Days before her 2014 Oscar win as Best Supporting Actress for ‘12 Years a Slave,’ Lupita Nyong’o received special recognition for Best Breakthrough Performance at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence magazine. Accepting the award, she spoke before an audience (that included Chaka Khan and Oprah Winfrey) with a rather personal account of having felt ‘un-beautiful.’ Her speech was an honestly charming validation of the true essence of beauty that pierces through the sentiments of most women today.
“I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of the color purple were to me. I remember a time when I too felt un-beautiful. 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. I tried to negotiate with God. I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if He gave me what I wanted. I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if He just made me a little lighter. But, I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened. And when I was a teenager, my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine, happens with other adolescents. My mother reminded me often that she thought I was beautiful. But that was no consolation. She’s my mother. Of course, she is supossed to think I’m beautiful.
“And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night. She was on all the runways and in every magazine. And everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful.And that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman that looked so much like me as 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 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.
“To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still un-beautiful. And my mother again would 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 realized 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 when she said ‘you can’t eat beauty’ was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames 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 after 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 external beauty, but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”