A few weeks ago, I was playing with my truly gorgeous, two year-old daughter. I noticed her draping a towel across her head, and then exclaiming, “Mommy, I want hair like Moana!” For many parents, this statement might just sound like the innocent musings of a toddler who wants to play dress up, and is obsessed with Moana. And as a woman of color, there’s a big piece of me that is excited about my daughter idolizing the Polynesian Princess, and thinking that her brown skin is beautiful.
But, if you are a Black woman, this might hit you differently. Immediately my Black girl senses were tingling because the desire to have straight hair is a triggering issue for Black women. But I convinced myself that she was so young, and it was probably just a kid’s desire to dress up like her favorite character.
But then, I probed further. I told her that Moana was beautiful and had beautiful hair, and so did she. My daughter, still under her towel shook her head “no”. I said, “you have beautiful hair!” And she looked back at me and said, “no, mommy, I want hair like Moana!” For five minutes, I continued to question her, just to make sure I’d understood her correctly, and she continued to express that her hair wasn’t beautiful.
I was stunned. My heart broke for my beautiful baby girl in that moment. I couldn’t convince her that she was beautiful and that her hair was also beautiful.
Now, it’s very empowering for my daughter to watch a Polynesian Princess–another brown skinned heroine that she can identify with. But, there is a unique struggle that comes with having African features in a Euro-centric society.
It’s the struggle to find beauty in wide noses, wide hips, and kinky hair. It’s the struggle to find beauty in your dark skin. It’s the struggle to feel validated in a society that has told you for centuries that you are ugly, that you are Mammy. That the lighter your skin is the more attractive you are. And that if you are attractive, it’s only enough to exist as the Jezebel or video vixen– someone to use for sexual gratification and amusement and then discard. To be dominated and broken like a wild animal.
And then I thought back to my own experiences.
The look on her face was so sad, so familiar. How many times had I had that exact same expression? How many times had I seen other young Black girls with that same expression? The sadness, the head down, the look as though you are somehow not good enough. How many times did I want my skin to lighten, to look “mixed”? How many times did I want my hair to straighten or at least be curly? And what lengths did I go to try to make that happen? I want so desperately for my daughters to not have to experience the hardship, depression, and considerations of suicide that I dealt with, as a result of feeling unworthy.
What was also surprising to me was that despite our best efforts to project Black self-love in our home, she still made that comment. Even with her growing up surrounded by Black people who love themselves, with amazing Black family (immediate and extended), and where the walls of her activist home are plastered with images of amazing Black heroes–my daughter, at the tender age of two was STILL beginning to show signs of self-hate.
How quickly and quietly she had made that transition, from dressing up like her favorite princess to feeling like she wasn’t good enough! And so often that’s what happens. The tiny voice of self-hate starts out at at a whisper until it grows into a mindset that takes years to unravel… and maybe never completely goes away.
And this is what secretly breaks so many Black women’s hearts. Many of us are in recovery from the trauma of going through an entire lifetime feeling unworthy. And on top of feeling tremendous pain, we are often stereotyped as “angry” and “bitter” and “hard to deal with”. There is nothing more excruciating than the pain of feeling unwanted, unloved, or abandoned. Many Black women, myself included, even have a hard time watching Black men date women of other races, because it feels like a personal rejection. It feels like someone you love turning their back on you; a deep and painful abandonment.
It’s taken me years to learn how to love myself, how to deal with my own pain and rejection issues, and there’s still moments when insecurity creeps in.
That’s is why it’s so important to see empowering images of people who look like you in our society (i.e. in your classrooms, in textbooks, in the media, etc.). And Black women are one of many marginalized groups that grow up not seeing themselves represented fully. When you walk through life not being taught about all of the powerful accomplishments of people who look like you, you feel invalidated. You feel like you don’t matter. And other people treat you with contempt, because they’ve internalized your lack of worth just as much as you have.
Our society’s status quo is THAT powerful, even in a day and age with so much diversity. And I have to be BEYOND intentional with my daughters. I’m determined. I know I can’t control all of her suffering in life, but I’m determined to lessen her struggles around this. To make her voice of self-doubt softer and quieter than mine was.
So, here’s the request I make to my loving community, when you play with my daughter tell her how beautiful she is. Tell her how loved she is. Tell her how smart she is. But take it to the next level. Give her compliments that are specific to Black girls. Tell her how beautiful her chocolate complexion is. Tell her how amazing her kinky, natural hair is! Because even at the age of two, she is learning the narrative in this country, and she’s forming her own opinions about herself.
Let’s all help our daughters (and our sons) developed the rights of self image!