Your Facebook timelines and news feeds are probably filled with the gossip following the 2014 Oscars which took place last night.
The dresses were exquisite – but it was actress Lupita Nyong’os’ Oscar win for her portrayal of Patsy in 12 Years a Slave, that has left a huge mark on my heart and I’ll get to that in a moment.
I received a flurry of emails from readers last week dejected and frustrated by the UK wedding industry. It was those emails, this image and a video I saw this morning (below) that inspired me to publish this half written blog post, which has been sitting in my drafts for a while.
Most of you will know my journey to Nu Bride started because I felt surprisingly excluded from the mainstream wedding industry. It reminded me of some of the insecurities and battles with race and identity I encountered as a child and teenager. I felt like I could never be a princess as I could not identify with the images constantly proffered at me via media. The old Disney cartoons I adored, but at the time did not represent little black girls with afro hair like mine. As an adult embarking on my wedding planning journey I was astounded to be presented with this familiar feeling reinforced with durable masking tape, when I discovered again, there was little presence or representation of ‘women like me’ in the mainstream in any capacity.
Our visions of beauty and our desire to be ‘seen / reflected’ start from when we are children. Lupita reconfirms this in her speech at an Essence Magazine event in the video below.
I’ve said it before, Disney is a powerful influencer. I see it in my friends children, playing dress up and watching Disney cartoons on repeat. I experienced it. I lived it. So this collage of Lupita (in an exquisite Prada Nairobi blue dress) next to the ‘common’ ideal of a princess ‘Cinderella’, floating around the internet last night made an impression on my heart. Little girls NEED to see diversity in beauty.
Neither is more beautiful than the other. Neither is more desirable. BUT we all deserve to be princesses, we all deserve to represented don’t we? Even I will admit, up until recently, this image of Cinderella used to be the first I thought of when visualising a princess. I think the wedding industry sees this image too. Beautiful yes, but when will this ideal evolve and reflect the beautiful eclectic society we live in ?
When I first watched 12 Years a Slave, I was actually paralysed for about 30 minutes afterwards. Paralysed because this cruelty actually occurred. People were beaten until the skin actually came off their body, because they were black, seen as a lesser being. Sold, beaten, stolen, raped, refused education etc. It took me ages to process that these events depicted in this movie were true. I took a while to catch my breath. To stop the cathartic sobs. That this happened. We did this to EACH OTHER. Humanity not in its finest hour.
If you haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, I won’t lie, it is NOT an easy watch. It is raw. But it is so important and I think everyone should watch it, so that we remain compassionate human beings and do not let history repeat itself. (Especially when it is being statistically reported that we (UK), are becoming a nation that is less caring and less tolerant of others). Through the darkness of 12 Years a Slave, there are also moments of beauty, comfort, compassion and glimpses of human decency which make you smile. The acting, especially by British actor Chiwetel Eijifor is exceptional and you will see why Lupita Nyong’o has just picked up an Oscar for the very first role she landed fresh from drama school and why the film has won ‘best picture’. This is absolutely exceptional given the context and the battle for black actors and directors to make impressions at this level in the acting industry. Standing ovation Steve McQueen.
Some of you may know I started my creative journey as a professional actress and singer, training for 3 years at a prestigious performing arts institution in London. I remember some of the feedback I used to get from my agent and teachers along the way, ranging from;
‘You didn’t get this role because they are looking for someone with lighter skin’ (Got this A. LOT)
‘You’re too black’. (In hindsight this wasn’t the most useful form of feedback. What was I supposed to do – bleach my skin to have more acting opportunities?)
‘Nova you’re black darling (oh my gosh! I hadn’t realised), there will only be limited roles you can play’.
I entered the acting industry professionally at the tender age of 21. As a young adolescent, it was very difficult to start to form my own identity and define who I was when everything that defined my foundation and my appearance was translated as a ‘negative’ and often not desirable in the acting industry.
My immediate response was I was the one who was ‘wrong’, it was my fault. Well, through years of building on my confidence and working on self-esteem I realised, it was never me who needed to change, it was my mindset and it was the industry.
