Teaching Black Girls to Be Beautiful

One of the songs I love so much by the late Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud!”  That song needs a major resurgence today, especially for young Black girls who are besieged with negative messages about all aspects of their Blackness.

The year 2013 began and will end with the same prejudices that James Brown addressed in 1968. For Black women, that means still being viewed as the antithesis of beauty based on the European standard that excludes Black hair and dark skin. The media has played a major role in bombarding young Black girls with negative images of Blackness while reinforcing the notion that White---and, by association, light--- is truly right.

Stereotypical portrayals of Black women as overly sexualized or subservient, destitute women are pervasive on television, movie screens, and music videos, as well as most "general market" magazine covers, where primarily light-skinned Black women are featured. The schools are no safe havens from this assault on Blackness.  Recent racist hairstyle bans in schools (see here and here) force Black girls to conform to an ideal of beauty that is based on the White features they see in the media.  Straighten your natural hair, extend the length of it with costly weaves and, if possible, lighten your skin to become beautiful like the women in the magazines.  The message comes across loud and clear to Black girls that if you don’t have White features, you’re ugly and therefore face social rejection.

I know what it's like to be told you're ugly because of your hair and dark skin and it does a number on your self worth.  As a 9-year-old girl, I was on the receiving end of hateful words about my skin color and kinky hair by my own grandmother, who we called Ma-Ma. Ma-Ma was very unhappy when her beautiful fair skinned daughter with long, “good hair” married a dark skinned man with kinky hair.  My mother’s break from the coveted and prized light skin legacy yielded brown skinned offspring with “bad hair" and Ma-Ma often spoke demeaning and cutting words that had a profound impact on my self-image from childhood through adulthood.   She would bark out, "Bring me a glass of water with your ugly lil self."  I remember as a child wrapping a long scarf around my head and pretending it was long hair, tossing it back and forth. As a young adult, I tried to lighten my skin with harsh bleaching creams to achieve Ma-Ma’s definition of beauty. 

Some people will say that Black women should focus on more important issues than their skin color and hair but how can we when schools and media focus on it and discriminate against us on that basis? 

Thank God I reached the point in my life where I learned to love myself unconditionally and became proud of my cocoa colored skin and beautiful natural hair.  I will never forget Sister Givens who was a member of my church.  She was not a nun but a faithful Black Southern Baptist.  Sister Givens didn't have a degree or a professional career and, as I recall, cleaned the houses of wealthy White women.  She picked us up every Sunday afternoon in her old car and took us to youth fellowship.  She talked to us all of the way there and back, encouraging us to do well in school and expressed how proud she was of us, especially when we got good grades.  She was a great mentor and made a powerful impact on my life and helped restore my self-confidence.

The positive impact that mentors like Sister Givens had on my self-esteem is the reason I’m committed to mentoring Black girls today. A young Black girl I recently mentored had very low self-esteem and self-loathing.  She, too, received negative messages at home and school, often being teased about her very dark skin.  I shared my story with her and we met often to talk about her dreams and how the world was blessed to have her in it.  It took some time but she gradually made a positive turn and began to feel good about her beautiful features.  Mentoring was a life-changing process for her and it certainly was for me.

As we look to 2014, we need women of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds to reach out and connect with Black girls to counterbalance the devastating effects of negative messages that bombard them in the home, in school and through the media. We need women to serve as positive role models and help girls gain self-pride and self-confidence.  Spending just an hour of your time each week mentoring a girl can make a difference in her life, and in yours. If you don’t know how to identify or connect with a child, there