The politics of beauty

Lupita Nyong'o
Lupita Nyong'o

Of beauty, my grandmother and a baboon

“Are you telling me that you don’t see the hypocrisy around this whole Lupita Nyongo hype?” She asks. She is one of the most beautiful women I know not to mention, the most level headed. I pause for a moment. Actually, this is not the reason I was calling her.

“You don’t think she is beautiful?”

I ask barely able to hide my disappointment. She sighs into the phone. A few years ago her fiancé left her and shot straight into the arms of a fair skinned woman. Tomato skin. That is how he described his new catch.

“Well, I don’t think it matters much what I think” she says simply. It turns out that time doesn’t heal some things.

This dialogue stays with me for a while. I turn to google. What I read about Lupita Nyongo both distress and amuse me.


What is the motive of Hollywood? Reader after reader asks.  Bewildered, puzzled, astonished with a pretty large dose of suspicion is how I would summarize the reactions. 

Amidst the comments, one line catches my attention.

 How can someone as black as charcoal be considered beautiful?

Black is beautiful

My mind flashes back to one afternoon many years ago.  Seated under an orange tree in front of my grandma’s house, the sun blazing, I stare lazily at the gangly frame of my grandmother. Her friend, a woman who is simply called Nyarotama is visiting.


 “This year will be very dry.”

Nyarotama says pushing her Kali cigarette between her lips. Like my grandmother, she doesn’t have the lower six teeth. My grandma nods.

“I can already smell the drought.” She says sniffing the air. She pours sour milk from the big gourd into the plastic jerry cans. She hands one to Nyarotama and hands me a calabash. I gulp the milk and quickly start doing what I enjoy most; lick the calabash.


It is what they say next that remain encrypted in my psyche for years to come. Nyarotoma was away visiting the family of her future daughter in law.

“They are all very well built and very black”

She says her eyes lighting up. My grandma laughs. 

“They are all so dark. They are very beautiful” she echoes her friend, posing to look at me.

Later, I hear different variations of this script. Beautiful people are black or

dichol  as they say in Luo. Sometimes they describe people as

‘lando’ as in fair skinned.

The real deal however seems to be in the intensity of blackness or whether one has a gap in the front upper teeth or how tall and well-built one is.  I ace my way. My darkness could easily put the mighty sun out of a job.

Or may be not

I am jolted out of this bliss when I go to boarding school.  “Blackie” is the name given to those who are dark. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that it isn’t meant as a compliment.


This is a different world and in this world, fair and beautiful mean the same thing. This goes on for a while; through high school, through university, through life.

Fair skinned girls are considered more beautiful. Boys scramble to ask them out, TV stations have poster tomato-skin anchors.


I watch all these with unparalleled detachment. If only they could ask my grandmother, I muse. Not once do I doubt that black is beautiful. Not once do I wish my skin was farer. Not even when my grandma passes on.

And not even when a friend away in America calls me in tears. On a trip to a zoo, a baboon singled her out for a hug.  I burst out in laughter. She doesn’t think it is funny.

“It is our skin. We are too dark!” She moans.


An experience in Europe years later make me realize for the first time that all these ‘fair is beautiful’ talk left their mark.

At a train station, I watch a couple talking to each other and staring at me. The woman walks up to me. The man follows her carrying a small baby suckling a red pacifier. They stop in front of me.


“We were just discussing that you are very beautiful”

the woman says. I stare at them wondering what their motive is.


 “You probably hear this all the time!” the guy adds.

I flash a nonchalant smile. I want to tell them that no stranger has ever told me that. Certainly not in Kenya.

Many more follow.

“I have rarely seen a woman as beautiful as you!” a woman tells me at a bookstore the following week.

“She is very easy on the eyes” I hear two cashiers whispering to each other at a furniture shop.

“Are you a model?” Many more ask.


The irony of all these happening to me in Europe isn’t lost on me. I’m well aware that life for blacks in this part of the world isn’t a walk in the park.And that because of their color.


Beauty, I've come to learn is one of those things you can never be sure of.

It is as external as it is internal.

And as it turns out, it could be a lot of things. To some people, it is the degree of fairness, to some others; it is the intensity of blackness. And yet to some of us, it is something magical that we can’t quite define.


Lupita Nyong’o has it in abundance.


Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    Stefan (Wednesday, 30 April 2014 16:43)

    Caroline, this is a very brave and entertaining post. Thanks for making my day.

  • #2

    CAJ (Wednesday, 30 April 2014 17:21)

    Hi Stefan,
    Thanks for reading. You are most welcome!

  • #3

    Sam (Thursday, 08 May 2014 12:11)

    Nice website and a very Interesting read!
    My definition of beauty is to borrow your phrase, ‘someone who is easy on the eyes.’ This transcends color, weight etc.
    I likeLupita because she is an extremely beautiful woman. At the same time, I hate the fact that she is almost a size 0 therefore fitting into the Hollywood kind of beauty in which petit people are automatically thought of as beautiful.
    About color, there are different issues at play. Of course there is the racist take on this, but there is also the economic part of this. The skin bleaching industry is a multibillion industry. People bleach their skin almost everywhere. In most countries in Asia, it is an obsession.
    Are all fair skinned people beautiful? As a Caucasian, I can only laugh at this.
    The media plays a big role in general perceptions. I commend People magazine for naming Lupita the most beautiful person in the world. It is the least they can do to change the ridiculous obsession with fair skin.

  • #4

    CAJ (Thursday, 08 May 2014 15:30)

    Hi Sam,

    Thanks for reading.
    "The media plays a big role in general perceptions."
    I couldn't agree more. I think most people underestimate how much their beliefs or lives are influenced by what they constantly hear, read or see.