A Daddy Deals with His Daughterâs Self-Esteem

The magnitude of my arrogance before I became a parent was staggering. (My wife is much more grounded and pragmatic than me.) We’d cuddle on our couch or lean into each other at our favorite café, and I’d hold court on just how I’d raise our soon-to-be-outside-of-the-belly daughter. I made declarations about how any praise I gave her would concern her actions over her looks. I figured (identifying as a feminist ally) I didn’t want to reinforce the gender trap of praising boys for their actions and praising girls for looking cute. But life never allows your best laid plans to unfold the way you want them to.

The first thing I said to my daughter was, “You’re so beautiful.” As she got older, it was obvious that she was physically gifted. Yes, all parents say their kids are gifted, but my daughter has the physical control of a trained athlete. She’s the fastest kid in her class, the most daring, and by leagues the most agile. What kid free-runs at three? Mine. This was, and continues to be, easy to praise. And when she started becoming more vocal, putting ideas together, and demonstrating her nascent critical mind… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to her, “You’re so smart.” Mind you, this is all in the bubble of our family and friends. The broader world imposes a different reality.

In the public sphere, my daughter and her friends are barely represented. Outside of Benetton ads in magazines from other countries, the girl of color is rarely seen in the US. So many of my friends expressed to me that this was not a big deal as my wife and I—along with our friends and family—could give her all the affirmation and validation she needed as a girl of color.

I call BS on this.

While you have a few women of color in the public eye—almost uniformly associated with some kind of media, and many of them not fully clothed—there are few girls of color that are seen or celebrated. This is why Gabby Douglas became such a big deal in our home; and still ’net morons spent more time talking about how bad her hair was instead of how she was dominating the Olympics in London.

Sasha and Malia Obama are bigger than Beyoncé in our house. It’s a damn shame that it took a presidential election for us to see two beautiful, regal, intelligent and (so far) scandal-free Black girls regularly on our TVs. When my daughter thinks about the face of the so-called most powerful nation of the world, a beautiful Black family will be the first image she conjures; two beautiful Black daughters loved fiercely by two beautiful Black parents.

How do we protect our girls of color, train them to be resilient enough to withstand the nearly constant assaults to their esteems?

And yet girls of color usually cannot catch a break, unless they deemphasize their blackness. (I see you Black or mixed female celebs who never star with Black men in your films.) 

The “aw, hell naw” point came when my daughter bypassed all of the Black dolls (including her favorite cartoon, Doc McStuffins) at the toy store and grabbed a blonde one. “Why did you choose this one?,” I asked. After being told that the doll was pretty, I asked her to describe the Black dolls and she broke my heart. “They look funny. They don’t look right.”

My anger must have been visible, because several people were about to come into the aisle, saw me, and thought better of it. I spent the next few minutes turning all the blonde dolls backwards.

What kind of armor are we to provide our daughters to protect them against this? How do we protect our girls of color, train them to be resilient enough to withstand the nearly constant assaults to their esteems? The insidious part is that these assaults aren’t always overt. Our young girls of color are being assaulted through omission and by being rendered invisible. There’s nothing more devastating than the attack you don’t know is coming.

Yeah, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I tell my daughter that she is beautiful every time I see her. Even when she wakes up and is all bad breath and cranky, I tell her, “Daddy sees you, and you are beautiful.” And even while I’m doing this 10, 20, 50 times per day, I know it is not enough. My goal is to instill in her enough confidence and self-love that the lack of public representation of Black girls will be rendered immaterial just by the virtue of her being.

Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.