In the autumn of 2013, I attended the UK premiere of 12 years a slave and was profoundly disappointed at the absence of Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch. The moment Lupita Nyong’o glided out of her chauffeured SUV, my mood soared. She looked iconic from the word go. Flawless skin, hardly an inch of hair and a truly enviable figure. I had no idea who she was but was in awe none the less.
It is difficult to put your finger on her beauty, because it is emanating from within; it appears so much more authentic then the majority of Hollywood. She wears the smile of someone that had to learn to love themselves, who had to teach themselves acceptance. Thus her beauty is the radiance of authentic beauty, which is mostly found on the inside.
A friend was puzzled as to the media frenzy currently surrounding Lupita and was uncomfortable with the apparent fetishization that she garnered. A Kenyan actress had somehow found herself invited into the icy arms of mainstream Hollywood. It seemed like she was the dawning of a new age of actresses; received on the merit of her acting credentials and not a historically determined preference. Lupita’s cover for Marie Claire magazine was the first time I’d seen a woman as dark as me, without synthetic hair cascading down her back gracing the cover.
Perhaps my appreciation of her reign stemmed back to the memories of my childhood discoveries. I would flick through my mum’s Next catalogue and wonder why the only representation of ‘ethnic’ constituted a very pale mixed race woman with blonde curls and freckles. Growing up in the metropolis of London, I saw beautiful women of all shades, from the lightest to the darkest. Much of the photos I saw were not reflective of the diversity I saw around me; there was so much more in reality.
There seemed to be an anxiety surrounding the presence of dark skinned women in advertising, persistent in a range of British publications and broadcasts. Shows like Hollyoaks would occasionally feature a mixed raced family, but in the 10 years that I watched, I don’t recall seeing a black woman. Heavyweight American sitcoms like Friends, Sex and the City and Will & Grace followed suit.
It felt as though the wider media had cottoned on to the self-loathing that is rife among the black community regarding complexion and created an appropriate climate. It is the reason that hip-hop videos feature exclusively mixed raced or Latino dancers, it is the reason that Beyonce has become progressively lighter on all her album covers and it is the reason that we are yet to have a hip-hop dance film featuring a black female lead. We have become strangers to the breadth of shades and the intrinsic beauty in every single hue. A mixed raced woman is just as beautiful as a dark skinned woman and vice versa, so why has our media been so reluctant to reflect this?
If we stoke the fires of ignorance, the media will respond accordingly. As Nigerian pop singer Dencia has launched her own skin lightening cream, ‘Whitenicious’, the record sales of the product suggest that there are still thousands of victims of complexion-based insecurity. That is something we all need to confront, starting with the way we address each other. A college friend once said: ‘You shouldn’t go on holiday Rav, you’ll be as black as that couch.’ Comments such as these illustrate how far we have yet to go.
Unfortunately, the media can be important in establishing self-worth in young, malleable minds and personally, I was a complete product of my environment. I drank in just about every demeaning comment or tease well into my adolescence.
It would seem that a collective notion of disdain has trickled down through the generations, pooling in the 21st century. The ‘sadness’ associated with dark skin was passed from person to person, from sub-conscious to conscious.
Many years ago I had gone with my mum to visit one of her long lost childhood friends. My mum left us alone briefly to go to the nearest shop. As I perched on her friend’s bed, she gazed deeply at me, her face riddled with incredulity. She furrowed her brow and shook her head. The awkward silence was agony. After a long pregnant pause, she finally said “Why are you so dark!” I was puzzled. How to answer?
“I mean.” She continued, “Your mum’s not that dark and your dad’s not that dark, so why you come out so dark?” I wanted to apologise profusely. I wanted to apologise for the colour of my skin.
This is why the adoration and respect for Lupita is such an immensely important breakthrough. She is gloriously dark and stunning. Her image alone can spark unprecedented sales and light the Twittersphere on fire, despite representing a woman that is often excluded from advertising completely. She has used her popularity to voice the discourses we should have been having years ago.
With every photo shoot, red carpet event and magazine cover, Lupita (and a plethora of women like her) uproots the dark skin dichotomy that suggests that dark skin is a niche, isolated look that should only be drawn upon for special occasions. Her presence, which coincides with the natural hair movement, beckons a restoration of black pride not seen since the 1960’s. With her grace, articulation and poise she uses the world stage to articulate what we are often too uncomfortable to say.
I hope her presence will usher in a new era of breathtaking honesty- let’s acknowledge how we have degraded and hurt each other in the past, to ensure we reject that behaviour in the future. As the truly pathetic Light skin Vs Dark skin ‘debate’ is fuelled each day via memes on Instagram and Twitter, she throws a spanner in the works.
The truth is, the more I fall in love with Lupita, the more I fall in love with myself. How can I not feel proud to have skin so rich and intense when someone the same shade as me is so perfectly proud? She has achieved her accolades and adoration so far on the merit of who she is, rather than the shade she happens to be.
Thus, I have a confession to make. I like being dark, I’d probably like being light, I’d probably like to be Ginger with alabaster skin and freckles, because more than anything I quite enjoy being a human being. And that folks, is what it’s really all about.