But mommy, white dolls are prettier
teaching your daughter to embrace her own beauty – the war on girls parenting
Ylonda Gault Caviness
As she stood in the toy store struggling to remain calm–to reveal no judgment in her tone–Kerri Mubaarak looked deeply into her daughter’s eyes. The child she had given the African name Aya Sikudhani repeated the words with her usual self-assuredness: “I want the White Barbie.”
“But, baby, look at this beautiful Black one. Her brown skin is so pretty,” Kerri countered. Her 5-year-old stood firm. “She’s nice, but I want the White Barbie.”
Like many of us, Kerri, 33, of Greensboro, North Carolina, is waging an almost daily fight against the Herculean forces that serve to beat down little Black girls’ sense of self-worth and racial pride. It’s a formidable battle. Pop icons from Barbie to Britney conspire to glorify quint-essential European ideals of beauty: blue eyes, flowing blond hair and hourglass frames. Even the most Afrocentric and vigilant self-affirming parents are no match for these pervasive, larger-than-life media images, which children start to become aware of at around age 3.
It’s not that our children necessarily covet such attributes, but their interest is certainly piqued. Consider television commercials. White dolls are promoted as star headliners to the Black understudy who’s relegated to a quick shot just before the announcer adds, “Batteries sold separately” and the screen begins to fade.
“When Black children look in the mirror, they see that there is a total mismatch between the image staring back at them and the one the media has embraced,” says Janie Victoria Ward, Ed.D., a professor at Simmons College and author of The Skin We’re In. “That can do serious damage to their self-esteem, raising issues like `Well, if none of these ideals look like me, what value do I have?’ “So acute are the needs of our children, says Ward, that mothers, fathers and all caregivers need to be alert nearly all the time.
Affirm Her Beauty and Strength
Rather than wait for self-doubt to rear its head, Juliana Stratton, 36, of Chicago, started confidence-building when her children were babies. The mother of three girls–Tyler, 11, Cassidy, 7, and Ryan, 5–performs a daily ritual to affirm each of their different hair textures. “Whenever I’m combing or washing my girls’ hair, I go out of my way to say `Your hair is so beautiful’ because it is. I can tell from their faces that they’re receiving that.”
Early and often, parents need to affirm their daughters’ beauty and self-worth, making conscious, positive statements. The more symbols of Black beauty and accomplishment your child sees, the less vulnerable she’ll be to society’s messages to the contrary. Books, toys and videos that feature Black and brown faces should be a prominent segment of a Black child’s playthings. Surely most Black parents realize this, but it’s critical that the use of these tools becomes rote.
As children grow older, parents have to remain consistent in giving those affirming messages. It does little good to talk about the beauty of African-American culture, then allow children to spend hours of unsupervised time watching music videos. Darlene Powell, Ph.D., a psychologist whose practice focuses on child and family issues, maintains that we parents have to be on our jobs 24-7. Rather than allow our children to fall prey to potentially damaging media messages, we have to be the filters through which they see the world, for as long as possible. Instead of letting them channel-surf around the dial, offer a selection of videos and pretaped programming that furthers the values you hold dear. Why not build your own collection of African-American family classics? It might include such timeless favorites as The Wiz, Sounder and Ruby Bridges. Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series will capture the imagination of preschoolers, while Coming to America is a favorite of many teens.
Counter Homegrown Rejection
It is foolhardy to think that the negative signals from which we have to safeguard our children come only from White-controlled media. The truth is, some of the most hurtful messages directed at Black children can come from within our own community: the dark-skinned child called Blackie by lighter-skinned classmates; the aunt who laments that her niece’s hair is so “coarse.”
Such scenarios are not uncommon. Powell suggests that this is where self-monitoring comes in. “When anyone says anything untoward to your child or in your child’s presence,” says Powell, “just tell them: `Please don’t make comments like that around my child. Those judgments could have a negative impact on her.'”
To be sure, conscientious parenting is the best defense against the onslaught of negative messages. But it is no panacea, especially during preadolescence–the ‘tween years of 8 to 12–when girls of all races begin to make social comparisons. While it’s common to hear them make such comments as “I’m not as pretty as so and so,” if your daughter seems to prefer White beauty standards, have a frank discussion with her. You might say, “It troubles me to see that you don’t find your Black features attractive. Let’s talk about that.” As a parent, there’s no need for you to feel shame or anger. Instead, encourage your daughter to talk openly about how she feels and why.
Help Her Connect With Black Peers
When your daughter is around 8, you’ll want to try strategies that build self-love, like surrounding her with positive Black images of beauty. But once she hits puberty, her circle of friends, not you, will play the greater role in shaping her opinions, says Powell. That’s why it’s important to make sure that your girl’s peer group includes African-American children–even if your neighborhood or the school she attends is predominantly White. Get her involved in structured activities with girls who look like her. You might try African dance lessons, a cultural-arts program, a church youth group or an African-American family organization, such as Jack and Jill of America, Inc.
Of course we want our girls to be able to appreciate other kinds of beauty as well.
“Our girls need to understand that beauty comes in a wide variety of shades, shapes and sizes,” says Ward of Simmons College. “We don’t want them to think that only African features are pretty either. It’s about learning acceptance of us all.”
That soon became clear to Kerri. After months of the begging, she relented and bought Aya a White Barbie for Christmas. Her daughter played the doll games that little girls play for all of about three weeks. Then she announced to Kerri: “I want all the other colors of Barbie now.”
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COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group
originally posted on July 11, 2006 – Tuesday 6:42 PM at cyndi’s myspace blog