Hope doesn’t like her hair; she says it’s too short and too nappy.
She doesn’t like her nose; she says it’s too broad.
She doesn’t like to smile with her teeth showing; she says it makes her lips look too big and her teeth are crooked.
Hope says her cocoa brown skin is too dark; she wishes she were lighter.
Hope is enamored by lighter skinned women of color who have looser, wavy curls. She says they are pretty. She is not light, and her hair has tight curls, so she’s not pretty.
She says she’s ugly several times a day.
Sure, some of the critical, self-doubt is normal for kids her age, but I fret that she hasn’t heard how beautiful she is much during her short time in this life. Her smooth skin is such a lovely brown shade. She has beautiful features that would look so lovely with long or short hair. She could rock a teeny, weeny afro and look divine. Her large almond shaped, brown eyes are so gorgeous. Her full lips give her such a beautiful countenance.
She doesn’t need to be light, and she shouldn’t want to be either.
One of my goals during this visit is to make sure she sees the variety of women of color in the DC area. I point out beautiful afros and dark skin and say, “Wow look at how pretty she is; she reminds me of you.” I encourage her to moisturize her lovely skin (she seriously will allow herself to develop scales) so that it glistens and shines like a cocoa bean.
There’s something particularly painful to me to hear her say she doesn’t like the features that are most associated with people of color. Such features often are a part of our core racial identity. I had parents who told me all the time how pretty I was. My dad still does. He liked my hair relaxed, and he likes it natural. Honestly I don’t know if he really likes either of them, but he has always, always told me that I was pretty. He has always said my brown skin was beautiful. I might’ve had lots of problems with self-esteem over the years, but loving my brown skin, African American features, and various hair stages has never been a part of my low self-esteem story.
When I got to college I met girls who really struggled with developing into young women of color. They did all kinds of things to appear lighter (whiter) in every way—skin, hair, some plastic surgery. It was so….extra. The self-hate was so real, and it was deeper than just this awkward discomfort of adolescence. Hating the skin you’re in is bad, so bad. It’s bad on a good day. I don’t want to imagine what it’s like to be an awkward tween, who’s been bustled around foster homes, who’s experienced all kinds of crazy ish, and to hate your brown skin and kinky hair on top of everything else. It makes me sad.
So, I will continue wearing my hair natural; I may even cut it low for her. I will try to take care of my skin. I will point out other naturalistas. I will show her all the colors, all the textures, all the diversity that the African diaspora has to offer. I will tell her she’s beautiful. I will get her cute brown girl T-shirts. I will take her to events that affirm her existence as she is. I will hold her hand as I lead Hope to a healing place on this issue and many others. I will promote whole self-love as much as I can. For me, this is a real part of the ABM journey.
December 2nd, 2013 at 12:36 pm
All true but be careful not to make too much out of it. As someone who has worked with teens, I have seen the change once all the puberty stuff is over. I think 12 is the worst age for all girls.
December 2nd, 2013 at 2:29 pm
Thanks for the read Audrey.
There are lots of schools of thought on how to deal with these issues. Had I raised Hope from birth or even a very young age, I would’ve had an opportunity to influence the racial identity component much earlier, leaving only the typical tween issues of self-criticism to deal with. If that was the case, I would be less heavy handed about the topic. The reality is that Hope hasn’t had a consistent group of people who have told her she’s beautiful, ever. In fact she’s had a history where things were just the opposite. She’s also been shuffled around, and if her behaviors weren’t considered manageable there was another move to another home. The rejection she’s experienced has deeply affected her view of herself physically and emotionally. Add to that the fact that there are very few people in her life who look like her (ie brown), she’s pretty open about how she’s interpreted light to mean better in many different ways. It’s complicated and sad. The self-rejection struggle is real.
My point is, that while there is clearly a component of this period of her life that is normal tween development, Hope’s identity development (and many behaviors that go along with it) has been compromised repeatedly throughout her 12 years. I’m not tripping on the “My nose is crooked” stuff; I’m tripping on the “I wish I were not so dark because it makes me ugly” stuff. I understand that not everyone will appreciate the subtle distinction ; that’s ok, no offense meant or taken. I do plan to follow my gut on this one and be a bit aggressive about affirming issues that I specifically wrote about in this post. And like any parent, I reserve the right to change course at any time depending on the situation! 🙂
December 2nd, 2013 at 4:52 pm
I highly recommend the classic self-help book Psyco-cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. It is a book that was very important to me. Self-image is the key to a better life. The self-image sets the boundaries of human accomplishment. It is the key to our personality, our behavior, and our character. When we enlarge the scope of our self-image through confidence building we enlarge the scope of what we can do in this world to reach self-fulfillment.
December 2nd, 2013 at 4:59 pm
Thanks for the read, Judith. I’ll be sure to check that book out!
December 2nd, 2013 at 5:46 pm
It’s amazing to me how many GROWN women have negative views of natural hair. It is not surprising to me that our youth would have some conflict with it. I feel empowered and rebellious with my natural hair and tapered cut. It makes a statement without me opening my mouth. “Shout it out”, Hope!! 😍
December 2nd, 2013 at 6:01 pm
I kind of have to fight to get mine to totally fro out but when it does, I love it. I also kind of miss my twa as well. I’ve had fun pointing out hair to show Hope and see her reaction. It does make a statement without saying a word!!