Why We Need To Tell Our Black Girls They Are Beautiful

We need to challenge conventional ideas about beauty within society and black communities
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Social media is rife with memes that girls shouldn't be told they're beautiful. I read parenting magazines about the importance of encouraging our girls to focus on their intelligence and boldness. Although we all want to raise confident girls, and beauty should never be equated with a person's worth, many black girls still need to be told they are beautiful.

When I was about ten years old, a popular department store launched a call for models for its annual catalogue. My mother encouraged me to apply, and so I did. We did my hair, picked an outfit, and took headshots. But as we went to drop off my application, I changed my mind. I didn't want to go through with it. Deep down I felt like I wouldn't be selected. I never saw girls who looked like me in magazines or catalogues, so why should I be chosen?

As a child, whenever we celebrated special events, my hair was always straightened. I had to hide my curls in order to appear presentable.

Growing up, black girls were not models, or Hollywood actresses. Sure, there was Naomi Campbell and Veronica Webb, but I rarely saw myself in these magazines. I loved the "Cosby Show" and "A Different World" because the characters looked like me, they had skin tones and hair just like me. While I was taught to be proud to be black, the subtle messages to disguise my blackness always lingered.

Black girls have to struggle with the lack of representation in the media and pretty much everywhere, and with colourism within the black community. Like many black girls, I grew up in a family where the colour of our skin and the texture of our hair dictated our worth and sense of belonging. My grandfather was a dark-skinned man, who was ostracized from his wife's family because he was too black. I grew up hearing stories of the uncle who never brought his dark-skinned child out in public, where only the light-skinned child would be presented as a member of the family; where a bride refused to allow her favourite cousin to be in her wedding party on account of her dark skin.

As a child, whenever we celebrated special events, my hair was always straightened. I had to hide my curls in order to appear presentable. I was accustomed to the different gradations of being black, especially living on the border of South Africa, where race was such a defining aspect of one's life.

When I read the memes circulating on social media that we should stop telling our girls they are pretty, I think of all the little black girls who are never told they are beautiful; who rarely see themselves on TV or on magazine covers; whose skin tones determine what jobs they will one day get. While it's true that we should empower girls to feel confident, we need to be conscious of the messaging to black girls.

As a mother raising interracial children, I wasn't prepared for the how quickly my children would begin to question their identity. Although I bought them dolls who had curly hair like them, and read books with characters who looked like them, my children were questioning their place in this world at a very young age. My then four-year-old daughter once cried bitterly because she wanted me to chop off her thick, beautiful, dark curls. She begged me to straighten her hair like her blonde and blue-eyed cousin. My youngest, whose tight curls are often styled in an afro, would come home from school and complain that she was being ridiculed because of her strange hair.

I always believed in raising my daughters to focus on their character and abilities rather than their appearance. I teach them that girls can be stay-at-home mothers as much as they can be astronauts and firefighters, that girls can love trucks as much as they love dolls. I poured through parenting books, blogs, and academic journals about how to raise confident girls. The one constant message was that we shouldn't tell our daughters that they are pretty. But this messaging doesn't necessarily apply to black girls, or any racialized girl for that matter.

We need to tell our girls that they are beautiful. Society is sending them messages that their hair, their African names, don't belong. These messages aren't always blatant. They were subtle whispers that resonate deeply.

We think there is an under-representation of black girls? I have never been able to find an Asian doll for my daughter, and can only imagine how hard it is for parents of Asian girls and boys to have images that reinforce who they are. I imagined what it was like for a young child to see Sandra Oh become the first Asian actor to win two Golden Globes and the first Asian woman to host the Golden Globes ... in 2019! As racialized girls and women, we are still held to the idea and image that beauty represents something other than what we look like, and our little girls are internalizing these messages younger and younger.

In a recent interview on Oprah Winfrey's Super Soul Sunday, Gabrielle Union and her husband, Dwyane Wade, shared openly about surrogacy and raising their infant daughter. Union spoke of how her parents raised her to focus on her intelligence; and while they always encouraged her to believe in her potential, they didn't tell her she was beautiful. For Union, her parents "thought beauty is fleeting, so why would we ever focus on that?!" She is committed to raising her daughter to believe she is beautiful.

I tell my girls every day how beautiful they are, from their curly hair to their African names. We need to challenge conventional ideas about beauty, not just within the dominant society but also within the black community. Until then, we need to keep reminding our black girls that they are intelligent, they are worthy, and that they are beautiful!

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