‘Beautiful’? What about ‘Pretty’ or ‘Hot’? Why Do Brown-Complected Women Get Grandma Compliments?

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Sure, she’s been celebrated. But the language with which Lupita Nyong’o’s beauty is often described is a reminder that some of us haven’t strayed far from our hesitation to embrace brown girls.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on March 12, 2014.

Perhaps my brown-girl sensitivities are tainting my view, but I feel like there’s something going on with the words we use to describe Lupita Nyong’o.

Lupita is pretty, she’s cute and she’s a legitimate dime. And I use those adjectives intentionally, because it seems like these words are rarely used to describe her good looks in everyday discourse. Nor are they frequently used to compliment chocolate-complexioned black women in general. If you pay close attention to what people are saying—whether in TV shows or romantic comedies or even just hanging out with a few fellas on a Friday night—it seems that a large chunk of men, at least a lot of the guys I know, will lay eyes on a good-looking woman, turn to their boys and launch into a variation of “She looks good,” “She’s bad” or “She’s fine.”

For brown girls, though, it’s wholesome, grandma-esque adjectives like “beautiful,” “stunning” and “gorgeous.” They’re the kinds of words that some men, particularly young men, reserve for their mother, daughter, cousin, auntie or when a woman is all dressed up for a special occasion, like Sunday service, the prom or a wedding.

A friend on Twitter noticed this trend, too:

When you do a Twitter search for the terms “Lupita” and “beautiful,” the list of results you get back is a mile long. But the same search for “Lupita” and “pretty” turns up comments like “pretty dress,” “pretty brilliant” and various exchanges about whether she’s even pretty at all.

And even when writers are trying to celebrate her, they wind up doing their own version of this, too. A Time photographer called her “captivating,” the Daily Mail described her as a “breathtaking beauty,” a New Zealand paper said she has a “striking beauty” and the Huffington Post labeled her “stunning.”

Some men really do use words like “beautiful” and “gorgeous” to compliment women—but I get the sense that the uptight language often used to describe Nyong’o’s beauty is reserved for wholesome (read: boring) women whom men appreciate but don’t actually care to court, sleep with or flaunt to their boys as proof they’ve got game.

The datable girls who qualify to be the next “Mrs.” usually start off as “pretty,” “cute” or “sexy.” There’s even a school of thought that if a man calls a young woman “beautiful,” it’s because he doesn’t actually think she’s all that attractive. “Beautiful” is the politically correct term. It’s the go-to adjective to appear couth, when guys want to describe your personality and spirit in lieu of your looks.

Plus, I feel like I can tell when someone is trying to ingratiate themselves with me to atone for a prior offense—and that’s kind of how I feel when people call Lupita “beautiful” but not “hot.” There is a deep-seated preference for lighter skin and European features, and while counterintuitive, it almost seems as if this effusive praise for Nyong’o’s beauty actually demonstrates that.

On one hand, the collective gushing reads like an apology for the way beauty standards have historically subjugated brown-skinned women. And on the other hand, it’s as if people are going all out to boost Lupita’s self-esteem. The praise isn’t simply a spontaneous, organic reaction to this woman’s beauty; it’s a compliment, yes, but one that comes with a lot of baggage.

We’ll know we’ve arrived at a place of skin-tone aesthetic equality when men—and black men in particular—fashion magazines and America in general can admire Lupita’s beauty in the same imaginative, flamboyant—even salacious—way that people have expressed admiration for Beyoncé, Sofia Vergara or Angelina Jolie. There’s unabashed awe for these ladies’ looks, without further qualification. They’re simply referred to as “hot.” Full stop.

Brown-skinned black women want to be wanted in the same manner as caramel-complexioned black women—even if the praise is less polished—because that suggests there’s parity between different hues.

Don’t gaze at us and then put us up on a pedestal, never to be touched or spoken to or courted. We’re tactile beings just like other women, and we want the good—and sometimes the bad—reactions that come along with being sexy, pretty girls. We don’t need to be coddled or reassured.

Our beauty isn’t rare—it’s rather ubiquitous when you just open your eyes and rid yourself of narrow Western standards of beauty. And guess what? You can express your attraction by using the same colorful and colloquial vocabulary used to describe those bad “light-skin” chicks from around your way. 

Sure, Lupita’s gorgeous, even “resplendent.” But you know what else? She’s also fine as hell.

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