I ran circles around the house, chasing two stubby tan legs with my own two longer brown ones, wielding a child-sized towel emblazoned with rubber ducks, and muttering curses to myself.
“Aria, you have to take a bath!” I chided my 4-year-old charge. The family I babysit for never specified that cardiovascular endurance would be required in the care and keeping of their 6- and 4-year-old children.
She kept running, her long dark curls getting more tangled in her wake, with no clear intention of stopping. She smiled wide, and shimmied right up the stairs to the bathroom, where she carefully and deliberately turned the faucet on, plugged the bathtub, tore off her sundress, and danced a little circle around herself while she waited for the tub to fill.
I stood a few feet away with my head against the wall, exhausted but entranced by her personal party. I wonder if in ten years time she will still dance by herself alone in her room. Will she still be as willing to celebrate her body in its naked state when it has changed and become foreign to her? Or will the media whittle away at her self-confidence as she grows into womanhood? Will she be able to withstand the barrage of products, advertisements and peer pressure daring her to be anything but a carbon copy?
I think back over my younger years and my adolescence, trying to pinpoint an exact moment at which I began to swallow the dangerous media cocktail of thinness, of paleness and of the supposed virtue of straight hair. I try, and struggle, to remember the last time that I was comfortably naked, comfortably in my body without fear of seeing my unclothed skin.
The problem here is the dangerous combination of racism and sexism that comes into play in the lives of girls and young women of color like Aria – before these girls can even cross the street or see a PG-13 movie by themselves, they are inundated with messages that take quick, deep shots at their self-worth. By the time a young girl of any race or creed is 9 or 10 years old, it’s given knowledge that they are the objects, not the subjects in our world. They are trained to primp for the male gaze, and for girls of color, they are held to more unachievable standards of beauty than their White friends. Not only must they be “pretty,” but they must be the “right kind of pretty”: a certain skin tone and hair texture, one that further marginalizes and divides the Black community.
One day, Aria’s curls and light skin will place her in a difficult position – still apart from her White friends because of her exoticism, but ahead of her Black friends because of her approximation to European beauty ideals.
In the wake of trends like the #teamlightskin hashtag on Twitter, and complexion competitions at urban nightclubs, The Root’s Marita Golden reminds us of what many of us have forgotten – that our obsession with and devotion to this skin color and hair texture hierarchy is a legacy of slavery. Will Aria one day bend to these trends, belittling her darker skinned sisters and brothers in order to fit into mainstream expectations for women of color? It is indeed these trends that encourage divisiveness among Black women, such that it becomes difficult to make progress towards any sort of Black unity.
Bill Duke’s documentary, Dark Girls, explores the painful reality of color politics in 2013 and informs us all that we do indeed have quite a long way to go. This divisiveness goes even farther, to marginalize the queer women of color – does our beauty matter if it does not serve the male gaze? Are we allowed visibility if it does not serve the narrow aims of institutionalized sexism? The hate crimes committed against LGBTQ women of color continue to rise, and we cannot stand for losing more sisters to homophobic and transphobic violence. How will we create unity among our people if there still exists a hierarchy of beauty and sexuality created to divide us?
All of these questions will find their answers through time, and through the work of we who understand the need for a revolution for and about Black women.
We start with the little ones, like Aria. She will one day inhabit the body of a young woman of color, and perhaps even a queer one, and how she responds to those who will challenge her is purely in our hands. What we teach and model today will impact how Aria and her friends of color feel about themselves and experience their bodies and their sexualities in the years to come.
If we teach pride, self-love, strength and respect, our future daughters will be able to withstand the forces that so desperately want them sick, sad, unhappy, and divided. As I gently detangled Aria’s wet curls, I reminded her how pretty her curly hair was, and that having curly hair is very special. I remembered with tenderness my own mother telling me the same thing as she detangled my own baby afro many years ago.
“I know, silly!” she responded. “Mommy says brown girls have curly hair because we’re special.” She smiled at herself in the mirror, modeling her Superwoman pajamas.
I think Aria will be just fine.
– Sydney Magruder
Sydney Magruder is an African-American/multiracial femme lesbian sociologist, ballerina, bibliophile, writer, and green-tea addict about to enter her last year of undergraduate studies at Skidmore College. She wants to write, teach, critique pop-culture, and use music, theater and dance as a means of educating the masses about race, sexuality, gender, and how young people can change the future. Until she figures out exactly how to incorporate all of those individual things into one giant thing, you can find her in ballet class, hunting down a new pasta dish to make, or hogging her family’s Netflix account with Doctor Who and Parks and Recreation.