It’s fitting that the journey of Lupita Nyong’o has come full circle. In her widely seen and admired speech at the annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon earlier this year, she told her story of feeling “un-beautiful” until images such as model Alek Wek, actress Whoopi Goldberg and icon Oprah Winfrey filled the screen and the scene. Their success helped the lessons of Nyong’o’s mother – who valued her daughter’s inner and outer worth – finally sink in.
With her spot on the cover of People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” issue, little girls who claim the same kind of natural beauty, buoyed up by intelligence and compassion, might take heart. The documentary “Dark Girls” recorded the hurts, insults and very real discrimination they and their grown-up sisters have suffered. Nyong’o told People that when she was growing up she thought beauty meant “light skin and long, flowing, straight hair.” Now, like Goldberg, she has a best-supporting actress Academy Award. The latest magazine cover is icing on the cake.
Like frosting, it’s admittedly fluffy. People’s honor perhaps should be renamed most beautiful famous celebrity named by one publication’s editors and experts who are looking for someone with buzz who’s had an awesome year and we hope will sell lots of issues.
Yet symbols matter, especially to that young girl, as Nyong’o poetically put it in her speech, with the same “night-shaded skin” she was “teased and taunted about.” Society’s standards change very slowly. People’s first “most beautiful” cover girl was Michelle Pfeiffer in 1990, the last before Nyong’o was Gwyneth Paltrow, both fitting the translucent blonde mold, the go-to representation of fresh-faced all-American beauty that persists.
Unlike Beyonce and Halle Berry, who have also earned the issue’s cover, Nyong’o is “black from a distance,” a phrase used by fashion expert Michaela Angela Davis to describe Michelle Obama, another woman who has changed the conversation about the meaning of black beauty, though not without pushback from some who will never get it.
Even some of those grumps have to be envious of Nyong’o’s flawless skin, which has a better-than-average chance of avoiding wrinkles for decades to come.
But will the good will trickle down in other ways?
In the United States military, how black women wear their natural hair as it grows out of their head has become controversial, with new rules and regulations forbidding certain styles of twists and braids. A letter from women members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, in part: “African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace.” Caucus members wrote, “The use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased.”
In fashion, Nyong’o – a new “face of Lancome” – made red carpet waves with looks and style that made designers’ jewel-toned gowns pop. Yet you would not know it from the look of some runways, which prompted former model agency owner Bethann Hardison to write a letter last year challenging designers who use one or no models of color in their shows. The letter, at the Web site Balance Diversity, supported by former star models Naomi Campbell and Iman, said: “Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.”
And what’s next in Hollywood, which is good at picking one “it” girl, as I wrote in The Root, but has trouble spreading the love and the opportunities around, particularly when it comes to actresses of color?
It took barely a month after Nyong’o’s Oscar win for “12 Years a Slave” for the Hollywood Reporter to wonder about her future, considering the film industry’s hesitation to cast dark-skinned actresses in all sorts of roles, as though it would take a special sort of forward-thinking visionary to cast the award-winner as a doctor, a villain, a sci-fi hero or opposite Bradley Cooper.
Expanding societal notions rooted in history of how to measure beauty, talent and excellence will take more than a magazine cover, especially when the next issue takes its place and the conversation changes.
But that’s no reason not to realize the importance of celebrating the lovely face and warm smile of Lupita Nyong’o on newsstands and in supermarkets everywhere – for one week, at least.