Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Many Shades of Beautiful

It's a memory that has stayed with me: my Hawaiian friend Jeanne Nishida, whose parents' ancestries were Chinese and Japanese, was sitting up late with me in our college dorm talking about her self-image growing up. One of a small minority of Asian students at Northwestern at that time, Jeanne was used to feeling different, even when growing up in Hilo, Hawaii. There were no beauty role models who looked like her in mainstream American culture.  As a child, she used to amuse both family and tourists by saying that she wanted to be Betty Grable when she grew up.

We laughed when she told the story, but inside I felt a twinge of sadness that my dear friend had grown up wishing to be fair and blonde. "Either that or that I would wake up and be a lovely Chinese Hawaiian," she said recently. "But by the time I was eight, I realized that wasn't going to happen."

In college, where I met her, life wasn't always easy for Jeanne because she didn't fit the old stereotype that many had at that time of a tiny, sweet, shy, submissive Asian woman. She was -- and is -- smart and strong and not afraid to voice her opinions. She loves sports -- and ended up with a marriage made in heaven, to Jimmy Yagi, the (now retired) basketball coach of the University of Hawaii, Hilo Vulcans. She is a "what you see is what you get" sort of person, without pretense. She is loyal and funny and loving, the very best kind of friend to have.

I always thought she was beautiful, both inside and out. It took some time for Jeanne to realize her very special beauty.

I saw this scenario often when I was a psychotherapist for several psychiatric clinics dedicated to those with life-changing or life-threatening illnesses or injuries. I had patients of all colors and ethnicities  and was often surprised and saddened by the stories of discrimination, even within families, against those who were more dark-skinned than others. One client, Diana, was from Guyana and her lighter-skinned family was ashamed of her darker skin and hadn't included her in many family activities when she was growing up. The pain lingered in her heart, even as she won college scholarships, work accolades and traveled the world. She was one of the most fascinating, warm and beautiful women I have ever met, but what she wanted most in life was to be embraced and accepted and loved and to have a sense of fitting in. She longed to belong and struggled to see the beauty -- both inside and out -- that was so evident to those who knew and loved her.

And I've seen this in my own family when my sister-in-law Jinjuta remembers the pain of growing up feeling distinctly unbeautiful because of her darker skin, typical of her Northern Thailand origins. It's painful to think of this lovely, smart, and wonderfully kind woman having a moment's doubt about her singular beauty and intrinsic worth.

Jeanne sent me a video the other day of the lovely and talented Lupita Nyong'o,  giving a speech several days before her Academy Award triumph, and talking about growing up in Kenya as a dark-skinned woman. It took her some years to realize what real beauty is and to feel this within.

What an amazing story to hear from a young woman who has become not only a celebrated actress but also a beauty icon in the past few months. And how her message that real beauty is goodness and compassion and love resonates.

It's a message that so many young girls need to hear -- both girls of color and girls who are simply plagued by adolescent self-criticism or by the pain of not fitting neatly into society's standards of beautiful.

It's a message that we also need to hear and remember as we age and as traditional, youthful beauty fades into memory. We need to remember that there are many shades and many seasons of beauty and that the greatest measure of beauty is not light skin or youth or a lithe, slim body, but a loving heart and generous, compassionate spirit.


  1. This is so sad. Beauty is so commercialized. My dad had a Philippino caretaker who was beautiful but she carried an umbrella everywhere so her skin would not darken. She was in awe of my white skin. WHY? It's so inane. You are so right that we need to rethink this whole issue of color.

  2. As I age, I realize even more fully how beauty emanates from the heart, not from a body. Lupita's speech brought tears to my eyes. Bravo to the beauty in all of us!

  3. If there is any consolation, physical beauty has a half life and so far even the best surgeons can not prolong it. The case of Kim Novak at the Oscars a sad example. Internal beauty lasts into the nursing home.
    Your friend Jeanne proved by using what we are given can produce envious results.

  4. Spot on, Kathy! It was a wonderful speech -- and you are absolutely right; her words (and yours) resonate with us all, regardless of age.

  5. Beauty is SO much more than looks --but society wants to make the 'looks' the important part... Kinda sad, isn't it???? Beauty comes from within ---and can only escape if the person allows that beauty to get out!!!!! I spent so many years with a huge weight problem. I hated myself --and what beauty I had even as a heavy gal was buried deep within me. Now that I love ME for who I am (whether I'm heavy or not) --that inner beauty pops out all over the place... It's from inside our hearts!!!

  6. Wonderful post! And what a wise young woman. Many people don't seem to understand this fact even later in life.

  7. Self perception is fed in negative ways by so many factors in today's world. Maybe it has always been that way. I absolutely love the video that has been making the rounds on social media that shows the talk given by the beautiful, graceful, and wise Lupita. If I were teaching high school heath, I would build this video into the curriculum. I hope my granddaughters learn self acceptance while they are young. It took me many years to accept myself for whom I was.

  8. Dear Kathy, thank you so much for sharing the video of Lupita Nyong'o speaking and describing the pain of feeling un-beautiful and the joy that comes when one finds beauty in goodness and compassion. As she says at the end, "There is no shade in that beauty." Such a wise young woman. It took me years to come to that realization. Years! Peace.

  9. A lovely post, Kathy, and illustrated by a wonderful video. Such a wise and lovely young woman isn't going to allow Hollywood to change her principles. I hope that in future many people who don't fit our white western norms will know that they too are beautiful and that, more importantly, that it's the interior beauty which will last.

  10. As you know, black Americans can be very light skinned (the late Lena Horne) or have skin that is almost black. Most are some shade of brown, as I am. Being right in the middle of the shade chart, I've had black people to consider me light and others to consider me dark. It was probably a blessing as I was growing up - to be neutral. :) Fortunately, my family did not put so much emphasis on skin color. It is what you live in the home that often determines your self-worth; not that I didn't feel a tinge of insecurity if someone insisted on making an issue of my skin color when I was young.
    In the US, the color distinctions stem from slavery - dividing (by color) and conquering; creating am ongoing battle between blacks. What a shame. I hope people like Lupita will continue to voice their feelings, so that we can get beyond something that is so hard to fathom - differences in skin color.
    Also, as a black person in a majority white environment, I've learned and equated the skin color issue to the "blonde and blue eyed" issue. As a young child, I didn't see the hair color and eye color. Society has inflicted that standard of beauty on people, too, that you are more attractive if your hair is blonde and your eyes are blue. I wrote a post, "Do Blonds Have More Fun" years ago, and received comments that verified my thoughts on that, too - that white people would prefer (generally speaking) to be light, too - at least their hair and eyes. Again, why?