English learning video lesson:
Is "beauty only skin deep"?

Lupita Nyong'o (photo by Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com)

This English learning video provides a great opportunity to consider the English idiom, "beauty is only skin deep."

The saying “beauty is only skin deep” means that a person’s inner beauty—not their outward physical appearance—is what is most important.

Actress Lupita Nyong’o recently won an Oscar award for her performance in the film “12 Years a Slave” and everyone is raving about her beauty.

Unfortunately, Lupita did not feel very beautiful when she was growing up and the kids taunted and teased her about her dark skin.

Watch the video below to hear Lupita's story.


English learning video transcript:

I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you:

"Dear Lupita," it reads, "I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me."

My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.

I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned.

The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.

I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother's every word [sitting right there] and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter.

But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful.

Alek Wek (photo by Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com)

And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact.

I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t.

It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny.

Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful.

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 actually sustains us, 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 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.

And so, I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey.

That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. That … there is no shade in that beauty.



This was a very eloquent speech and there were many new expressions for ESL learners. Don't be frustrated if it was difficult to understand everything.

This English learning video lesson is a good opportunity to learn some new expressions so I have given definitions for new vocabulary and idioms below.


beauty is only skin deep: This idiom means that a person’s inner beauty—not their outward physical appearance—is what is most important. 

The idiom says that beauty is much deeper than the surface of the skin. Beauty is deep, it is not superficial (near the surface). 

So the word “deep” not only means something that is far down, but it can also mean that it has a more important meaning (it is something more important, more serious, more significant).

overnight: something that happens quickly or suddenly.

Dencia’s Whitenicious cream: a brand (kind) of skin cream that lightens the skin

bled: past tense of the verb “bleed.”

in and of itself: (idiom) considering this thing by itself; looking at just this particular thing.

  • example: The price of the toy the little girl stole from the store in and of itself was not much but it was her stealing that was important).

propel: to send something outward, upward or forward.

taunted: past tense of the verb “taunt” (to tease, make fun of).

night-shaded skin: dark colored skin (skin that is dark like the night).

refuse to look down: would not look down, she kept her head upward.

fair: light colored.

negotiate: to discuss something with someone to make an agreement.

unimpressed: to not feel respect about something; to not think favorably about something.

bargaining chips: something that is used to bargain or negotiate for something else.

self-hate: a strong dislike of oneself.

consolation: a source of comfort; something that makes someone feel better.

Alek Wek: a famous model from Africa.

embracing: to welcome, to accept something with open arms.

complexion: the way a person’s skin look, especially the color and appearance of the skin on the face.

perplexing: confusing, puzzling, not easy to understand

seduction of inadequacy: being attracted to the idea that you are not good enough. (She means that she was starting to “like” the idea that no one would like her because of her skin. It was becoming more comfortable and easier to think that people wouldn’t like her because of her dark skin).

inadvertently: by mistake, by chance, not done on purpose, by accident.

a spring in my step: having more energy than before, feeling more upbeat and happy about something, feeling more confident about something.

prevailed: (past tense of the verb “prevail”) to win over something else, to be greater in strength or force.

beholders that I thought mattered: the people whose opinions she thought were important.

plagued: to extremely bother; to really annoy or pester.

acquire or consume: to get something or use something.

sustain you: to keep you moving forward, to help you continue, to support you.

compassion: feeling sympathy and concern for someone else’s suffering.

enflame: (verb is also spelled “inflame”) to become excited, to cause something to catch on fire and go into flames, to become angry.

Patsey:  This is the name of the character that Lupita played in the movie 12 Year’s a Slave (for which she won an Oscar award for her performance).

the validation of your external beauty: (validation = to accept as fair or reasonable). She means to accept that your external beauty is right and okay because we are all made beautiful.

deeper business of being beautiful inside: the deeper business is the more important thing, the more significant thing is to be beautiful inside (how you treat yourself and others).

The Color Purple: A book by Alice Walker (it was made into a movie as well).

Final note: The expression “beauty is only skin deep” is not specifically about the color of a person’s skin. However, in today’s society, many people believe that lighter skin is more beautiful.

However, in this English learning video, Lupita is talking about the deeper shade (darker shade) of her skin.

YOUR turn: Share your thoughts!

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