A woman who could easily be mistaken for a Vogue-like model but is in fact a talented actress, Lupita Nyong’o of Kenya, once thought of herself as ugly. If you don’t know her, come out of your rock, Google her and behold her in various fashions looking stunning and then watch the below. In a speech more moving than her Oscar acceptance speech, she tells an audience at an “Essence” dinner of her bargaining with God to get lighter skin as an adolescent.
This comes as no surprise. Almost anywhere that was once colonized — and that’s most of the world — more than poverty and divided ethnic lines have been left behind. The effects of people from other countries lording it over an entire population for economics alone can also be psychologically devastating. This resonates even today. English is viewed as the language of the educated and upper class (and often it is). Light skin is valued. Eyes which are anything other than brown are coveted. I wrote on this blog about the standard of beauty in relation to Indian mass media, where fashion models and actresses who are successful in the West would never make it within South Asia. The irony. Even the current Miss. America, of Indian origin, would not get chosen as a Miss. India.
Yet, despite the seeming welcome wagon by US and Europe of darker skinned beauties who wouldn’t be hailed as such in their own countries, the truth is that it’s still a mixed pot for women with darker skin. On one hand, this welcome sometimes has an element of exotic that is embraced rather than the person. It’s not true for everyone but it’s sort of like the people who disavow a prejudice because they have one friend who fits a marginalized demographic. Josephine Baker, an African American ex-pat who became famous for her cabaret act in Paris, once said that she knew that at times she was treated as a pet, as a show-and-tell. It just didn’t bother her. It doesn’t have to. There are plenty of people who like to be seen around the It Girl or It Boy and it has nothing to do with race.
On the other hand, the very real fact of Hollywood is that parts for such actresses are still few and far between. It’s great Miss. Nyong’o won the Oscar and great that “12 Years a Slave” won such acclaim, but I would love to see African Americans in roles like in “American Hustle” or in sci-fi flicks or chick flicks or rom coms. I’m not a fan of whitewashing ethnicity (because the default cultural norm is a white, American upperclass one) but it doesn’t have to take center stage.Plots need not be about race to star gorgeous African Americans or Latinas or Asians. Gorgeous has always been the one common denominator in Hollywood: look gorgeous on screen, awesome if you can act also. But what’s gorgeous on screen is expanding. There’s a bit of promise. I saw Viola Davis in “Ender’s Game.” Kerry Washington has rode to the top of the stardom roller coaster in “Scandal.” Miss. Nyong’o may be the turn in the tide, a force not to be ignored no matter what the status quo is.
Now let’s hope the skinny obsession goes and a fit woman who happens to have hips, possibly a chest makes it — you know, women who looked gorgeous but healthy, women like the little known Ingrid Bergman or even the highest paid actress of her time, Julia Roberts. We can bring sexy back, sensual back, raw talent back, dark skin can come roaring in, but let’s leave skinny minnies far away.