In her Nairobi-sky-blue gown she sashayed unto the world stage to accept her Oscar. Looking at her then, as her warm presence oozed with confidence and a self-assured purpose, who would have thought that this beauty ever struggled with her image or self-esteem? And then she addressed the world with a statement that has since become a positive affirmation for anyone struggling with their self-belief; “No matter where you are, your dreams are valid.”
I watched awestruck. I struggled to see the young girl who once thought that her flawlessly beautiful dark skin was ugly. Three days before the Oscars, she received an award for the Best Breakthrough Performance at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence magazine. In her acceptance speech which stunned the world and has since gone viral, she took it upon herself to “talk about beauty. Black beauty. Dark beauty.” She mentions a letter she had received from a girl who felt Lupita was “lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight.” The girl then goes on to say that she was thinking about skin lightening but seeing Lupita on the world’s stage “saved her” from doing so.
“My heart bled a little when I read those words,” Lupita said. “I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful… 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 unbeautiful.”
That last sentence. Now that was a bombshell. My jaw dropped. When? Why? How is it that People Magazine’s most beautiful woman of 2014 ever felt “unbeautiful”? She goes on to explain. She talks about the lack of diversity in the images that we portray and how the media has shaped our perceptions of beauty and perpetuated the myth that lighter is better. She then exalts Alek Wek for helping her see the light and Oprah Winfrey for creating the platform through which she saw it. Her words were honest and heartfelt. She confessed to going as far as praying to God, the “miracle worker,” that she would wake up in lighter skin. And every morning she was met with disappointment when she checked her mirror. Even her mother had tried unsuccessfully to get her to think and see differently, telling her that you cannot eat beauty.
You cannot eat beauty. Beauty is in the heart. Beauty fades. Focus on being the best you that you can be. Love yourself from the inside and then out, not the other way around. Try sharing any of these statements with young girls discovering themselves, struggling with their self-image, self-esteem and self-belief and you will probably be met with a blank stare. To the contrary, what Lupita’s honesty has done for them is show them what the end product can be when you embrace yourself and accept your purpose. It also shows parents what their love and support can do and how it can carry their children through. Lupita credits her father for helping her to put things in perspective at the time when she herself felt awestruck by the opportunities that were presenting themselves. When she got the role that would eventually give her the Oscar, she says her dad was the first person she called; “Daddy do you know Brad Pitt? I’m going to be in a movie with him.” And her father said, “I don’t know him personally, but I’m glad you got a job.” With that one sentence, Lupita was able to see it for what it was. A job. A great opportunity and one that she would execute to the best of her ability, showing up to work professionally, as the great actress that she is and not a fan. [pullquote]I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty. ~ Lupita Nyong’o[/pullquote]
Lupita Nyong’o has graced the cover of People Magazine and more recently Vogue and she gets the world talking every time she endorses a product. If not for her I wouldn’t have known that Lancôme made products for dark skin. What we do not talk about often enough is the fact that Lupita didn’t just happen overnight as implied by the girl who wrote to her. Lupita is the product of a family that encouraged performances by the children during family get togethers and theatre outings thereby embracing the arts. She is the product of a good education, with a masters degree from Yale School of Drama being the pinnacle. She may also be the product of privilege but that does not negate the passion, hard work and dedication with a learning curve that spans from Shuga in which she played Ariya to In My Genes a documentary film about albinos in Kenya that she wrote, produced and directed.
There are many young girls especially from our part of the world who may struggle to see the validity of their dreams because unlike Lupita, they are not products of the same privileges. I once met with a group of young girls from a village school in Sierra Leone and I was stunned by their dreams and aspirations. Barefooted with the dirt from the dusty unpaved grounds of their school staining their uniforms, they told me they wanted to be doctors and pilots with huge smiles. I knew that given their individual circumstances it would take a miracle. But that didn’t make their dreams invalid. They had a right to them. But even more than valid dreams, the validation of the self is something that girls anywhere can relate to and that is just as important if not more so.
To end her much talked about speech, she said; “I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty.” When a woman embraces and accepts herself as a beauty in her entirety, when she counts herself worthy, she becomes the dream and there is absolutely nothing that she cannot achieve if she puts her heart and will to it and it is that dream that Lupita represents.
Have Your Say…
We asked GoWomen how Lupita has inspired them or changed their perception of beauty. Here is a selection from the best responses.
While I can’t say that Lupita Nyong’o has changed my perception of beauty I can say that she inspires me to continue to take the path less traveled as an unconventional entrepreneur in the creative space in West Africa. I hope more and more African parents will be open and supportive of their daughters who want to do the arts, or be creatives because quite frankly the world is different today. Just because you have a salaried job doesn’t mean that you will have financial security and what is financial security without soul fulfillment? We all need to live a purpose driven life and Lupita lets me know that I am on the right path and my dreams are valid too. Thank you Lupita and thank you Lupita’s parents for supporting her. ~ Vickie Remoe (GoWoman Publisher)
Lupita Nyong’o has a relevant legacy. An African woman from Kenya who has defied the stereotypical image of a female Hollywood Star – American, Blonde, or sexualized Bombshell, and most of the time, all three. As I watched her emotional Oscar acceptance speech on TV, tears stood in my eyes and one phrase stood out to me, and still resonates in so many areas of my life today: “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid”.
There she was, elegant, graceful, her skin shining the darkest sepia shade. There she stood with the golden statue in her hand, a radiation of pure beauty and brilliance. There she was, validating my place in today’s world as a young African woman, a visible assertion that the world’s stage was everyone’s own to rightfully claim, no matter one’s background, country, sex, or skin color. I watched as she affirmed my mantras that I had a right to do and to become, as much as anybody else, and my one regret, was that I wished I had had such a validation as a young girl. Yes, my mother told me I could be anything I wanted to and instilled in me the value of working hard to achieve my goals. However, I had always internalized that I could be anything I wanted to-up to a certain point, according to societal and global standards and limitations. Lupita’s story of resilience, speaks to me in so many ways- in terms of the value of patience, the reward of hard work, focus, resilience, and above all-passion for what you do.
As I looked at Lupita on TV that night, I saw what I could also aspire to be. I saw someone who looked like me, someone who could be my sister, cousin or aunt, rise to the world and take the stage so fearlessly, regardless of boundaries or background. This was more than just inspiring to me. It was a source of motivation and validation that as a young African woman, I do have a place in today’s world, it is there for me to work towards and rightfully claim. The current Lupitamania might soon go away or it might stay much longer. However, one thing is for sure, I would still have that phrase printed out and posted on my bedroom wall, scrawled down in my journal, written in my heart -“No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid”. Lupita’s legacy will always be relevant to me. ~ Ngozi Cole
She broadened my perspective a whole lot. She and Alek Wek. Her inspiration to me can be summarised in just seven words:.Be yourself and do your own thing. ~ Abigail Osolu
That no matter who you are or where you come from you can attain higher heights with perseverance and determination and be whoever you want to be in the world, positively. ~ Marion Koroma