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By: Mary Hoofnagle
The moment Lupita Nyong’o won best actress was incredibly exciting. Not because her performance in 12 Years a Slave was thrilling (which it was), but because the stunning actress didn’t arrive on the scene with talent alone. She comes with a powerful message. In a speech you may not have seen, she gets real about beauty.
In her words, “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. 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…I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.”
When I was a young girl I went to a spice garden in Sri Lanka with my family. In this exotic magical place it seemed anything was possible. One of my greatest struggles at the time was the fact that I had freckles. I know, right? We should all be so lucky that freckles amount to the greatest struggle of life. Not to mention I probably only had about 10-15 across my cheeks. Nevertheless, this is what plagued me.
But it was deeper than that. I felt that if I could rid myself of these freckles and look like the models I saw all around me, I too, could be beautiful. And so, when the man in the spice gardens casually mentioned that pure sandalwood oil could make freckles fade when applied to the skin, I finally had hope. I begged my mom for this souvenir. I brought my treasure home and one sweltering summer afternoon in the desert of the Middle East, I woke, applied the oil to my face, and went outside to play with my friends.
I’ll ’ll let you imagine for a moment exactly what my oiled-up face felt like in the direct desert sun.
Yeah. On top of that I felt humiliated and disillusioned about life and beauty and my self worth. There are countless examples of this experience in popular culture and literature. If you are familiar with Anne of Green Gables, this was the moment she died her hair green in an effort to replace her red hair with shimmering black locks. This battle for acceptance and admiration is universal. It gets painted as a woman’s struggle, but it is also a man’s struggle. Michael Jackson, for example, went through great lengths to change his appearance.
We set up standards for beauty and strength that are unattainable; then feel unworthy when we don’t meet them. This never ending cycle can cause intense anxiety, hopeless depression, obsessions, compulsions, eating disorders, and a whole host of mental and emotional struggles. I see it begin in the students I work with in middle schools every day. Struggling with freckles, or curly hair, or red hair, or small lips, or a crooked nose, or brown eyes. Feeling too white, too dark, too tall, too short, too weak, too thin, too fat.
The most striking thing I’ve learned over the years is that even those who embody the standard of beauty that we strive toward don’t feel beautiful either.
Something is broken. It hurts my heart. True beauty is the fact that there are endless qualities that can grace a face or dwell in a heart. True beauty is seeing the beauty in all of the various combinations there are. True beauty is compassion for others and loving even those who are broken and considered unlovable.
To quote Luptia again, “What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul…and so I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you 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. There is no shade in that beauty.”
And so today I leave you with a deceptively simple challenge. It will sound easy, but many people find it difficult. Check out this video if you don’t believe me. But I digress.
Start with you. Find one thing about you that is beautiful every day this month. No cheating. A new quality each day. Keep an even balance between internal qualities and external qualities. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that your ___________ is truly beautiful. Keep a list taped to the mirror or just write on the mirror with a dry erase marker.
And men… this is for you too.
In fact it is critical that men and women both begin to see the beauty in themselves, because it is only then that we can look out at the world and see all that beauty in absolutely everyone else.