Little Black Girls & Praising Pretty


Thank you to my girl KJ for the photo! 

At a recent event, I was mesmerized by the sight of this little Black girl, no older than 5. Her thick hair was styled into a bundle of long, ropy twists, and I thought of my Little Magician. She was born with a head full of kinks and curls, so each time I see a beautiful hairstyle, I lock it in my memory bank. I commented out loud that I could see my daughter rocking those twists, and a family member said "Oh, but that little girl's hair is nice! ______'s is tough!" In that moment, "tough" meant bad and incapable of the beauty the other little girl possessed. My heart dropped and I thought, 'I have so much work to do.'

A post on Today's Parent listed eight things to say to help build the self-esteem of girls.  #7 read "Go beyond 'You look so pretty!'" and talked about not resting compliments solely on how a girl looks. "Beauty can be tricky—it feels natural to compliment a child, yet it can reinforce the message that looks are what matter most." My immediate reaction was bisected. On one hand, I totally agreed. When the first - or only - thing a girl hears being positively attributed to her is her looks, that creates a slippery slope that can be extremely difficult to climb.

On the other, as a Black woman raising a Black girl, I'm constantly reminded that our beauty often isn't revered at all. That reminder comes when magazines relegate Black beauty to special "diversity" issues or when family members comment on who has good hair and bad hair. That reminder comes every time I realize that I need to fill my daughter up with the beauty of her skin, her hair, her body - because at only 14 months of life, I've had to deflect and protect her from too many messages alluding to the contrary.

My daughter is - and will continue to grow to be - a multifaceted being. She's smart, hilarious, resourceful, and determined. She's also beautiful, and I have no qualms about letting her know that. I always preach hair love, but I've never fallen in love with a head of hair like I have hers.  Her brown skin is so smooth and luminous, and she loves to pretend to lotion it when she sees me doing so with mine. I go beyond praising pretty as Today's Parent recommended, but I'm very purposeful about making sure my daughter sees the beauty in hair that grows to the sun and skin brown as the earth.

We live in a homogeneously White neighbourhood, and within our own family we have some members who still ascribe to ideals of good hair/bad hair and joke about the woes of getting "too dark." These are my motivations for ensuring that my daughter feels valued and validated in her own skin, and mean that I not only have work to do with my daughter, but with our family and the society we live in. I seek out diverse representations of beauty and humanity for her, making sure that she sees girls, boys, doctors, and princesses that look like her. I never complain about her hair while washing or styling - all she hears from me is that it's beautiful and healthy, or that mommy needs to add some more conditioner to help detangle it. I'm working to fill her with love for the parts of her that are presented to the world and judged first - a portion of my efforts as a mother to raise her as a being who loves her skin, hair, and smile as much as her laugh, math skills, and dancing ability (or whatever amazing attributes she develops as she grows).

As with anything else, discussions around compliments and focusing on the internal vs. external are all about balance. Because I find the discussion around the beauty of brown-skinned, natural-haired Black girls to be lacking, I'm doing my part to balance it for my daughter and the other girls I encounter. It's of great importance to affirm both their internal and external attributes - shaping them positively before any other force has their way with our beautiful girls.