The most beautiful woman in the world is hardly recognizable under the sheer volume of controversy.
Lupita Nyong’o, an Academy Award-winning Mexican-Kenyan actress, was recently names People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful” person of 2014. As the fourth woman of color to make the cover of this particular issue and the first African, critics everywhere are hailing People Magazine for its push to validate beauty that is not necessarily pale-skinned and blue-eyed.
The other two African-American women who have been named “Most Beautiful,” Beyoncé Knowles and Halle Berry, are both of mixed ethnicity. They have considerably lighter skin. Berry wears her hair in a short, feathery pixie cut, and Knowles is famous for her long, honey-blonde locks. Nyong’o, on the other hand, has considerably darker skin. She wears her tight curly hair cropped short. Like the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the mainstream recognition of Nyong’o fueled a conception of America as a country rapidly ridding itself of racism.
Nyong’o’s recognition is, of course, a step forward. The usual prominence of white skin in magazines, billboards and television sends a message to people of color that they deviate from mainstream beauty standards, or that they are inferior to them. For the next month, however, people waiting in check-out lines in grocery stores across the U.S. will see a darker face among the glamorous, typically light-skinned celebrities peering out from magazine covers. Nyong’o, like Alek Wek before her, has become a symbol of validation for many people of color who may feel alienated by images in popular media.
Despite having made a step in the right direction, however, the praise garnered by People Magazine for this choice merely shows us how much farther we have to walk. Tabloids and blogs like the Daily Mail, The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes and even The Atlantic have exploded with excitement over what they call Nyong’o’s “exotic” beauty. Whereas most celebrities can simply be “beautiful,” Nyong’o can only be so “exotically.”
While Nyong’o is Kenyan, she is far from “exotic.” A senator’s daughter, she had what she calls a comfortable suburban upbringing in urban areas and received an exemplary acting and film education at Yale. As Salon.com pointed out, the biggest difference she has from Meryl Streep, another middle class graduate of Yale School of Drama, is that she is African.
It would seem the most “exotic” part about Nyong’o is her appearance. Qualifying the beauty of an African woman as “exotic” rather than allowing her to be beautiful in her own right effectively distances her appearance from what is considered “normal” beauty. In calling Nyong’o “exotic,” a beautiful black woman becomes an exception to the rule of mainstream white beauty. Rather than opening up popular conceptions of beauty, this description of Nyong’o freezes them in place.
While lending critical attention to a shallow, market-based enterprise like People Magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People list may seem tawdry, the prevalence of images in these kinds of magazines is made apparent by the fact that many people buy them. The public imagination, built in places like magazine racks in grocery store check-out lines, Google image searches and nightly news programs, is in part shaped by the choices made by those who control what images are and aren’t published.
People Magazine’s choice to recognize Lupita Nyong’o may have the potential to tug at stereotypical images of beauty and open them to more than just Scarlett Johansson clones — but it’s never going to happen if people of color are kept at an arm’s length with words like “exotic.”