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in brief: lupita nyong’o speaks out on intersection of race and beauty

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Lupita Nyong’o, winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave, has spoken powerfully at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon organised by Essence, about the intersections of race and beauty.

Nyong’o, in addition to her acclaimed role in 12 Years a Slave, has also nabbed high-end fashion endorsements and has become one of the most watched red-carpet regulars in Hollywood. However, at the Luncheon, she spoke of how she didn’t always feel deserving of this attention, and addressed her own evolving thoughts about beauty and race.

Inspired by a letter she received from a young dark-skinned girl who decided not to lighten her skin because of Nyong’o, she told her personal story in her acceptance speech after winning the award for Best Breakthrough Performance. Nyong’o told how she too felt that the colour of her skin kept her from feeling beautiful, until a high-profile celebrity changed that for her, too:

‘I remember a time when I too felt un-beautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin… And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful, but that was no [consolation], she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think that I am beautiful. And then…Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t.’

Nyong’o’s full acceptance speech can be read here, and it’s well worth the read. It was not only a powerfully well-spoken acceptance, but also a reminder of the consequence of the lack of diversity in Hollywood and the world of fashion. Nyong’o’s story of Alek Wek shows exactly that lack of diversity, and how it is continuing with the Nyong’o’s letter from the young girl.

As stated in this article covering Nyong’o’s speech, by TIME Entertainment: ‘Though diversity studies tend to concentrate on numbers and percentages, personal anecdotes like the one Nyong’o related remind us that it does matter to viewers that they see themselves represented in the media. After all, if it takes a celebrity to make someone like her feel pretty, imagine what it means to those who aren’t destined for style icon status.’

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