THE TALK BACK: Pretty Little Girls

This has been a pretty intense summer. Why? Because I’m focusing my energies on addressing how images are shaping my daughter’s life.

My daughter is sharp – she reads like a fifth grader even though she’s only six. She’s observant, curious, and a bit sneaky. Over the last year I’ve seen how her thoughts, her ideas about herself, her intentions towards others are being shaped by what she sees and hears. The best example yet has surfaced in our many discussions about how she wears her hair. And in these talks I find myself reliving a major battle of my own childhood – the quest for straight hair.

My mother can attest to the years of arguing and bouts of tears because I wanted to straighten my naturally kinky hair. I wanted to look like all the other girls whose mothers let them get perms to straighten out those kinks. Without straight hair I felt like an outcast. I blamed every social slight on my hair. If only I had a perm everything would be ok. My mom fought hard to preserve my natural hair because she viewed my insistence to straighten my hair as a rejection of my natural, African descended self and an embracing of European beauty ideals. Self-hate at its most basic. The lines were drawn and we battled for years. And in the end I got that perm. Victory! And a mere seven years later, I grew it out and went "natural." Fast forward to today and I'm in between. Sometimes I wear my hair kinky, sometimes I wear it straight.  I feel very comfortable about my own sense of beauty. 

So back to my daughter. I’ve been working with her on her sense of identity and her take on beauty. In a world of Disney princesses, glossy lipped dolls, and lingerie-clad superstars defining beauty for oneself can be a challenge.

My daughter’s solution was to create her own show. She calls it the “Kids Can’t Wear Show.” She thought it would be a good idea to tell other kids about how what they see is impacting what they want, and maybe she could tell parents too.

In this episode, a young girl is telling us that she wants to look a certain way BECAUSE she sees that in front of her everyday. Why shouldn’t she want straight hair? Whether it be a Disney show, a PBS cartoon, or a doll, straight hair is the norm. Why shouldn’t she want to put make up on? Even cartoon girls wear lipstick and mascara. If she’s to be expected to FEEL beautiful in her natural state it might take more than being TOLD to do so. What she sees in the mirror does not match what she sees in the world around her. If she knew she were blue and everyone else was green would she think being blue was all that great? What forms of beauty are we presenting (and embracing)? If there’s only one standard then what more can one expect from a really perceptive little girl. She wants to be what our culture says she should be.

So now it’s up to us: the families, the media creators, the mental health protectors, the educators, all the people who hold a vested interest in young girls and boys and the adults that they will become. Media is influencing who our children want to be, which is who they will ultimately become. If that doesn't sit well with us then it's time to act. Lend time, attention and resources to the messages that contribute to positive development - and take away those things from the images that detract. And never forget - media does matter, but so do we. My mother never tired of telling me that my natural self was beautiful. It took me a long time to learn the lesson that she taught me. But the point is that I finally did. 

1 comment:

  1. The challenges are present, and I agree with the concerns raised by Shani. I find that conversations, testimonies, and at-home media are the three best tools I have against my ten and four year old daughters "falling into the mainstream ideology and perception."

    I talk to my ten year old about what she likes. Always, when she idenfities something, whether it is an article of clothing, make-up, shoes, or a hair style, I follow-up her "Ooh, I like that!" statement with these questions: "Why? What do you like about it? What makes it a good choice for you?" Yes, she's only ten, but I want to train her to question her own statements. I need her earnestly to consider where she identifies herself. One of the best ways to avoid adding another "follower" to the overflowing pile is to teach our girls to question; it is the habit of a good leader. What does this do for me? If I accentuate my eyes, will someone be any more or less attentive to my thoughts? If I accentuate my physical shape, will someone be more or less attentive to my creativity? What thoughts do I want to give rise to within the individual who sees me on the street? All these questions make her consider more carefully the external items and images with which she is bombarded, and it helps to shape what she selects.

    Through testimonies of my own life as a ten year old, she is able to see that she is not grappling with these ideas and issues alone. She has an "amen corner," and it's her mommy. It comforts her. Lastly, I am the self-proclaimed "at-home media," and my children spend more time seeing me and how I conduct myself than any other female image. My words about my own image, the respect I demonstrate towards my own figure when I dress, and the joy I share when I produce a variety of styles for my own hair and hers will leave an indeliable print on her idea of beauty and self-esteem.

    As mothers, we have our work cut out for us. I'm rising to the task, and I see many others are, too.