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I've been thinking a lot about Lupita Nyong'o this week, following her Oscar win. So has everyone else—she's the It Girl of award season who looks fantastic in everything, and when she dropped her lip balm into Pharrell's hat during an Oscar gag it nearly sold out overnight. There are conversations about whether we are idolizing or fetishizing her, particularly in a moment where actresses like Gabourey Sidibe often get the short shrift. Sidibe's body is a cause for concern, but Nyong'o is a superhero.
We aren't used to seeing women of color sitting center stage, so there's something about Nyong'o's presence that makes me feel voyeuristic. At the same time, it's refreshing that we get to cheer for someone who seems to be different. But the only difference is that she is black—she's still beautiful in all of the traditional ways (slim, symmetrical), and still valorized for how effortlessly she fits in with the traditional ways we treat actresses as eye candy. Why are we so happy to perpetuate the same old scrutiny on this fresh new model, and is that a good thing?
I wrestle with not wanting to objectify Nyong'o for her blackness, and wanting to grab people on the street to tell them how important it is that she is so well and widely regarded, so much a part of the public consciousness. As a light-skinned black woman, my own history with beauty is complicated—it's rare that I see anything close to an approximation of myself reflected in conventional media, and I tend to read as interesting or cute instead of sexy or beautiful. I don't engage with the currency of beauty, having been taught long ago that it's not really accessible to me.
That is part of the reason I find Lupita Nyongo's speech from the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on February 27 fascinating. She places great emphasis on how she learned to appreciate her own beauty while simultaneously not relying on how you look to sustain you. You should watch the whole thing:
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.
What's interesting here is that in the flurry of activity about who and how she is, Lupita Nyong'o reminds us that she doesn't need our validation. That is way more interesting to me—the confidence of a woman who changes the conversation by transcending it, succeeding not in spite of, but because of how self-possessed she is.
You can try to fetishize her, but I don't think she'll let you. She came to terms with her own beauty long before she was holding that Oscar, or your attention.