Lupita Nyong’o – it’s the name that’s on everyone’s lips this week, well at least in the MiNDFOOD office anyway.
We had, like everyone else, begun to notice the young Mexican-born Kenyan actress as she popped up on TV screens and in the media recently for her amazing performance in the Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave (which also took home the Oscar for Best Film).
But, I’m sad to admit, that it wasn’t until I watched Nyong’o take to the stage to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress, at this week’s Academy Awards in Hollywood, that I really noticed this inspiring young woman.
As she took to the stage in a stunning powder blue Prada gown, she displayed all the grace and elegance of a Hollywood movie star. Then she began to speak and with her simple, humble words captured the hearts and minds, not only of the audience in front of her, but the TV viewers watching on from afar.
Eloquence is not an unusual trait for a Yale Drama School graduate, nor the daughter of a politician, but it is as much what she is saying to the world, as the way she is saying it that sets this young woman apart. (Ok, I know, my new obsession/girl crush is beginning to show! But there is a point coming I assure you.)
While her Oscar’s acceptance was enjoyable to watch, it is a speech that Lupita made only three days prior to the event that really has us all talking.
One of the many honourees at US Magazine ESSENCE’s 7th Annual Black Woman Awards in Hollywood , the 31-year-old left her celebrity audience – which included Chaka Khan, Alfre Woodard, Sidney Poitier, Kerry Washington and Oprah Winfrey – speechless and teary-eyed.
She recalled her long journey to acceptance as a dark-skinned woman in a global culture that preferences fair-skinned, blonde beauties. She read out a letter from a young fan who explained how the actress had stopped her from using a product to permanently lighten her skin after seeing Lupita’s overnight success as a black woman in Hollywood.
“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before,” Nyongo told the audience, explaining how this self-loathing grew as she did.
The sad story does have a happy ending thanks to the Alek Wek, the Sudanese supermodel, who came on the international scene. Lupita was delighted as she watched this celebrated model “as dark as night”, who everyone, even Oprah celebrated and called beautiful.
“My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me.”
“When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed.”
Perhaps the greatest message in this young lady’s speech, for women everywhere, is a piece of advice passed down to her from her mother: “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.”
Given we are a society obsessed with aesthetics, with filters and shading options in our social media allowing us to ‘improve’ and ‘better’ images of ourselves and the world around us, were we can be enthralled by watching the larger amongst us sweat it out to the point of passing out on live television and when inundated with a fitness and health craze that sends messages like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and “sweat is fat crying”, it’s no wonder why talented young women everywhere grow up to feel like they are inadequate even when they win an Oscar award.
“Beauty is not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be,” what an empowering message, not just for black women, but for all women.
“You can’t rely on how you look to sustain you,” repeat this sentence five times and hear how liberating this sentiment can be.
“What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul,” Lupita concludes. Her speech also, sadly, highlights the lack of ethnic and coloured faces that we see in Hollywood and the fashion industry more broadly.
“I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty.”
For me personally the message is that there is beauty in difference, and it is a beauty worth celebrating and it is a beauty that should empower women everywhere, especially as we approach International Women’s Day on March 8.
Watch Lupita Nyong’o give her inspiring speech at ESSENCE’s 7th Annual Black Woman Awards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCkfARH2eE