Lupita Nyong’o with her Oscar at the Vanity Fair party. Photo: Getty
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“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful”: Lupita Nyong’o on beauty and skin colour

In her speech at Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood event, the Oscar winner spoke of how she used to be “teased and taunted about her night-shaded skin”, and how she arrived at the realisation that beauty doesn’t come in shades.

Lupita Nyong’o, star of 12 Years a Slave and winner of the Oscar for best supporting actress this week, has given a brilliant speech about beauty, colour and fame.

Speaking to the guests at Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood lunch, she said:

“Every day I experienced the disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before... I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because he never listened.”

She went on:

“My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome, and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t... I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.”

Watch it in full here:

 

She ends her discussion of her own journey to self-belief thus:

“I hope that my presence on screen 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. There is no shade in that beauty.”

In an article for the New Statesman last year about colourism, Elizabeth Pears wrote of her own experience of having “light” black skin, saying:

In the Caribbean, such as the Bahamas where I was born, the minority light skinned community forms the majority of the ruling elite – the effects of generations of wealth and privilege and marrying the ‘right’ people from the ‘right’ (and light!) families.

The ugly truth is while racism – whether institutional, structural or ingrained – and inequality persists, so will colourism. It is no surprise that skin bleaching creams are most popular in developing countries.

 

I'm a mole, innit.

Val Doone/Getty Images
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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt