Lupita Nyong’o Talks About “Planting Seeds Of Possibility” In Young Black Women

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It’s very fitting that Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o was named Glamour Magazine’s ‘Woman of the Year’ 2014 because just one year ago, no one really knew who she was, and over the past 12 months she has solidified herself as an A-list actress, activist, and beauty icon. In fact we can’t believe there was a time we didn’t know who she was!

Not only has she covered pretty much every magazine across the globe and been assigned as the face of various campaigns, but she has used her newly elevated platform to speak out about important issues, and be a beacon of hope for other girls who are told they will never make it because they don’t look like everyone else.

Her determination and subsequent success was talked about in Glamour’s December issue, of which she is also the covergirl.

The Kenyan-born beauty says she doesn’t define success by what the world tells her it should be.

“For me it’s not just one thing. Every time I overcome an obstacle, it feels like success. Sometimes the biggest ones are in our head—the saboteurs that tell us we can’t. I’ve always had that going on: ‘I can’t,’ and then I do, so the voice says, ‘Well, that was an exception!’ It’s a tug-of-war between two voices: the one who knows she can and the one who’s scared she can’t.”

Lupita has spoken openly about being a role model for young black girls, because when she was growing up there weren’t many representations of women who looked like her or had her skin tone. That was until one woman in particular burst onto the scene.

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“Oprah played a big role in my understanding of what it meant to be female and to really step into your own power. I wouldn’t even call her a role model; she was literally a reference point. You have the dictionary, you have the Bible, you have Oprah.”

It almost seems ironic that growing up, her looks were the very thing that held her back, and now she is getting a lot of attention for them, along with her immense talent of course. But as a young girl, Lupita was taught that her looks were going to either make or break her future, and it is sad that this still continues in some cultures today.

“European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world—the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in the second grade, one of my teachers said, ‘Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?’ I was mortified.”

In countries like India, it is the same, but they are now cracking down on advertising which promotes success and beauty only by using products that alter your natural appearance. Lupita grew up hearing this type of message as normal in her world.

“I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn’t get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn’t hearing this from my immediate family—my mother never said anything to that effect—but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents.”

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Thankfully Lupita’s mother did persist in telling her daughter that her worth was not based on her external appearance. Nowadays we are seeing more and more trends which shift the traditional definition of beauty more toward inner qualities, and something that reflects diversity.

“I come from a loving, supportive family, and my mother taught me that there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features. She was focused on compassion and respect, and those are the things that ended up translating to me as beauty. Beautiful people have many advantages, but so do friendly people…. I think beauty is an expression of love.”

“To rely on the way you look is empty. You’re a pretty face—and then what? Your value is in yourself; the other stuff will come and go. We don’t get to pick the genes we want. There’s room in this world for beauty to be diverse.”

Even though she is precarious about being put on a pedestal because she has “tons of flaws”, she relishes the opportunity to be that sense of hope the way Oprah was for her.

“I’ve heard people talk about images in popular culture changing, and that makes me feel great, because it means that the little girl I was, once upon a time, has an image to instill in her that she is beautiful, that she is worthy—that she can… Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t so sure it was a possibility. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Color Purple, it dawned on me: ‘Oh—I could be an actress!’ We plant the seed of possibility.”

That’s what it’s all about. Stepping up, allowing yourself to be a representation of something for another young woman, and planting that seed of possibility. It can literally change a person’s life to know what is possible. If she can’t be what she can’t see, let’s make those important representations of women in everyday culture more and more visible.

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