What actor Lupita Nyong'o can teach us about beauty
What actor Lupita Nyong'o can teach us about beauty
Hollywood favors lighter-skinned actresses, but Lupita's success with 12 Years a Slave and her personal style are illuminatin
By Enuma Okoro The Guardian, Friday 17 January 2014
Lupita Nyong'o seems to be the current "it" girl in the media. Her stellar performance as Patsey in Steve McQueen's award-winning movie 12 Years a Slave received rave reviews. (Many are baffled as to how Lupita Nyong'o lost the recent Global Globe award for best supporting actress in a motion picture to Jennifer Lawrence.) Her beauty and indisputable sense of style has fashion designers clamoring to clothe her. Her gorgeous, dark-chocolate skin tone being featured on magazine covershas women around the world celebrating.
12 Years a Slave
Production year: 2013
Countries: Rest of the world, USA
Runtime: 133 mins
Directors: Steve McQueen
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano
Lupita Nyong'o, the 30-year-old, Mexican-born, Kenyan actress, is easy to love for multiple reasons. But for black women especially, she is a welcome sight in a public media eye that tends to obscure the beauty of dark-skinned women, an acknowledged issue in Hollywood circles. Supermodel Tyra Banks devoted an entire episode of her talk-show last year to this issue of colorism. In 2012, the stigma often associated with darker-skinned women was also highlighted by the controversy over the role of the renowned, dark-skinned jazz singer Nina Simone being played by Zoe Saldana. Just a few months ago, Oprah Winfrey's OWN network ran a documentary entitled "Dark Girls", which explores the issue of colorism around the world and the internalized racism that accompanies it. The treatment of light versus darker-skinned black people has also been the subject of discussions more globally.
There is an important history to all this, to how society has conditioned us to equate beauty and worth with the lightness of our skin color. The system of racial categorization implemented by Western colonizers awarded more privileges to men and women of color who more closely resembled whites, and the lasting effects of such favoritism can still be felt around the world. Though this began centuries ago, a clear and recent historical example of this phenomenon is Rwanda.
In the early 20th century, Belgian colonialists divided Rwandans along ethnicity – Hutus, Tutsis and Twas – based on "scientific" research that favored those with more Caucasian features. Belgian rulers classified Rwandans based on measurements of their noses and the color of their eyes. Tutsis were promoted into the ruling class because, according to the Belgians, they appeared "whiter" than other Rwandans. By 1931, each Rwandan was issued an official ethnic identity card. How a Rwandan measured up against white aethetic standards effectively determined how they were treated. As we all know, the direct and indirect impact of enforcing such racial categories has had devastating consequences for countries around the world.
Understanding a little of this history of racial categorization can help place the issue of colorism in some much-needed context. It is easy to see why a woman like Lupita shining in the public eye is a sight for sore eyes. It is refreshing to have the world recognize her physical beauty as a woman, period. But, what I find admirable and even more fascinating about Lupita Nyong'o, besides her stunning good looks and her amazing fashion sense, is her own work to highlight another group of people who have been historically ill-treated for actually not having enough color at all. While the world rightfully celebrates Lupita Nyong'o in all her dark-skinned beauty, she herself has tried to educate the world about the condition of people with the rare genetic disorder of albinism in Kenya, her home.
On a dated Youtube video, a pre-Hollywood Nyong'o talks about what began in 2006 as a final thesis project during her last year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and eventually became a documentary film about albinism in Kenya called In My Genes. Shadow and Act, an online collective focusing on films and filmmakers of the African diaspora, describes the documentary:
In My Genes, follows eight individual Kenyans who have one thing in common: they were born with albinism, a genetic condition that causes a lack of pigmentation. In many parts of Africa, including Kenya, it is a condition that marginalizes, stereotypes, and even endangers those who have it. Though highly visible in a society that is predominantly black, the reality of living with albinism is invisible to most. Through her intimate portraits, Ms. Nyong'o lets us see their challenges, their humanity, and their everyday triumphs.
The National Organization for Albinism reports that one in 17,000 people in the US is albino, but studies suggest that there is a heavier prevalence of albinism in sub-Saharan Africa than in other parts of the world.
Nyong'o's interest in the subject matter initially arose out of a personal relationship she had with an albino in her neighborhood, but was further fueled by the tragedies of widely publicized Albino killings in the country of Tanzania. There are many discriminatory stereotypes directed towards albinos, including the myths that albinos have special powers, or are mentally disabled. Albinos must battle these hurtful prejudices in countries across the globe. Being judged by the color or shade of your skin takes many forms, some of which, like albinism, most of us barely acknowledge.
I think Lupita Nyong'o is all the more more commendable since she has used her talent to shed light on melanin-related social issues even before becoming Hollywood's new dark doll. The media might currently adore her for her style, but I hope they will remember to stay focused on her other more significant contributions, past, present, and sure to come.