Lupita Nyong’o made history last week when Lancôme named her its next beauty ambassador and first black spokesperson, but not everyone sees the deal as an honor.
The most outspoken critic of Nyong’o’s campaign is Nigerian-Cameroonian pop star Dencia, who is the spokesperson for skin-whitening cream Whitenicious.
Dencia took to her Twitter account to question Nyong’o's partnership with a brand that sells whitening creams and thus doesn't really reflect the inclusive view of beauty Nyong'o has called for so publicly and so eloquently.
As Jezebel points out, this isn't the first time Dencia has gone after Nyong'o on Twitter. When Lupita gave her often-quoted and much-shared speech on beauty inclusion at the 2014 Essence Black Women In Hollywood ceremony, Dencia also had some choice words for the actress:
We have to admit, Dencia has a point about Lancome specifically. The campaign raises an important question: Is it a victory for a black women to win a beauty campaign with a company that sells products promising to help black women reduce their blackness? But Dencia's answer — that it's not a victory — is incredibly short-sighted.
Sure, this is possibly opportunistic on Lancome's part. Lupita is the actress of the moment. Everyone loves her. What better, less brand-threatening way to look like you embrace diversity than to hire as your spokeswoman a black woman who everyone has already decided is a nice, uncontroversial addition to the mostly white beauty ideal? And there's definitely some hypocrisy in selling skin-whitening products to black women while touting Nyong'o's complexion as beautiful.
But companies, especially beauty companies, don't stop selling products for which there is a demand. If they did, they wouldn't make any money. Beauty brands are also not in the business of informing prospective customers that they look perfect without any intervention, and Nyongo's campaign won't be any different. Lancome is paying her to sell makeup — to sell beauty enhancement.
Nyong'o's Lancome campaign matters because it sets her airbrushed face among the airbrushed faces of Julia Roberts and Penelope Cruz, faces that reinforce our current beauty ideal. If Lupita is a now member of that club, then her version of beautiful becomes one of the tear sheets on the beauty vlogger's vanity mirror, or the image girls bring to the department store counter when picking prom makeup. Her beauty becomes part of the ideal — still a perfectly made-up, mostly unrealistic ideal — but a less white one. When one brand takes this (long, long overdue) step, it encourages others to follow. And if that happens enough times, maybe one day there will be less demand for the skin-whitening products Lancome also sells and the ones Dencia pedals. Maybe women who once felt the need to buy those creams spend it on the bright, fun eye shadow Nyong'o wears so well. Because if faces like Lupita Nyong'o's become as much the ideal as Kate Hudson's, why would you spend your beauty-enhancement money on a whitening cream?