Welcome to the jungle: Fetishizing darkness
By DEMI HENRIQUEZ | 5/15/2014, 3:16 p.m.
On April 23, Lupita Nyong’o was named the “Most Beautiful Person” in People magazine. Finally, dark girls are being appreciated in the media. Although it’s important that women who look like Nyong’o gain more visibility, the way this influx of constant praise for her came about is somewhat concerning. Nyong’o is extremely talented and eloquent, but people seem to be stuck on her physical appearance. The vast majority of the coverage she received this past award season involved her stunning outfits on the red carpet. Not to say people never recognized her talent; she did win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” (2013), but the discussion always returns to her physical appearance. She is stunning and completely worthy of praise, but the way people suddenly gravitated toward her makes me just think they are jumping on the Black beauty bandwagon. She went so long in her life believing she wasn’t beautiful. In her interview with People, she states, “Light skin and long, flowing straight hair—subconsciously, you start to appreciate those things more than you possess.” She said her mom would always tell her she was beautiful and that “at some point, I started to believe her.”
This points to a huge problem in our society. How can a woman so beautiful and so widely appreciated ever think that she is not pretty? It’s probably because all the images we see on television and in movies always show dark-skinned women in the same unflattering roles. Hattie McDaniel, after winning the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), was continually cast in these types of roles from there on out. Never a leading role, never anything more than a house servant. Seventy-five years later, Black women are still being placed in these roles, as seen by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help” (2011). Other characters Black women get to play are criminals, like the lovely ladies of “Orange is the New Black” (2013), or slaves, like Kerry Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft in “Django Unchained” (2012) and the aforementioned Nyong’o as Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.” In the two latter movies, the women are the constant object of sexual desire, another commonality in the roles Black women are given in Hollywood. They seem to only ever be recognized for their bodies, like Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” (2001) or any Black woman in any music video ever.
I can’t help but relate this idea of dark-skinned women being only appreciated as sexual objects in movies to the mass obsession with Nyong’o. She is now Hollywood’s “it-girl,” but do they truly appreciate her, or are they just joining in on the Nyong’o love because it’s convenient? Lancôme recently broke boundaries by making Nyong’o their first Black spokesperson. As the new face of their company, she is creating a role model for girls who have not been aptly represented while also making Lancôme look accepting of all forms of beauty. She even said it herself. They appealed to her because they weren’t “dictating what beauty is.” While they may put Nyong’o in the limelight, their website also shows that they also sell a whole line of skin-lightening products, as do most other cosmetic brands. They make Nyong’o their poster child and at the same time sell products that go against everything she is. They are exploiting the insecurities that Nyong’o had growing up and others still have today about their complexion.
Our society has put so much value on proximity to whiteness. Lighter women were and are still often considered more beautiful. The history of white supremacy in America is so prevalent that it still permeates all aspects of our culture, even if we don’t realize it. This problem is so deeply rooted in American history, dating all the way back to the slave trade in 1619. Dr. Cheryl Grills, president of the National Association of Black Psychologists, notes that we cannot even begin to discuss the way beauty was seen among Black women during the slave trade because “forget beauty, we weren’t even human beings.” The separation of the two skin tones dates all the way back to the jobs the slaves were given on the plantations, and the colorism still exists today in comment sections and Twitter feeds. Maybe the fact that Lancôme hired Nyong’o will force them to change the way they market their products to devalue darkness? Or because Nyong’o is a representation of dark women being seen as beautiful, maybe these products will become less popular. She received a letter from a fan that read, “I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.” Just by being visible, Nyong’o is already affecting the lives of those who look up to her.
This is why it honestly is so important that Nyong’o became popular. She is teaching dark girls that “your dreams are valid.”
Recently, a T.J. Maxx commercial featured a model who bore a striking resemblance to Nyong’o. This shows that her brand of beauty is becoming increasingly commercial. Now that she is considered “Most Beautiful,” others that look like her can be accepted too. She is broadening the scope of what is considered beautiful, but she is still not representative of every dark girl. If Nyong’o is the only representation of dark girl beauty, the Gabourey Sidibes are still left out. Hopefully, Nyong’o’s visibility will not only help girls who look up to her specifically, but also open the door to more opportunities for representation of girls that fall into the categories that are unseen.