Lupita Nyong'o was recently named the "Most Beautiful Woman" by People magazine. She is the third Black woman to hold this title after Halle Berry and Beyoncé. However, Lupita's win is particularly noteworthy because she is dark-skinned with short, natural hair. In that sense, she is a first.Eurocentric beauty standards do not work to marginalize all Black women equally. Lighter-skinned Black women with long, straight hair are viewed as being more "beautiful" than their darker-skinned, natural haired sisters. This is related to the pervasiveness of colorism.
So I am excited that Lupita was chosen! I am excited that dark skinned girls will be able to see that somebody who has their same skin complexion was selected as the world's most beautiful woman! I am happy that Lupita is getting the shine she deserves for being absolutely stunning and perfect.
However, I also realize that this honor is not exactly revising beauty standards so much as it is allowing for an exception. Lupita is Hollywood's current token. And she is the perfect candidate. She is truly talented and graceful and humble. Moreover, she is new. Her back-story is awe-inspiring and every one of her victories seems to be a personal victory for everyone who watches.
I also believe that unfortunately, Lupita's current tokenization has much to do with the movie role which made her famous. Lupita played the part of an incredibly abused and dehumanized slave. She was the object of continuous sexual and physical assault and the object of obsession of a diabolical white male slave owner and his irrationally jealous wife.
This role raised feelings of pity (and white guilt) surrounding Patsey and slavery in general. In fact, I'd argue that the movie would have lost much of its power without such a focus on Patsey since Solomon Northup was not the victim of such visceral abuse. And that is what people want from slave movies: visceral abuse. Would it have won any Oscars without Lupita's performance?
This movie role also raised pity for Lupita herself. This fact, compounded with pervasive ideas of "poor Africans" who require saving by the West, leads to Lupita being the perfect person for Hollywood to hold up as the new IT-girl.
And I am enjoying Lupita's shine. But not without my reservations. And these reservations of course have nothing to do with Lupita herself, but everything to do with the way in which white supremacy maintains itself by utilizing tokens to give the appearance of fairness and equity.
Is Hollywood really challenging racist beauty standards? Or any beauty standards at all? Or is it maintaining the status quo and welcoming Lupita in as an anomaly?
Any dark-skinned girl knows that just because an individual may find us physically or sexually attractive doesn't mean that they are anti-colorist or anti-racist. That's why comments like "you're pretty for a dark-skinned girl" are so common. An individual dark-skinned Black girl can always be recognized as beautiful. But it must be done so by positing her as an exception.
I believe there is no difference for a white-dominated magazine or Hollywood in general.
And I cannot trust a magazine or industry predicated on anti-Blackness 364 days out of the year to suddenly fundamentally change their behavior now that Lupita has been named as the world's most beautiful woman.
I'll believe it when women who look like Lupita are no longer the anomaly.
I have a complex relationship with this issue because on one hand I do not want to be defined by my beauty or absence of it. I believe that is one facet of the sexist oppression of women. However, I am also invested in affirming the beauty of dark-skinned women.
But I know that I must remain vigilant so that honors such as this do not make me too comfortable.
So I celebrate this. But I also demand more.
If you enjoyed this post also check out:
- The Lupita Nyong'o Experience: Thoughts on Learning How to Love Black Womanhood
- Let's Talk About Colorism (Beyond What Men Think & My Self Esteem)
- Black Girl Bravado (Because There is No Patriarchalized Femininity For Us)