What does the latest accolade for Lupita Nyong'o say about the 'acceptability' of black skin in the film and fashion worlds?

The Oscar-winning actress and People's Most Beautiful Person is forging a path for others to follow

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When I heard Lupita Nyong'o had been chosen as 'People's Most Beautiful Person' I quite manically started looking for someone to fist bump. Not because she's this year's 'It' girl, or because like everyone else, I loved her mesmerising performance in '12 Years a Slave,' not even because she has killer arms. No, I wanted to fist bump someone because Lupita is black.

Not the 'acceptable-for-the-La-Redoute-catalogue' type of black but the black that isn't 'commercially viable.' The kind of black that gets the: 'You're pretty...for a dark skinned girl,' comments, or has to deal with adolescent taunts or, as Nyong'o herself acknowledged, had only one prayer as a teenager, to wake up lighter-skinned.

Colourism in the black community is nothing new, type 'light skin vs dark skin' into Google and you're presented with over 42 million results. Forums, articles and endless debates centred on the different shades of black and what they mean. I currently live in Nigeria, the most populous black nation in the world, according to WHO it also has the highest number of women who regularly use bleaching cream. The country with the most black people in the world has the highest number of women actively trying to be less black. Forecasts suggest the skin lightening industry will continue to grow and will be worth an estimated $10 billion next year.

Model and designer Alek Wek said when she came into the modelling world only the lofty echelons of the high fashion world 'got' her look, others deemed her 'bizarre looking.' Tyra Banks also noted that a lot of her success as a commercial model was down to her coloring. Darker skinned girls, if deemed beautiful, were beautiful in the same vein as art, not your average girl next door.  

Then along came Lupita. The first black woman to be appointed as brand ambassador for Lancôme and the third black woman to top the People list since its inception in 1990. It might seem as though dark skinned beauty is becoming acceptable in the mainstream, and the 'People' cover seems to best represent that shift in belief, but does she really signify the acceptance of darker skinned women in our mainstream definitions of beauty? Or is this just about Lupita?

It's tricky to try and measure things like that so early on, I suspect her relationship with Lancôme will lead to the brand diversifying its products and I expect other make up companies to follow suit. It may not be the Berlin Wall but it's a start.

But her impact goes beyond securing mainstream acceptance; it's what Lupita herself talked of at Essence Magazine's Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon.  She spoke of a young black girl so consumed with self-loathing she planned to buy skin lightening cream until an image of Lupita stopped her. Self-validation is what she said she hoped her presence would bring dark skinned women and girls, that they are beautiful too, the most important type of acceptance there is.