The Far-Away Gatekeepers of Beauty

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People of African descent the world over should be celebrating Lupita Nyong’o right now. The Mexican actress who was born to Kenyan parents became the first African to win the Academy Award for an Actress in A Supporting Role. An Oscar for an African actress, that’s huge. Look, Charlize Theron won an Oscar and she was born in Africa, but we know Hollywood is more accepting of people of Charlize’s hue than Lupita’s. I love Charlize and appreciate her for helping put our little country on the map.

I consider the Oscars to be the World Cup of acting. Getting that statuette on that evening says that in your category, at that point in time, there is no one better. To borrow from Tina Turner’s hit, “You’re Simply The Best”.

And logically, Lupita used her victory to inspire others. See, Lupita is a very dark-skinned African girl. A very pretty dark-skinned African girl. So she chose her acceptance speech to inspire other very dark skinned girls. To say to them, just because the world does not affirm you does not mean you are not beautiful. Just because each time you turn on your television set you only see ‘pale’ does not mean there is something wrong with dark. I know this because I once thought exactly what you are thinking.

Society never really comes out and says it, but their actions do: very dark is ugly and pale is beautiful. Don’t believe me? Look around you. Open one of your magazines and tell me how many models of Lupita’s skin hue are used in advertising, notice I say hue, not colour. There are plenty of black models in circulation out there but 99% of them measure up to the required shade of ‘pale’ and ‘beauty’ features(Western features).

Hollywood, with the help of Colonialism has managed to get their definition of beauty to be accepted as the standard worldwide. This definition of beauty has one major requirement, a pale skin. The definition includes other things but a pale skin is the starting point. This requirement has spawned a major industry in the pharmaceutical field, the skin-lightening industry. But as the gold standard of beauty it is so destructive because it says: You can be the best at what you do, like Lupita, but do you measure-up in other ways?

Can you adorn the cover of Vogue magazine? Are you beautiful enough(read are you light-skinned enough)?

‘The biggest weapon the oppressor has is the mind of the oppressed’, that’s paraphrasing Steve Biko in his book I Write What I Like. The saddest voices in the Dark vs Light skinned debate in the days following Lupita’s Oscar win for me, came from Africa itself.

A Cameroonian pop star who also doubles up as an ambassador for a company that sells skin-lightening creams in Africa felt so affronted by Lupita’s acceptance speech at the Oscars that she took to Twitter to attack her. Simply because Lupita Nyong’o had dared to admit that she once ‘felt she wasn’t beautiful enough because she didn’t see a lot of very dark-skinned people’ in the entertainment industry. Dencia, the Cameroon pop star has unfortunately bought into the Hollywood definition of beauty; mind, body and soul. The oppressor has her mind, to the extent that she is paid to convince fellow dark skinned Africans that dark cannot be beautiful.

Lupita says she prayed to God as a little girl to make her just a little bit lighter. This she now realizes was a mistake caused by her aspiring to the beauty standards of the ‘far-away Gatekeepers of beauty’, Hollywood and the West who have taught millions of people around the world that our Creator got it wrong when he made some of us dark and others lighter.

It is very difficult to keep the politics of race out of a discussion on beauty and skin colour, indeed, where I come from your race determined everything at some point, even which toilets you could or couldn’t use, but that’s a discussion for another day. Suffice to say that it’s very difficult to argue against the assertion that dark skinned people who use skin lightening creams or the current craze of using pills to bleach their own skins aspire to be white. They argue that it’s their choice who they want to look like.

Our world has become one where personal liberty is so prized that we are quite close to accepting self-harm as one of our freedoms, that we would even pay attention when a person seeks to defend her right to advertise skin-lighteners as her ‘personal choice’. I’m glad we have people like Lupita Nyong’o who have gone to the ‘far-away gatekeepers of beauty’ and defied them. And walked away with loads and loads of dignity for those that the Creator created beautifully dark, wherever they might be on this planet.

What I find really sad is this colorism debate has taken the focus away from Lupita’s wonderful portrayal of Patsey in the movie 12-Years-A-Slave. Patsey, the slave master’s sex slave as well as his best cotton-picker by far embodies so much of the modern woman’s struggles, that no matter how much a woman can do to eclipse men in her day-to-day work, she still has to fight against being seen as the not only man’s economic possession, but a sexual possession too. Her peers  recognized Lupita’s skills in her playing this complex role and rewarded her with an Oscar for her efforts. And then the gate-keepers of beauty had to kick into action. She’s too dark, they screamed. Compared to what? Compared to whom?

It only hit me as I sat down to write this piece that the people who could only take away Lupita’s dark skin colour as she made her acceptance speech on stage at the Oscars can’t possibly have watched the movie! No they cannot, you cannot walk away from watching her beautifully deep acting in that movie and turn around and say she’s too dark! Then don’t watch movies because the rest of us watch them for the acting.

As a movie, 12-Years-A-Slave reminded me of the levels to which human depravity could go, how badly we could treat each other, bad as slavery was, some people were so depraved that they would devise schemes to sell back into slavery those who had made it ‘out’ of the system. That a woman could be so ‘good’ a slave, the hardest worker in the field and the master’s sex slave(also perceived by fellow slaves to be the master’s favourite) and yet receive no mercy to the extent that asks a fellow slave to end her life. That’s the complex role that Lupita Nyong’o played. And all the slave masters and house niggers can say is “she’s too dark”.

I leave you with her words in another acceptance speech, the award was for Best Breakthrough Performance at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon – hosted by Essence magazine.
“My mother used to say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.’ And these words played and bothered me, I didn’t really understand them until finally I realised that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume. It was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant by saying that you can’t eat beauty is that you can’t rely on beauty to sustain you.

“What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master. But it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even though the beauty of her body has faded away.

“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation for your beauty, but also get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”

Her address left the entire audience – which included Chaka Khan and Oprah Winfrey – entirely speechless.

Hollywood has no monopoly on the definition of beauty, and they shouldn’t.


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