opens up a space for the increased recognition of multiple beauty ideals.
However, just days before Nyong’o’s Oscar win, she reminded us about the ways in which beauty standards still remain stubbornly narrow and the critical need for more diverse representations in Hollywood and the fashion world. In an acceptance speech (here and here) at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon in a crowd of fellow Black actresses, Nyong’o candidly and movingly discussed her own personal insecurities about her looks and how seeing faces that looked like hers on screen and on the runway validated that she was beautiful. She also shared a letter from a young girl who had written to her about her plans to lighten her own skin with “Dencia’s Whitenicious” skin cream,” but changed her mind once she saw how Nyong’o has been embraced as an overnight sensation and success “on the world map.”
The skin lightening cream (Dencia’s Whitenicious) referenced in the letter written by a young girl and sent to Nyong’o is part of a skincare line marketed by Nigerian-Cameroonian pop star Dencia. She has received a great deal of backlash for lightening her skin and transforming it from a “deep mahogany brown” to “milky white.”
In this scenario, it is easy to cast Dencia as the villain for perpetuating white-based “Western” standards of beauty and Nyong’o as the heroine for uplifting “dark beauty.” However, rather than discuss skin color and associated representations through a simple “negative vs. positive framework,” I think it is important to consider the deeper meanings we attach to beauty and be mindful of the specific contexts in which these meanings emerge.
In my own research on the Nigerian beauty pageant industry I observed that discussions about skin color were commonplace. I found that contestants and organizers thought of skin color in a much more strategic way that highlighted the transnational dimensions of beauty. Lighter-skinned contestants were considered to have a more “fresh-faced mass appeal” look, while darker-skinner contestants were seen to be more “glamorous and modelesque.” Both spectrums of skin color were viewed as necessary to be competitive, especially on the international stage. By capitalizing on these distinctions by assigning specific meanings to skin tone, we can see the ways in which skin color can be selectively incorporated in more nuanced ways. We should remain mindful of how beauty ideals and discussions about racialized femininity are framed and understood in myriad ways depending on the audience and purpose.
Nyong’o’s speech speaks to the politics of recognition in which discussions of beauty pull in larger themes of belonging, acceptance, and self-esteem. Beyond acknowledging the role of celebrities and public figures in serving as role models for fuller depictions of beauty in the media, her speech opens up the broader dialogue about the complex underpinnings of beauty and race in a global context. While she ended her speech by urging us to focus on inner beauty and self-confidence, it is clear that the continued discussion of her impact in and out of Hollywood showcases how the cultural politics of physical beauty deeply matter.
By Oluwakemi M. Balogun, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Oregon. She is the author of “Cultural and Cosmopolitan: Idealized Femininity and Embodied Nationalism in Nigerian Beauty Pageants,” published in the June 2012 issue of Gender & Society.