I’m not quite sure when I really started to see the distinction between my playmates and I growing up. Although we could tell that someone of a different ethnicity was different from us, there was a subtle division among us too which often resulted in some of us getting more compliments and attention than the others. Signs that one had been in the sun too long were met with horror and disapproval as aunts or maids, sometimes even mothers would comment on how dark one was getting as if they was purposefully yet naively doing something taboo.
It wasn’t until I got a new friend that I realized what the illusive thing was: skin tone. My friend was lighter than I was, with evenly toned skin. Everywhere we went she was regarded as an ethereal being. Teachers doted on her, parents adored her and boys treated her as if the rest of us had somehow been shipped off to some faraway planet in the Milky Way. And oh, how we resented it, and to some extent, her. Although she did not know that she had “pretty privilege”, she used it unashamedly, and I guess I can’t blame her, seeing as she was born into a society that put her on a pedestal simply because of the way she happened to look. It was an easy pass.
I’m currently somewhere between feeling like the discussion about Lupita Nyong’o’s beauty and success has been dragged on for too long and feeling like it’s something we don’t discuss enough. Maybe between the jabs taken at her skin tone, her breasts, her hair and the overall simple dismissal of her success by a lot of Africans, I simply switched off and decided to watch the headlines and comments about her from a passive stance. And I could have continued to do so, I think, had the unthinkable not happened: She was named People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person.
The word “unthinkable” might seem a bit dramatic but believe me when I tell you it took most of us by surprise. In a world where skin bleaching agents, cosmetic surgery and hair relaxer creams are being consumed at an alarming rate, and mostly by Black women, the last thing we ever thought we’d get was positive recognition from mainstream media and to have it be constant, at that.
The Dark “Natural” Black woman has long been a fetish, even, I’m sad to say, to our own race. She’s the one who “dares” to exist as she was born in a world that encourages her to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, and therefore, from the get go, she is viewed as a hostile/stubborn/strong individual; someone to be forced into submission through self-hatred. She is reminded of her colour, her ethnicity, every time someone mentions it and makes it seem like a handicap.
“You’re so pretty for a dark girl.”
“You have that Alek Wek type of ‘beauty’.”
“Ugh, I just think your skin is so unique. Like, you should model.” They receive a plethora of backhanded compliments suggesting that the dark skinned girl is an anomaly; something to be kept on runways or display sections like a rare, odd phenomenon. Her beauty is not embraced and she is not revered in her own community.
I find it interesting to note though, that people who measure beauty by aforementioned Eurocentric standards, people who look to Pop Culture to inform them what’s hot or not, still refuse to embrace Lupita as an icon. I find myself wondering whether it’s to do with the fact that embracing her beauty would have to mean actually facing the fact that through the mainstream media we have been told and shown that we’re not considered desirable, something many deny, or whether the self-hatred runs so deep that women who look like her will not be deemed worthy to such people, no matter who says so.
Many dismiss her as “average”. “I can find a woman who looks like her just walking to the store,” they say, insinuating that the average woman to them isn’t in the least bit attractive or worthy of attention, no less admiration. To understand why Lupita is not a Goddess to many, why her triumphs are insignificant, we will need to understand that the bar has been contorted to fit only a specific mould and her acceptance will see her not only altering it, but possibly maiming it and proving it redundant and unrealistic. And during this process she will obviously face resistance, as we’re currently bearing witness to.
Accepting Lupita’s triumphs will mean facing the fact that many never thought a woman like her would be successful on the World Stage and addressing why they had that idea in the first place. Unfortunately, many aren’t willing to do that. She will continue to be considered “average” and “forced down our throats” until those who think that way understand this: Because Lupita looks like many a Black woman, her triumphs are our triumphs. Her victories, a nod to many a Black young girl and woman to say “You too can do it.” Lupita’s existence, her career, has garnered so much attention not because she is a chess piece in a game played to mess with our minds, but because we’ve been waiting for decades to have more than Alek Wek and Ajak Deng on our screens as people we can relate to. Because she is what we needed to see in order to turn the screen back on ourselves and assess how we perceive Black beauty, and why. She is more than a pawn in a game or a joke being played on those who refused to believe anyone other than a Jessica Alba or Giselle Bundchen lookalike could possibly be considered beautiful.
And you know, even if this were a game, I would say she is the team player that’ll get us further to victory; through introspection, acceptance, self-love, and eventually lead us to glory.