Viola Davis on Evolving Beauty Standards: 'Who We Are Beyond Male Desirability' (Exclusive)
“Back in the day, we hid our pain behind perfectly applied lipstick and wax floors. Now we don't do that anymore,” the Academy Award-winning actress and L’Oréal Paris International spokesperson tells PEOPLE
Viola Davis is getting real about beauty standards — and why they need to continue to evolve.
The L'Oréal Paris International spokeswoman — who stopped traffic at the Wednesday premiere of Monster during the 76th annual Cannes Film Festival in a stunning white gown and oversized white feather coat — spoke with PEOPLE about beauty and mental health ahead of her red carpet appearance.
"I think beauty standards have changed," Davis told PEOPLE in an exclusive chat at Cannes. "I think that what's shifted is that whole idea of mental health being associated with beauty [and] of understanding who we are beyond male desirability."
"It's really a huge part of why I decided to become a part of L'Oreal," the actress, 57, continued, "that whole statement of 'I'm worth it.' "
Davis revealed how beauty standards once hurt her.
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"What destroyed me was people constantly telling me that I was not beautiful," she said. "[You might think] why would you be upset with that? Because beauty is attached with worth and value. And I refuse to believe that I'm not worth it just based on a sort of idea and perception of what people think classical beauty is," Davis stated emphatically.
She continued: "Now women are encouraged to speak their truth a little bit more. We see that with sexual assault, with mental illness, with being burnt-out mamas, with following our dreams and our hopes that we have for our lives."
"Back in the day, we hid our pain behind perfectly applied lipstick and wax floors. Now we don't do that anymore. We're saying this is who we are, beyond the makeup and the hair. I see that. I see that with my daughter's generation," she said.
The Oscar-winning star also shared some of the lessons she's passing on to her daughter Genesis, 12. It's not always an easy conversation, she acknowledged.
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"I told my daughter this morning that she has to have a love affair with herself. That she is indeed the love of her life. I said, 'I love you, but it's not me, it's not some boy. At the end of the day, you can't disappoint yourself. You have to advocate for yourself. You have to show up for her.' And it's not just spa treatments and a glass of wine," she laughed, referencing the self-care her daughter might turn to when she's older. " 'It's in showing up when someone hurts you. Creating boundaries and when someone crosses it. Show up for yourself.' No one ever taught me that. I felt loving myself was being conceited. No, that's right."
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She and her husband Julius Tennon — her costar in Air —are encouraging Genesis to "be honest about what she's feeling and knowing that she doesn't have to keep anything in. To start sort of that practice right now of sharing with people that you know have your back, like mommy and daddy. And if you don't share, if you don't tell us then we can't help you."
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And while there's no role she loves more than being Genesis's mom, she does hope roles for women over 50 — particularly Black women over 50 — continue to evolve.
"I play a lot of moms. Everyone wants me to play their mom. I have people who hug me in the street who call me Mom," she shared. She was proud to play Michael Jordan's mom Deloris in Air because "it wasn't your normal mom role ... She was the one who negotiated the [multi-million dollar Nike] deal, that we know what it is today. And that intrigued me."
"Here's the thing," she added. "When it comes to Black women who are over 50, then that is when [the lack of interesting roles is] problematic. That's when it is a vast desert."
She applauds L'Oreal Paris' Lights On Women Award, which empowers women in front of and behind the camera, and hopes the industry will continue to change.
"Women are no longer begging for a seat at the table, they're creating their own. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kerry Washington, Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Halle Berry, Keke Palmer, we can keep going on and on — even Marsai Martin, who is what, 18? — they're empowering themselves by understanding that they're the change that they want to see."
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