“She said WHAT!?” I said too loudly in front of strangers at a park. I should expect this by now but hearing my 10-year-old daughter share her fifth-grade school retreat experience pushed a button.
“So, there was this thing about my hair,” she explained. “Some girls in my cabin asked, ‘Why do you have to sleep with that (satin bonnet) on your head? You don’t need all of that to sleep.’”
Looking at the ground my daughter mumbled, “Then one girl said, ‘You should straighten your hair. More boys would like you if you had straight hair.’”
I could feel the righteous indignation rising within me. I took a breath.
“All lies, sweet girl. Your hair is beautiful the way it is,” I said.
“I know. I like my hair,” she said. “Besides boys already like me.”
A touch of anger subsided. My daughter still appreciated her hair. But she wasn’t finished.
“Mama, then she said (insert another Black classmate’s name) looked better when she straightened her hair.”
Not only had this girl denigrated my daughter’s hair but another Black classmate’s hair as well. I asked her who said this. She dropped the name, and while I was not surprised, my heart sank.
I knew the child and her parents. Our children attend a diverse school. While not of African descent, the family was multiethnic. Already the fifth-grade child had decided that a specific attribute was considered more attractive and could potentially garner more attention from boys.
The offense was familiar. Its sting was a long-used weapon from the arsenal of anti-Blackness and otherism. The culprit was European beauty standards (EBS for short). These standards equate beauty with whatever the dominant white or Eurocentric ideal of beauty is at a given time. In my lifetime it has been long straight hair, pale or slightly tanned but not too-tanned skin, and skinny bodies. Or, recently bodies with curated behinds. Oddly, those standards don’t reflect countless white women either. Yet, it’s what we mostly see in advertisements, on runways, and on screens.
Coming from a multiethnic family didn’t make the child immune to unleashing an EBS on my daughter. We are inundated with images that influence our outlook on beauty. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that my daughter was backhanded by an EBS. When she was rocking a lovely afro in first grade, a white boy announced that her hair looked like a puppy dog. They had been playing together at our local gym.
“Not true,” I told her. “Your hair is gorgeous, made to protect your scalp from the sun, keep you warm, and stand out beautifully like a crown. What does the boy look like?”
“He is beige with brown hair,” she said.
“Is his brown hair straight or curly?” I asked.
“Straight,” she said.
“Does he have brothers or sisters? What does their hair look like?” I asked.
“He has a sister with straight hair” she said.
I told her that she had likely encountered someone with limited understanding of various human hair textures. And that the boy made a mistake. He should have NEVER compared her hair to puppy fur. He was speaking out of ignorance. Straight hair is not the default, with other hair textures being animal-like. He may have lacked exposure to people with different hair types. However, that was not my daughter’s problem, it was his and his parents. We talked about how Black people have been and still are compared to monkeys and other animals, and the importance of the Black is Beautiful and Natural Hair movements. It was a reminder to be responsible with our words toward others. The little boy made a mean, ignorant comment.
One might say that it is just kids being kids, but I disagree. The aftermath of this boy’s comment was swift and severe. The abrasive effects of that EBS were evident. For two years, my daughter didn’t want to wear her hair in its natural state. She requested styles that pulled her hair back. She asked me if she could have “down hair.” According to her, we wore our hair “out.” People with straight hair wore their hair “down.” She didn’t want to wear styles that showcased her voluminous natural texture. She was determined to never be told that she had “puppy hair” again.
My mission was to help my child heal and prepare her for future EBS attacks. As a Black woman in the United States, I knew it would happen again. So, as I had for years, I modeled natural hair appreciation with my own hair. We had brown-skinned dolls, but their hair was wavy. We got new dolls with tightly coiled hair. We bought more books about hair. We listened to India Ari’s “I Am Not My Hair” and Sesame Street’s “I Love My Hair” song. I doted on her hair during detangling sessions and styling. Helping her learn how to care for her own hair and watching natural hair tutorials on YouTube was routine. Her daddy offered his encouragement too. We watched the small numbers of age appropriate TV shows, and movies that featured Black girls and women sporting their kinks and curls.
Imagine my joy when in third grade my daughter asked to wear her hair “out.” She loved her hair again. The wound from the puppy comment healed with an emotional scar as a reminder.
Two years later, in fifth grade, here we were again, tending to an irritated emotional scar and a new EBS wound. This time, my daughter had the fortitude to respond to the classmate. She told her classmate that she was not going to straighten her hair, and she didn’t even want to. She was able to articulate her desire to wear her hair the way it grows out of her head. But should she ever have to explain that? No.
Eurocentric beauty standards are what they feel like when they slap your psyche: weapons. These standards battle against our souls; the casualties being loss of identity, confidence, and self-esteem. Sadly, no different from me, my daughter has been pummeled by these standards. Hopefully this won’t be her forever. Through love and education, I am teaching her how to dodge the blows and confidently fight to win the war.
Add these books by Black authors and illustrators to your kids’ shelves.