The Oscar winner — and Glamour magazine's December cover girl — has had a whirlwind year punctuated with additional laurels from the beauty sector: The newly minted style icon was dubbed People's most beautiful woman of 2014 in April, then appointed as Lancome's brand "ambassadress" that same month.
Though the 31-year-old warns against the "unsustainable" nature of taking on the "role of a deity," she's happy to help change the narrative that previously proscribed dark skin as "unacceptable."
"European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world — the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception," Nyong'o told the mag, which is honoring her at Glamour's 24th Women of the Year Awards on Nov. 10.
"When I was in the second grade" — in Kenya, where she spent the bulk of her early years — "one of my teachers said, 'Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?' I was mortified. I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn't get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job!" she said. "This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn't hearing this from my immediate family — my mother never said anything to that effect — but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents."
The Mexico-born actress told the mag that she got over believing that light skin was more desirable with the help of her "loving, supportive family."
"My mother taught me that there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features. She was focused on compassion and respect, and those are the things that ended up translating to me as beauty. Beautiful people have many advantages, but so do friendly people.... I think beauty is an expression of love," she explained. "To rely on the way you look is empty. You're a pretty face — and then what? Your value is in yourself; the other stuff will come and go. We don't get to pick the genes we want. There's room in this world for beauty to be diverse."
As for what's been dubbed "the Lupita effect," the Yale grad and fashionista said it makes her giggle.
"I just heard it for the first time. I've heard people talk about images in popular culture changing, and that makes me feel great, because it means that the little girl I was, once upon a time, has an image to instill in her that she is beautiful, that she is worthy — that she can.... Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn't so sure it was a possibility.
"Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in 'The Color Purple,' it dawned on me: 'Oh — I could be an actress!' We plant the seed of possibility."
Nyong'o December issue hits newsstands Nov. 11.