Viral hoax Have you fallen for one?
‘lupita Nyong’o Is Kenya’s Jennifer Lawrence ’declared Wire.com; ‘What [actress] Lupita Nyong’o Can Teach Us About Beauty’ analysed The Guardian; ‘Hear How Lupita Nyong’o Only Considered Herself Black When She Came To America’ click baited Upworthy.com; ‘Was Lupita Nyong’o’s Skin Lightened In Vanity Fair?’ accused The Huffington Post. These are just some of the headlines that chummed the web for clicks as the Oscar-nominated actress’s star continued rising this year.All referencing her race but, more so, highlighting the issue of ‘colourism’. While all women feel the pressure to conform to normative standards of beauty (few of us – regardless of our race – meet the standards of the catwalk and Hollywood), there is no denying that the darker you are, the less likely you are to be viewed as beautiful both within mainstream media and, more painfully, within your own community. Around the world, colourism is a stark reality.
From India to Italy, to the Philippines to Venezuela, to our very own Mzansi, too many people identify lightness with beauty and success. While we often talk about the preference for light skin as a psychological or emotional issue, it also extends to real economic and social consequences: women who burn their skin with bleach, men who insist on only dating light-skinned girls, magazines that change the colour of a black model’s skin, companies that view a candidate of certain complexion as more employable than her darker equivalent. The preference for lighter-skinned people and the perpetuation of colour-based hierarchies is significant and well-documented. You need only watch a few minutes of the harrowing 2012 documentary Dark Girls to understand its impact. Colourism, though, isn’t racism. The two concepts are closely linked, but they have different motivations. In The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality, Margaret Hunter suggests that colourism, or skin-colour stratification, ‘privileges light-skinned people of colour over dark in areas such as income, education, housing and the marriage market’. Hunter explains that colourism is perpetuated by media images and feeds into the ‘multibillion-dollar skin-bleaching and cosmetic-surgery industries’. And the victims of colourism can be any women of colour. Racism, on the other hand, is the belief that races, and not shades of complexion, can be ranked differently – some seen as superior to others.
Given all of this, the media’s excitement about Nyong’o might seem to signify a step forward. You can’t open a magazine or click on an entertainment site these days without seeing a profile of the 12 Years a Slave movie star, skin gleaming, short hair perfectly coiffed. Some might even have us believe that dark-skinned women are (pardon the pun) the new black, that she has broken down the doors and we can all come marching in, confidently. Sadly, we are not there yet. Google ‘Lupita Nyong’o’ and you will see the unfortunate controversy surrounding Vanity Fair’s alleged lightening of her skin. Whether photographic lighting and exposure settings ‘washed’ her out making her appear lighter, or she was deliberately photoshopped after the fact, the effect was the same. Nyong’o looked more palatable to the magazine’s predominantly white readership. However, there could be many reasons for her appearing lighter in Vanity Fair that have nothing to do with sinister intentions. Maybe it could just be put down to a lack of skill and interest – perhaps the photographer didn’t understand how to light dark skin or even to photoshop blemishes from
it. Readers, now seems the right time to make sure all of you are aware that black women also get darker or lighter depending on exposure to the sun. Our skin tone changes with the season – enough to change our foundations by a few shades – and how a room is lit will affect how we look on camera, often in dramatic ways.The Dazed & Confused cover was equally controversial, begging the question of whether Nyong’o is as dark as she appeared and that, if she isn’t, was she being fetishized to look even more ‘exotic’?
Nyong’o has not been the only black celebrity to be involved in a ‘colour’ scandal. Queen Bey, or Mrs Carter to you, has also been embroiled in a number of photoshopping dramas, including allegations that her photo shoots for an international cosmetics company in 2012 showcased a whitewashed version of her. Added to that, some even suggest that Beyoncé actually encourages ‘photo bleaching’ of her images. Between the media treatment of both women lies an uncomfortable truth: while white women’s skin colour is almost never discussed, for black women, complexion is always noted and highlighted. But perhaps women of colour shouldn’t complain? At least we’re landing covers and getting some editorial, right? But in spite of the current Lupita love-fest, it becomes hard to imagine that there could be space in a glossy for two women, or heck, let’s get wild, even three, as dark as the Yale School of Drama graduate that isn’t a celebration of Africa’s rising or a tribal-themed fashion shoot. The media loves Jennifer Lawrence but I have never heard the presenters at E! going mad over her skin’s precise shade of white, or gushing over the magnificence of Julia Roberts’s pale pigmentation. Or waving away models from castings saying they have enough alabaster options. In other words, the industry is accommodating Nyong’o as they did actress Viola Davis (one dark woman in the spotlight at a time remember), but it isn’t
While white women’s skin colour is almost never discussed, for black women, complexion is always noted and highlighted
changing because of her. Her image doesn’t disrupt existing notions of beauty: she has a petite frame, a perfectly symmetrical face, great cheekbones and straight, even teeth. She fits the Hollywood aesthetic perfectly, which means she’s easy on the mainstream eye: no full lips to deal with, no confrontingly flat nose in the middle of her face. Nyong’o is the new shade of chic, but she doesn’t change what chic is. Chic is still skinny and fine-featured. And largely pale.
Arguably, the woman who has done the most to change ideas about black beauty has been a woman who – ironically – isn’t particularly interested in the beauty or glamour business.The US First Lady, Michelle Obama, who, at almost 1,8 metres tall and with undeniably African features, has become a global style icon, changing how we see everyday beauty and body image. When Obama began to appear by her husband’s side in the early 2000s, she was called a baboon. No-one understood how the future US president – himself such a light-skinned man – could be attracted to a dark-skinned partner. Despite the fact that she went out of her way to play the ‘good wife’ ,Obama’s looks (combined with the Harvard law degree) were threatening to a press that wasn’t used to projecting images of black women as icons of style, strength and beauty. The story ends well. Obama’s insistence on wearing accessible clothes, her athletic frame and her work on childhood obesity are what put her on the cover of Vogue US as only the fourth black woman to do so in the magazine’s history. Her ‘unconventional’ looks became a non-issue. Perhaps that’s the point in all of this colourism madness. Perhaps the rest of the world will learn to look past Nyong’o’s short, natural hair and dark skin and focus on her obvious talent. And on the savvy of all the dark- or lightskinned women of colour whose paths she paves into Hollywood.