Growing up, I didn’t really think I was beautiful. I would scour issues of Sassy, Vogue, Elle and Teen Magazine looking for faces that looked like mine. I found a few spreads featuring Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb, and that helped; but somehow, that wasn’t enough. They resembled me at first glance. But as soon as we smiled, the difference was clear. They posed with open smiles revealing pearly white, gapless teeth. I, on the other hand, kept my mouth closed to hide the space between mine.

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I hated my gap. For years, all I wanted was a set of braces to make my “problem” disappear. But I never got them. The consolation: spending countless nights standing at my bathroom sink, trying to squeeze my two front teeth closer together until either my teeth or my hands started to hurt. Of course, nothing ever happened, and I felt I was left with no other choice than to keep hiding.

Back then, people who saw me genuinely happy and got a glimpse of my gapped-tooth smile would tell me it was pretty. But I didn’t believe them. It was nothing for me to reject compliments about the way I looked because I thought having a smaller body frame, smaller nose, straighter hair or gapless teeth was somehow better. But in my more recent years, I’ve learned to embrace my body and its features, and come to the realization that there is more to beauty than what’s on the outside.

In fact, we all have to make that realization at one point or another.

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Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o brought it home when she was honored with the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at ESSENCE Magazine’s 7th Annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon for her work in the film 12 Years a Slave. She took the time to speak to the audience about her journey to self-acceptance as a darker skinned woman.
In her powerful speech, she said seeing women of color on screen inspired her, and made her, “feel a little more seen and heard and understood.” She also said she found hope in the actresses in The Color Purple, as well as model Alek Wek. However, that high was only temporary because she realized the holders of beauty that she thought mattered still had a preference for lighter skin. At that moment, she had to confront her own self-hate and understand a big lesson her mother always tried to teach her. Nyong’o said:

“And my mother again would say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.’ And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.
And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got [my character] Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.”

I think that is so true.

We can be beautiful no matter what size we are, or how our features look.

It is always great when we can see our reflections in others and learn to appreciate our own appearance, but we should not let that consume us and determine our self-worth. You hear that beauty is only skin deep, but true beauty goes even deeper. It reaches your spirit and your soul. I know so many people who radiate beauty because they have a light inside that shines. In the same way, I’ve seen how a lack of beauty there can make a person with the most “attractive” appearance seem ugly.

So I’ll leave you with the parting message Nyong’o had for young girls (although I think everyone could benefit from these words):

“feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”

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