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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 with her Oscar at the Vanity Fair party. Photo: Getty
Lupita Nyong’o with her Oscar at the Vanity Fair party. Photo: Getty

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.