We are standing between a witch and a White model when my daughter asked, “Why the witch scary, Mommy?” It is Halloween season. Witches, goblins and black cats will hang from the ceilings for a month or less, but beauty magazines are year-round. We are standing between pictures of a witch and a White model, and my daughter is afraid of the wrong one.
The easiest thing for me to do is to celebrate the witch as a bonafide symbol of feminine power. I’d tell her that her mother is a witch, and that I have some suspicions about other family members who will have to “out” themselves. She, too, will be a witch one day if that’s what she desires. But the truth is that every outcast isn’t a rebel. And witches, as represented in Halloween folklore, actually have more to do with elite men’s insecurities than women’s agency.
The answers to my daughter’s questions change depending on which elite men we are talking about. In the eighteenth century, Spanish aristocrats confused racial status with honor. Hence, the hunt was aimed at mixed-race women who “forced” men to sleep with them and, worse, topped them. The European witch hunts (and later, Salem) projected wealthy Protestant men’s fears of religious dissension onto the bodies of women. And now, fears about pandemics are projected onto the bodies of girls and women who had the misfortune of being born albino in these times.
And yet, none of these historical or contemporary witch hunts have much to do with the face my daughter deemed scary, the one that was juxtaposed to a smiling model whose hair was blowing in fake wind. This scary witch was green, with a long, hooked nose, a mole, wrinkles, crooked teeth, and black, scraggly hair that hung unkempt under the brim of her hat. Why she scary, Mommy?
She is supposed to scare my daughter. Assimilation requires that her values be enforced with fear of the alternatives. My daughter will help to boost our suffering economy if she fears aging, unstyled hair, an aquiline nose, a curved spine, or a body that otherwise challenges the norm. Knowing that these traits are undesirable wouldn’t be enough. She must believe that the undesirable is evil so that her spending is backed by religious fervor. Distracted, she’ll miss the truth that true evil has always been wrapped up in desires for those things that we value more than the humanity of others. Sometimes, evil wears the face of very rich men who have really made pacts with the devil… Our distractions absolve the ones who fly on jets instead of broomsticks.
My daughter once asked me if she could fly. Who am I to tell her she can or can’t, I thought? So I told her to try. She ran around the living room, flapping her wings. “Mommy, I’m flying! I’m flying!” She was joyful and certain that her definition of flight (shaped to fit her own abilities) was the one that mattered. Someday, someone will tell point out the absence of wings and sentence her to a life on land. Will it be the same with beauty? Will the day come when someone sees her as more witch than woman, shoving her to the perimeters of desire? Mia Mingus says that space may be rife with the possibility of magnificence. She suggests that we “[move] beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.”
I believe in the power and magic of that which we are taught to fear. I know that between and beyond the witch and the white model, there is room for all manner of brilliance. “Mommy, why she scary?” my daughter demands, one hand placed on a pretend hip.
“She’s not,” I say. “She can fly.”
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta.