Hollywood it girl, Lupita Nyong’o is having one hell of a year. The 30-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate came out of left field when she mesmerized audiences in her first-ever film role in the Oscar-nominated drama 12 Years a Slave. Since then she’s racked up Golden Globe, Oscar, and Screen Actors Guild nominations, while cementing her place as Hollywood’s hottest rising star.
While the Kenyan beauty has been EVERYWHERE—appearing on the covers of Dazed & Confused, the Hollywood Reporter, W, and Dujor to name a few—entertainment glossy, Vanity Fair is coming under fire for allegedly lightening her sumptuous dark skin.
But did they really?
Magazines and beauty companies have a long history of getting a little too Photoshop happy and retouching celebs—smoothing wrinkles, trimming waists, removing blemishes, and sadly, even lightening a darker skin’s person’s skin (remember that L’Oreal ad with Beyoncé?). But I doubt that is what’s happening with Nyong’o’s Vanity Fair spread.
While many folks are admittedly, and rightly, cautious when a dark skin beauty appears shades lighter in a mainstream media outlet, now would be a good time for folks to make the distinction between lighting (as in bright lights, white backgrounds, and set design) and deliberate skin lightening.
The video for the Vanity Fair shoot shows Nyong’o swathed in white—white balloons, ultra-white background, big, bright lights—which any Black woman (or woman of color) will tell you will cause your skin to appear lighter. It’s something missed by The Gloss writer Julia Sonenshein, who dismissed, and disregarded, the idea of lighting all together.
Vanity Fair will likely make the argument that it was lighting and not lightening–that is to say that instead of ordering some photoshopper to lighten Nyong’o’s skin, they’ll pretend that the light in the room blew her out. Sure–I’ll bite. Maybe the room was lit in such a way that it created that image, but why the hell would they light it that way in the first place? It’s not like they’re shooting on film and only found out days later once they got around to developing–the feedback is instant and someone in the room would have immediately been able to figure out that Nyong’o’s skin tone was completely off. In an industry where every single detail is manipulated to be perfect, it just isn’t possible that everyone fell down on the job and forgot that her skin tone was totally off. There’s just not a chance that this was an accident.
This is straight up bullshit, and shame on Vanity Fair for pulling this shit we’ve seen so all too often. To perpetuate an idea that the most flattering picture of a black actress is one where her blackness is altered is straight up racist, and if you don’t see that, then you’re frankly part of the problem.
While Sonenshein makes a few salient points, I can’t help but view her (faux?) outrage with a little bit of a side-eye. As a white woman I doubt she’s ever had to get into just the right light (inside OR outside) to take a photo that will not make you either look like a blacked-out shadow or a faint ghost, and then have that picture not even come close to your natural skin tone anyway.
It is also a bit disingenuous for Sonenshein, and others, to position Nyong’o’s Vanity Fair photos along side candid shots or those of other photo shoots that have also been no-doubt manipulated in some way (because that’s what happens every single time, to every single person) and do not include the same lighting, backgrounds, or outfits, which all affect how women of color appear on camera.
In our incessant need to protect the images of our dark skin sisters, have some forgotten the difference between lighting and blatant skin lightening?
Can a dark skin woman never, ever appear a shade lighter for fear that she (or the publication) be accused of lightening her skin to fit some sort of beauty standard? (side note: I also find it interesting that no one seems to care when dark skin women appear darker in a fashion editorial).
Considering how popular Nyong’o has been as of late—appearing in Miu Miu’s ads, between the pages of InStyle, Elle, and other magazines—it would be hard for Vanity Fair to pretend like she is somehow anything but a stunning dark skin woman.