Dear Lupita Nyong’o,
From an every day dark-skinned girl.
The whole world seems to be talking about Black Panther. The whole world seems to see you on screen, carrying yourself with elegance and grace. You were called royalty on the big screen.
You made T’Challa — the Black Panther himself, freeze — even after he boasted that he never freezes.
Your beauty stopped him in his tracks.
It was the first moment of many moments in that movie that brought tears to my eyes and I’ve been thinking for weeks about why that moment was so important to me. Me and dark-skinned girls everywhere who did not grow up in the time of Fenty beauty, who’s shades were seen as a curse and not the sun’s blessing it was created to be.
People can Google your name and see countless images of you dressed in every single color across the spectrum, admiring the way your skin glows. You and your smile never clash against the backdrop white Hollywood.
Growing up, I did not always think I was beautiful. I had to fight to see beauty in myself and even then, I didn’t think people were being honest when they called me beautiful. It seemed to be something people said to make you feel better about not actually being beautiful.
When I looked at my own mother, I saw beauty. I saw what I thought was more beautiful in a medium brown tone I did not possess. When people told me I looked like her, I thought it was a stranger compliment still, since such a thing could not be possible in deeper shades of brown.
I learned ugliness in kindergarten. I learned that there was something about me that was repulsive compared to the lightest skinned girl in the class. I learned to hate my hair and even fear the sight of it when it was freshly washed.
I remembered crying whenever I got my hair done, but reminding myself that I would rather have it pressed, relaxed and in braids than to have the world see the tightly coiled hair that would only render questions and stares.
I had to learn that being darker skinned meant I was perceived as less sensitive, less emotional and more strong — even in moments when I felt the opposite. I learned that the darker I was, the more “African” I looked and I learned that “looking African” was synonymous to being ugly.
All of this I “knew” well before I understood the definition of racism or colorism.
Based on what I had learned about the world and how I was perceived, I adapted in any way I could to emphasize my redeeming qualities. At one point I was fasting two meals a day to get thinner. When it worked and when I was “pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” I was obsessed with staying that way.
Since that time, it’s been about six years of striving to have a better self-image and a better relationship with my body. A lot of that acceptance was internal, a fight to reclaim what it means to be beautiful, not “for a dark-skinned girl.” It was a process of learning beauty outside of the bubble that tries to take everything away from black people — including our ability to live contently in our own bodies.
However, I cannot credit all of it to an internal journey. Because women like you have influenced the way I see myself. It means the world to have your face up on the big screen, in magazines and all over social media — to see dark skinned women being called beautiful, beyond categories and specifications, just beautiful.
I’ve included the first photo I saw of you, the one that made me truly see myself as beautiful without all the extra work.
It was sent to me one day, out of the blue. I had no idea who you were then and someone said that I looked like this “actress from Africa.”
It’s not so much that I always agree, but when I look at you and accept your beauty as my own, I release myself from the weight of the work I do on a daily basis to convince myself. It becomes easier to see that it’s not some fictional truth that exists in my mind, but something that is possible for the whole world to believe.
The funny thing about that comment now is that I can barely see the resemblance. The version of me that looks remotely like you was the version of me that chose to be unhealthy on the inside to look thinner on the outside. But as I write about it now, I believe that version of Rose needed you the most.
I am writing this letter to thank you, partially for a part of you that you had no control over. God himself created you, as God creates us all — declaring that we are good. Somewhere along the way, we all forget. I am thanking you for helping remind me of that. Thank you:
For representing me and girls who look like me on screen.
Lupita, you are not beautiful “for a dark-skinned girl”:
You are beautiful for all dark-skinned girls who are still coming to grips with what beauty looks like.
You are beautiful to all of us, and for all of us.
Originally posted on Medium.com on March 5, 2018.