By Stephanie Shonekan, Contributing Editor, Art, Music & Pop Culture
In the week of April 21, 2014 People Magazine announced their long anticipated choice of “Most Beautiful Woman” Lupita Nyongo. It was not unexpected because the Kenyan actress had become the new media darling since her performance in 12 Years a Slave and her ensuing effervescent appearance on every red carpet of note during the award season. Suddenly, Nyongo was the new face of beauty, an alternative to the long held status-quo, an acknowledgement that mainstream society was now willing to carve out a space for a new definition of beauty. Indeed, People Magazine appeared on the shelves last week and Lupita’s charming smile was dazzling against her smooth dark skin.
At the grocery store as I walked towards the cashier, I saw the cover and stopped to stare. A familiar feeling of self-consciousness overcame me as I glanced around to see if anybody was watching me. It is the same feeling one gets when you are one of only two black people in a room – you think twice about talking to the only other black person because you imagine that the others, those who swim comfortably in the mainstream, will think you are self-segregating or plotting something. It’s as if there is an unwritten rule in this historically constructed environment that if you want to assimilate, you cannot be caught too often fraternizing with your own kind.
As I stood there feeling anxious and proud, I caught myself. Why shouldn’t I stop and revel in the fact that for the first time in my life – someone with the same skin tone and hair texture as me – has been endorsed by People Magazine, one of the major gatekeepers of popular culture and beauty? These types of gatekeepers have celebrated white women’s beauty for centuries. If black women’s physical attributes are ever deemed desirable, these features are viewed through non-black women like Bo Derek (cornrows), Angelina Jolie (full lips), and Jennifer Lopez (ample derriere).
So, this acknowledgement of Lupita as beautiful is historic. I stood there at the grocery store and enjoyed my “Say it Loud” moment. One small step for dark girls, I thought, nodding and gazing at gorgeous Lupita. But in the last couple of days, as I have talked to my daughters and their friends and to other women—both black and white—about the implications of this moment, I have begun to question the real significance of Lupita’s appearance at this time. Sure, like me, dark girls everywhere probably walked a little taller for a few minutes after seeing Lupita win the Oscar and after seeing the magazine covers. This is different from the light skinned Halle Berry who won the award in 2002 and was crowned People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman” in 2003, followed, almost ten years later, by Beyoncé in 2012. Like Halle Berry, Beyoncé is neither dark skinned nor natural haired. So it is indeed unprecedented that in 2014, we finally have some acknowledgement of a different kind of beauty that is dark and natural.
But what does this teach us about ourselves as dark women? We look in the mirror every day and tell ourselves that it does not matter what the world says; we are beautiful! This is confirmed by our parents, spouses, and by musical artists like India.Arie and visual artists like Tamara Natalie Madden who sing and paint about magnificent black queens. Yet, at this moment, we feel jubilant and worthy because People Magazine has finally noticed us. The fact that we had to wait for People, a white mainstream media outlet, to endorse a dark skinned woman is troubling and indicative of a deep-seated prejudice against dark-skinned women.
According to Wall Street Journal columnist, Teri Agins, “Validation by the mainstream media is what makes this big…It’s the ultimate validation that someone of deep color, with African features, has been declared beautiful.” Agins herself is a dark skinned woman, so we must ask ourselves why this is the “ultimate validation”?
Why is the approval of white America seen as the ultimate, preeminent indicator of truth and the avenue to self-esteem? Why did Halle, Viola, and Lupita have to win (or be nominated) by “the Academy” before they were recognized as beautiful? It is also problematic and ironic that their winning roles were those that placed them right back in the expected stereotypes that society has constructed around black women—the hypersexual object of white men’s desire, the help, and the slave.
Interestingly, as the wide attention turns towards Lupita and her dark skinned beauty, another consistent tide of influence has been revitalized by another African artist/celebrity, Dencia, who has garnered notoriety for her new bleaching cream product, “Whitenicious.” Skin bleaching has always been active in West Africa, but it is on a steep rise in countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Capitalizing on this trend, Nigerian/Cameroonian singer Dencia is aggressively promoting her cream, which she alleges helps to fade dark spots and pigmentation. When the cream hit shelves in January 2014, it sold out in 24 hours. She herself is a heavily bleached individual with augmented breasts and a big blond wig.
In interviews, Dencia insists that her cream is meant for dark spots, but her own bleached appearance and the fact that her cream is so popular tells a different story. When asked why she calls her cream “Whitenicious” she explained, “white means pure.” After so many years of reminding ourselves that our dark skin is at least as equal in beauty to any other skin tone or ethnic background, why are so many young black women still bleaching their skin? Why is somebody like Dencia taken seriously and allowed to benefit from the low self-esteem of scores of young black women?
In a strange twist, Lupita mentioned Dencia’s “Whitenicious” cream during her much talked about speech on beauty at the Essence “Black Women in Hollywood” luncheon on February 28, 2014. She spoke out against the product and said that she hoped young black girls would no longer feel the pressure to conform to standards of beauty that they can never naturally attain. Dencia said she didn’t care for or about Lupita and encouraged black women to purchase her product when asked about this in an interview on a Nigerian television show.
The irony gets deeper when Dencia ridiculed Lupita for signing a contract with Lancôme, which has a product similar to “Whitenicious.” Lancôme’s cream is defined as “the latest brightening technology designed to regulate melanin production and awaken the luminosity of the skin.” Much as I abhor what Dencia stands for, I have to admit that her point about the hypocrisy of the Lupita-Lancôme relationship cannot be dismissed.
As proud as I am of Lupita and her triumphs, I am struggling with the true meaning of this moment. If we continue to allow mainstream media to dictate the parameters of beauty, even when they let this one dark girl slip in, then we have not gone far at all. Perhaps the fact that Lupita is People’s “Most Beautiful Woman” is a small step for dark girls, but we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that it is “a giant step for humankind.”