Black Beauty, Jewish Hair, and why Beauty Icons Still Matter

Lupita Nyong'o for Lancome.

Courtesy of Lancome.

Lupita Nyong’o is an Academy Award winning actress. She has a Master’s Degree from Yale. She speaks four languages. She is the writer, director, and producer of a documentary about Kenya’s albino population. She is also a stunning beauty, and a fashion plate. It’s that last point, that shallow observation, which I’ll write about today.

In March, Lupita gave a speech at the Essence Magazine Awards about black beauty.  (Please watch it now!) In this speech, surely the best contribution to a feminist public forum this year, Lupita talks about the importance of ethnically diverse beauty icons. This is not an easy or obvious stand for her to take—it’s an argument that feminists return to again and again, and the side that usually wins claims that elevating any woman as a beauty icon is damaging, period. However, until billboards, advertisements, magazines, TV, movies, and the Internet cease to exist, I will argue that this hardline point of view serves no one. Lupita feels that we need to diversify standards of beauty now, and I agree.

Lupita had supermodel Alek Wek to look at, and it saved her from turning to skin bleaching and self-hatred. Wek was embraced by the fashion industry as beautiful at a time when dark-skinned black women with short hair were nowhere to be found in magazines. Young women need to be able to open a magazine and go to the movies and see some semblance of themselves there. Here is where girls and women, dark-skinned and not, have been able to see Lupita this year:

  • The Cover of People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Issue
  • Miu Miu’s Spring 2014 campaign with Elizabeth Olsen, Elle Fanning, and Bella Heathcote (three white women)
  • As the new face of Lancome
  • July Cover of Vogue

Last weekend, like so many women my age, I went to the movies to see Obvious Child. You’ll read a great deal on the Internet about the film’s treatment of abortion (exemplary) and Jenny Slate’s breakout performance (hilarious). But the most striking aspect of the film, to me, was how the two female leads were styled. Jenny Slate, as comedian Donna Stern, and Gabby Hoffmann, as her best friend Nellie, both sport dark, longish hair with various degrees of frizz and flyaways. Their hair is often piled on top of their heads in messy buns, and when Donna is trying to look nice, her hair is down and somewhere between wavy and curly.

Not only do Donna and Nellie wear their hair like real girls, they wear their hair like real girls who may be Jewish, or Italian, or just blessed with slightly unruly strands that cannot be dyed lighter or made straight without a significant amount of sturm and drang. The kind of hair that becomes slightly scary after an hour at the gym and eludes the perfect beach waves promised by a day in salt water. I laughed a lot watching Obvious Child, but I also smiled often at the sight of this hair—MY hair—on the big screen.

I struggled to find my hair and body in magazines growing up, and got a secret thrill every time someone with dark hair and fuller figure (hello, Kim Kardashian!) got significant media attention for their looks. Like Lupita says, looks should not be the most important thing in women’s lives—not even near the top of the list. But in a world that is constantly talking about and showcasing beauty, it is valuable and worthwhile to constantly redefine and expand what beauty means.

I can watch Obvious Child and see myself—and my friends—in Donna and Nellie, and that matters. (One friend, after seeing the film, could not stop laughing about the scene when Donna tells Nellie, “You look like a lesbian who just got back from Birthright.” “That’s me!” she said gleefully.) Truth be told, I’ve wore my standard ultra-high bun a little prouder this week. But there are girls who need to see their hair, and noses, and skin in the media much more than I do. This is why Lupita Nyongo’s Lancome contract—announced just as her Vogue cover hit the newsstands—is such a triumph, and will affect so many girls and women who feel sure that they have the wrong skin color and the wrong hair. She is now “the face” of a major international beauty brand. That face will be everywhere—on billboards, in commercials, online, and in print media.

It is important to see ourselves in glorified images of beauty, and it is equally important to see those who look very different from us: people of all colors and hair textures who reflect the diversity of those who are consuming mass media. New, truly diverse beauty icons are necessary in order to sweep away old, stringent standards of what is beautiful—and, as Lupita says, help us all “feel the validation of [our] external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”

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This was a really interesting analysis, and really interesting connection; I had never thought of it before. So many times, I've been able to make black/Jewish connections over hair problems. It's such a funny place to start, but it really does work a lot of the time.

In reply to by Ernie Davis

My point wasn't about whether or not Gaby Hoffmann is Jewish or not--her hair looks like my hair, which was nice to see on the big screen. I also wasn't in any way suggesting that there are a shortage of Jewish actors and actresses in film right now. But thanks for this list! I'm sure it will be handy at some point in the future.

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How to cite this page

Metal, Tara. "Black Beauty, Jewish Hair, and why Beauty Icons Still Matter." 9 July 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 21, 2024) <>.