If you watch this clip of Lupita speaking at an Essence Magazine event celebrating black women in Hollywood – you will see she struggled with similar battles to do with race and identity. Again it reminded me of Dark Girls which has left a huge impression on me and some of the points I raise with Annabel over on Love My Dress about the wedding industry and black brides.
I used to be teased as a teenager because my skin was the ‘colour of faeces’ to constantly see racist remarks etched on school desks and toilet walls about me, which I later discovered were written by ‘friends’. I hadn’t done anything wrong other than have black skin. I was ‘different’ to the majority of my peers. This experience wreaked havoc on my self-esteem.
Lupita’s story as a teenager and young woman really resonates with me; she too was teased because of her ‘dark skin’, feeling unbeautiful – turning on the TV and only seeing people with pale skin.
For Lupita, feeling unbeautiful soon evolved into self hate when she entered her adolescence. Negotiating with God, to make her skin be lighter in the morning, if she stopped doing ‘naughty’ things.
As Lupita says, no amount of hearing the words ‘you’re beautiful’ from parents, siblings, friends, will have an ounce of impact on how you feel about yourself, when your self-worth is obliterated by how you are perceived or treated in society and what is continuously (not) represented in magazines, on TV as beautiful and desirable.
I am a firm believer that confidence and strong self-esteem starts from the inside. It took me many years to get there. But I did. I acknowledge that getting to a place where you are comfortable and confident in who you are is layered among the complexities of self-worth, upbringing, your values and not all placed on media. But media is a POWERFUL contributor to the ideals women hold about themselves and others. If we are not presented with images who represent us in some way in media we are not validated. We do not feel accepted and the vicious cycle will continue.
Lupita raised a point about when she started to be ‘seduced by inadequacy’ that also resonated with me. You almost start to ‘accept’ what is, is. It’s far easier to accept than continue to go against the grain and resist isn’t it?
I received several emails last week from brides-to-be, newly engaged and feeling stressed and dejected about their wedding because they have found no representation for them in wedding magazines, media, at wedding shows. Still in 2014. This makes me sad that this feeling that you are not good enough or not desirable / purely and simply because there is this ‘silence’ when you are not represented visually. This I will not accept and will do all that I can to contribute to a much more inclusive UK wedding industry.
Lupita talks eloquently in her Essence Magazine speech about Validation. How can you be validated if there is no ‘version’ of yourself in media? No models in magazines. No models on the catwalk. How will I get an insight into what a dress might look like on my skin when there are no models used representing my race?
When I first started working in the acting industry, I just started to accept that the only leading role I could play in the West End would be the Lion King. That if I was cast in any plays I would either be cast as the ghetto slang one from Brixton (can you imagine?! LOL!) or a background role as a servant or helper. But then I got to the point where I didn’t accept that as a suitable response anymore. I feel the same way about the wedding / fashion industry. A common response floating around both industries, which no doubt you will have heard challenged by the likes of Naomi Campbell, is that ‘black women don’t sell magazines or won’t sell my product’. Why not? Where is the evidence to suggest this? When was the last time this was tried?
Well my darlings, if we belive this response to be true then the onus is entirely on us, the general public. Why don’t we want to see black or other ethnic women on the front of magazines or on catwalks? Yes….. I beg to differ too and I’ve got a feeling Lupita Nyong’o will be shifting a few magazine sales this week!
There is diversity in beauty. I will keep saying it, because I truly believe it: We are all beautiful, we all matter.
We all deserve to be inspired and represented on our journey to happily ever after. I look forward to the day when we truly embrace this in our wedding and fashion industries, so little girls (and boys) don’t grow up to only see one ideal of a princess.
To the wedding industry – what can we start to do to address this? What can we do this year to be even better and more inclusive?
Lupita looks like princess to me. Doesn’t she?
Congratulations Lupita Nyong’o on your Oscar and for finding a way to celebrate and embrace your beauty as a black woman and to inspiring all those beautiful young girls who feel inferior.
Image sources: Style List and the Daily Mail