Black Beauty, Dark Beauty: Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong'o on Feeling Unbeautiful and The Seduction of Inadequacy

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We have so few beauty icons with deep, dark complexions. How many can you think of? Model Alek Wek comes to mind -- we can call her a beauty icon, can't we? Fair to say Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o is on her way to becoming one, too, right? But ironically, before Alek Wek appeared on the international fashion scene in 1995, young Lupita Nyong'o felt "unbeautiful" because of the darkness of her complexion. And although she's now Hollywood's new red-carpet star, heralded for her gorgeous skin, beautiful features and flawless style, she's still one of a very small group.

Let's talk about this "black beauty, dark beauty" as she called it in a speech last week, and something else she referred to as "the seduction of inadequacy."

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"I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned," said Lupita in a speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon on February 27th in L.A.

Lupita Nyong'o for miu miu_spring 2014

Today the 31-year-old actress is herself a budding icon of what she referred to as "black beauty, dark beauty." Lupita has just taken home the Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (the night's Oscar-winning film as well). Over the last six months,  she has become the darling of the red carpet for her fashion and beauty choices. And she's a celebrity face for Miu Miu's Spring advertising campaign.

Lupita Nyong'o studio photo

How crazy it is that Lupita Nyong'o ever saw herself as less than she is?

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Aside: Hey -- what did you think of Lupita's ensemble at the Oscars last night? I loved her Cinderella-esque gown -- its deep vee and unfussy cut was gorgeous on Lupita's sleek frame. Also loved her jewelry, particularly those earrings. But the headband, not so much. Distracting. And too Cinderella.

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"And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence," the actress told the Essence luncheon attendees. "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 I am beautiful."

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God the teen years can suck. And the angst can start before that when it comes to self-esteem. No matter how often we're told "it's what's on the inside that counts," if we feel like we don't meet some standard of pop-culture beauty, we feel self-conscious, unattractive and unworthy.

Lupita Nyong'o

Some of us never outgrow that shame about how we look. A mean kid calls you "Big Ears" when you're nine, and for the rest of your life you keep your hair long enough to hide them. Or someone teases you because you're wearing "Pretty Plus" stretch polyester from Sears, so you try a year-long anorexia diet when you're 14, get down to 98 lbs when you're nearly 5'8", and still think you're fat. Then you're a slightly plump 18-year-old, and it takes hitting size 18 in your first year of university to show you that you were in no way obese back when you wore size 10. Ugh.

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For Lupita, Alek Wek was the trigger that started her down the path of self-acceptance, and then self-appreciation. But in baby steps.

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45th NAACP Image Awards Presented By TV One - Red Carpet

"I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful," Lupita said of Alek Wek.

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"It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy."

That, right there, is the most interesting part of Lupita's poignant speech.

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I want to gush about this makeup here, and the green eye makeup in the photo before this, but better that I stay focussed on this insight: "I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy."

That's a thing no-one really talks about. You know, when it becomes easier to believe the negative because it's familiar. Coasting in the bubble of habit can feel safe because changing your perception means changing behaviour. And changing behaviour takes effort and determination -- work.

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I've seen that with magazine makeovers: the subject gets great hair, makeup and styling from a team of pros and looks amazing for her reveal. But she lets it slide within weeks -- even days -- because it's easier for her to believe she's "just not that person" than to learn a few tips and tricks to maintain the results, no matter how good they made her feel at first.

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"To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, "You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you."

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"...these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be."

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"And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you."

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"What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul."

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Lupita's speech about "black beauty, dark beauty" sprang from a letter she'd received from a young fan who was struggling with her own self-esteem in relation to the colour of her complexion. The young girl had been considering skin-lightening creams; then Lupita lit up our collective radar and helped her see herself more positively.

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"...I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside," Lupita said as she wrapped up. "There is no shade to that beauty."

Read the full transcript of Lupita Nyong'o's Essence Black Women in Hollywood speech on Essence.com.

A cosmetics contract is surely already on the horizon for Lupita Nyong'o, don't you think? It's time. We all need to see more beauty like hers, regardless of whether we look like Lupita or not.

What are your thoughts Lupita's speech? And on her hair and makeup in these editorial and red-carpet photos?

Opening photo, Essence Magazine. Second photo, Dazed & Confused Magazine.