As Lupita Is Mainstreamed, Who’s Really Winning?

I had to claw my way to the unwavering belief that I wasn’t just “pretty for a dark-skinned girl.
Publish date:
April 14, 2014
magazines, Lupita Nyong'o, Lancome, Marie Claire, black models

I’ll admit it. If you say anything bad/weird/questionable/backhanded about Lupita Nyong’o in my presence (or on my newsfeed), I will go HAM. I have Beyoncé is flawless and a feminist and pretty hurts, yo, stan-type fever when it comes to this woman. Like, seriously. Don’t try it.

This “fever” incites more than pride in me as I watch Lupita do the “It” girl rounds from red carpets to W/Dazed and Confused/New York/Du Jour/Marie Claire cover girl to Lancôme ambassadress. I find myself feeling overprotective, worrying, like I’m her manager, agent, publicist, or mother about how every decision she makes will build or detract from her career.

For instance, I’m like “Why she gotta share a cover though, Marie Claire? Why can’t her ‘fresh face’ stand on its own?” (Yes, I’m feeling some kind of way about that.) The shared cover brings back memories of Tyra and Valeria Mazza on the 1996 cover of Sports Illustrated. The first black model on the cover of SI, and she has to share? SMH.

Lupita, or more accurately what she represents, means that much to me.

I’m mostly past deriving self-esteem from fashion magazines and pop culture. Through a mix of spiritual therapy (repeat after me: I’m “fearfully and wonderfully made,” then I must be!), a Naomi Campbell-Kiara Kabukuru-Alek Wek obsession, and a double major in Africana Studies and Political Science, I clawed my way to self-confidence and the unwavering belief that I wasn’t just “pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” something I heard ad nauseam growing up.

But there’s a new generation maneuvering the same beauty rites of passage that’s heartbreakingly biased toward lighter skin. For their sakes, I need Lupita to win.

But what does it really mean to “win”?

In a comment on Beyoncé’s album that went viral, writer and musician Greg Tate shared this provocative quote from pianist and poet Cecil Taylor that has stayed with me: “For a Black person to be a success in this culture is to be failure." As Lupita is mainstreamed, who’s really winning?

The fashion and beauty magazines that rarely put a face of color on their covers or only dedicate “special” issues to black models/Africa? The companies making very calculated forays into the black market after generations of willful exclusion? Or the black girls and women finally seeing themselves reflected in the brands they’re purchasing pricey products from?

It’s naïve to go down this road, I know. Righteous commentary aside, I will be collecting a copy of the Marie Claire and might even buy some Lancôme now that I know they’ll have shades that compliment my color. Because consumerism is what it is, and I get it. Supporting Lupita means buying these things so, she’ll have the profile and income she needs between roles so she can afford to take parts that will keep her on a successful trajectory (like Jonah Hill agreeing to a pay cut to do Wolf of Wall Street); and so the moneyed interests will open the door wider for more like her. That’s the goal, right?

With so much pressure on women of all colors to conform to the same look -- blonde hair, light skin, rail thin with a booty -- we’re trying to get to a place where Lupita’s “fresh face,” that is her black skin, the ways she accentuates her color with matte shades and electric color, the infinite ways she styles her close-cropped hair, and her hit parade of power ensembles doesn’t bear the weight and responsibility of so many generations of ugliness. Then she can just be, just exist -- without meaning SO much to fans like me.