Whether it’s her charm, beauty, talent, and grace, or her fortitude for shining on the red carpet and on screen, there is no shortage of reasons to appreciate Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. And consequently, over the past year, she has risen to worldwide fame and adoration, and has captured the attention of the public on screen, on the red carpet, and on camera.
The rich, bold, and deep skin color, natural hair, and facial features of the Kenyan-Mexican actress has been a focal point in conversations around her beauty. She looks stunning in an array of colors, including the brightest neons and the boldest pastels. Her flawless face is the perfect canvas for makeup, which is probably why she was recently chosen to be the new face for Lancôme. Nyong’o will be the cosmetic company’s first spokesperson of African descent, making this a historic event in the history of the company and the beauty industry. But perhaps more importantly, her new role as spokesperson, as well as her prominence in entertainment media overall, is redefining the image of beauty to include darker skinned women of African descent.
Of course, black women have been esteemed in the media for decades. Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, Halle Berry, and Beyoncé are among the best examples of black female success in broadcast television, modeling, movies, and music, respectively. Winfrey, North America’s only black billionaire, is a household name and well known for being “the queen of all media.” Banks, a former supermodel and talk show host, and current producer and creator of America’s Next Top Model, was the first African American to appear on the cover of the Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Halle Berry, the first African American to win an Academy Award for a leading role, is one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. And Beyoncé, at age 32, continues to make waves in the music industry as one of the best selling artists of all time. Three out of four of these trailblazing black women have something in common: They all are considered to be light-skinned. Could this be a coincidence, or a testament to society’s preference for lighter skinned black women?
Examine any magazine with a retouched photo of a black woman. Chances are she appears many shades lighter than her actual skin tone. Just take a look at this picture of actress Gabourey Sidibe.
Consider the cast of black television shows throughout the years where a significant number of female characters, especially those who were love interests, had light skin. Fans of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air can recall Aunt Vivian’s character (Janet Hubert-Whitten) being replaced by a light-skinned actress (Daphne Maxwell Reid) after the third season. In many black TV shows, such as The Cosby Show, Living Single, A Different World, Family Matters, The Steve Harvey Show, The Game, Martin, That’s so Raven, Sister, Sister, and others, there is no shortage of light-skinned female characters or love interests. Meanwhile, dark-skinned female characters were often portrayed with traditionally masculine characteristics and were less likely to be love interests.
In Martin Lawrence’s 90s sitcom Martin, Gina (Tisha Campbell) is Martin Payne’s (Martin Lawrence) light-skinned love interest throughout the series. While Pam (Tichina Arnold) Gina’s dark skinned best friend, is hot-tempered and is frequently made fun of by Martin, often by comparing her to animals.
Maxine Shaw (Erika Alexander), from Living Single also comes to mind when thinking about darker skinned TV characters who provide a contrast in skin tone, and in personality, to lighter skinned characters. It should also be noted that one of the first television shows with a black actress in a non-stereotypical role was Julia, starring Diahann Carroll, a light-skinned actress, which aired from 1968 to 1971.
We see a similar pattern on TV shows and movies that have predominantly white casts but include black characters. Also, lighter skinned black women have been highly visible in everything from print and TV advertisements to music videos.
As a young black girl, no one has to tell you that having light skin and curly (instead of kinky) hair is what is beautiful. All I had to do when I was younger was turn on the TV, the computer, or look at a magazine, and the preference for someone who looked more like Keri Hilson than Fantasia Barrino was clear. It’s difficult enough for all girls to learn to love themselves when they are constantly told that they are not enough, but for girls of color, the consequences our ancestors being treated as subhuman impact the way we see ourselves today.
As Oprah said during a segment on her television program Oprah’s Lifeclass, the basic premise of colorism is that “the closer you are to being white, the better you are.” As such, colorism creates a society in which those who are closer to white are better, worthier, prettier, and even wealthier, as colorism has been shown to affect socioeconomic status as well as self-esteem. As explained in the documentary Dark Girls, colorism within the black community is a byproduct of our history of colonization, slavery and racism. Since whiteness is and has been valued above all, a person of color’s proximity to whiteness can determine their acceptance in society.
In a whiteness-controlled and looks-driven society like ours, young dark skinned black girls grow up thinking that they are ugly, and therefore inferior. In her documentary, A Girl Like Me, Kiri Davis explores the effects of colorism and standards of beauty on teenage girls. The film highlights some of the ways in which colorism dictates black beauty, and the ways in which we are supposed to conform to these standards, including using hair relaxers and skin lightening creams.
In her film, Davis also replicates the Clark Doll Test, a study that was used as evidence in Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case in which segregation was declared unconstitutional. During this test, which has been replicated multiple times since the original study in 1939, children were asked to choose between a white doll and a black doll for a series of situations. For example, children were asked to identify which doll is the “nice” doll, or which doll is the one they would want to play with. Davis, in 2005, had similar results to sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1939: most of the children preferred the white doll. Though devastating to watch, seeing the children in Davis’ film choose the white doll is somewhat relatable. It took me a while to realize that in the past, I too subconsciously wished for lighter skin, spiral curled or straight hair, and more European features.
Amid standards of beauty that provoke self-hate in darker skinned women, there are many examples of successful dark-skinned women in the media, such as model and designer Alek Wek or actress Viola Davis. However, colorism is still an issue among people of color around the world, and skin lightening products generate millions of dollars in sales everywhere from Asia to South America. Cameroonian singer Dencia is currently promoting her own skin lightening cream that she claims is mainly for removing dark spots and discolorations, but includes the skin whitening antioxidant Glutathione, is advertised using whitewashed photos of the recording artist, and is aptly called Whitenicious. Dencia, who claims that “white means pure,” has called Nyong’o out on being a spokesperson for Lancôme, which also sells skin lightening products.
Lupita Nyong’o alone may not be able to undo colorism. And I certainly don’t believe that any corporation such as Lancôme can reverse the damage done to the self perception of black women caused by white supremacy. But because of Lupita, and because she is now the face of a cosmetics brand, perhaps women and girls of color around the world will have a reason to believe in themselves and their inner and outer beauty. As she said in her acceptance speech at Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, the beauty of loving yourself for who you are is what is most important. And “there is no shade to that beauty.”
Written by Keziyah Lewis