Oscar-nominated actress Lupita Nyong’o is steadily becoming your favorite beauty’s favorite beauty, and everybody’s obsession du jour. The woman is breathtaking—not in the hyperbolic, overstated way we often use the word today, but in its authentic and true definition. Without exaggeration, as I sometimes run across her photographs, she’s so insanely stunning that I gasp.
Now Black girls are no strangers to witnessing beauty. Although mainstream media often seeks to overlook or erase our flawlessness, we are undeniable. Kerry, Gabrielle, Nia, and of course Yoncé remind us that Black exquisiteness is alive and well—that it did not disappear with Diahann, Dianna, Grace and Eartha. And there is no better time to see Black girls show up and show out than during awards show season (even if only a few of us are present and accounted for).
If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for the red carpet photos to hit the ’net. You gush a bit to hear which designers your favorite stars and starlets are wearing. And as a Black woman, you become exceedingly overjoyed when you see a fellow Black woman walking, waving and werking the aisle. We love them all, yes, but there’s something extraordinary about Lupita.
We’re convinced that whether draped in Miu Miu, Calvin Klein or a thrift store find, Lupita Nyong’o’s effortless, uncomplicated allure demands that we stop and take notice. And we further imagine that if this brown beauty, who seems so comfortable and relaxed in her Black skin, can wow the world, then maybe we can too.
Maybe we too can laugh in the face of a broader culture (and even in some ways our own) that says we need hair extensions, stage makeup, Photoshop lighting and booty injections to be considered desirable. And I write that last sentence with no dis. The magic of the digital age is that Black women no longer have to abide by and succumb to a monolithic “look” or standard of beauty.
But as a woman who mentors young Black women, who is raising a Black girl and who still struggles to see her own beauty at times, it’s nice to see a Black woman being lauded for an austere loveliness—for simple sophisticated, chic. I don’t know that Nyong’o had intentions of inspiring us, but she has, and we’re grateful.
Speaking of broader culture, Black women are inundated daily with the idea that we are unwanted, that the world doesn’t recognize our winsomeness. As the 12 Years a Slave actress slays one magazine cover and red carpet at a time, we realize that even the keepers and perpetuators of the myth that only White beauty is acceptable have to bow down, that the myth of White-only beauty is a lie. It’s true, it shouldn’t matter that Nyong’o is every mainstream publication’s “girl-crush” and “style icon.” Although at this point we shouldn’t focus on, or in any way require, their approval, some part of us says “yes!” when we see those posts pass our social media screens.
As we publicly contemplate Nyong’o’s fierceness, we must also be cautious not to permit her objectification, through our own gaze or through the gazes of others. After all, as a good friend pointed out to me recently, Nyong’o is as brilliant as she is beautiful. She comes from an exceptional familial background. Her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, is a superb educator and a remarkable political force in Kenya. Nyong’o’s cousin Isis was named by Forbes as one of Africa’s most successful women.
Although most of us came to know Lupita Nyong’o through her breakout role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, it’s important that we also acknowledge her as a recent graduate of Yale’s School of Drama, and a worthy filmmaker in her own right. Lupita’s documentary In My Genes has shown well at film festivals internationally. And Nyong’o as an actor? Without playing into the annoying “s/he speaks so well” meme that successful Black folk are constantly confronted with, the actor’s eloquent conversation about her role as Patsey reminds me to respect her craft and her gangsta.
Another question I struggle with is whether Nyong’o would be such a sweetheart to Whites, and whether mainstream media would adore her so much, had she not been introduced to so many of us through the role of an enslaved woman.
For now though, I only want to bask in the glory of Nyong’o wreaking havoc on the world in that red Ralph Lauren gown, and wish her the best of luck in her quest to win an Oscar. Rock on, Ms. Nyong’o, with your bad self.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and scribe. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.