Monday, February 5, 2007

Raising Self-Confidence in Girls

My mother is a forward queen. She sends many articles and inspirational notes to my attention, but few have been as interesting as an article about a 17 year old aspiring film student, Kiri Davis. She made a short documentary about the impact of color and the ongoing debate about beauty standards featuring several young African-American women. The highlight of the film is a recreation of the experiment that was used in the historic Brown vs. the board of education case regarding education and segregation.

In her film, "A Girl Like Me ," Davis attempts, and succeeds, to complete an updated version of the experiment from the 1940s in which black children were given a black doll and a white doll, and then asked which one they thought was better, nice or "good." The sad case in this our current society is that they consistently chose the white doll.

I remember growing up in a predominately white school and aspiring to be Wonder Woman. That dream was never shattered, because I shared that aspiration with the only other African-American girl in my class. She was my savior in that regard. We were close for many reasons, the most essential - our common life experience. Together, though, we extended our hair, used aluminum foil for jewelry and embraced images of beauty that were not our own. Those thoughts could disappear - but I too see that not much has changed. Now we both have daughters of our own.

As the mother of a little girl I am both encouraged and discouraged with Kiri's work. I'm encouraged because she herself - a bright, creative, articulate and beautiful black young woman demonstrates the potential of young women in our society. I'm equally saddened by the number of little girls who without thought or hesitation selected the white doll. There is clearly more work to be done.

The reflections of the young women in the film speak to the Hollywood standard of beauty and their place in this society. They talk about their families, their hair, our ancestry and it is a painful reminder of all our children are forced to endure. My own daughter, with ample dolls of every hue, has been at odds over our relocation. "The girls ask me why my hair isn't out" she said to me just this past weekend. The words stung, as she is the only Black girl in her class and the twists, bows, braids and crossed tribute to Princess Leah are not enough to remove her from the white standard of beauty. Her hair is not out, in free form, flowing like her classmates.

As we continue our job as her parents to secure, build and reinforce her self-esteem - we know that our work is cut out for us. We have been playing Brandy's version of Cinderella for the last 4 days - because I was tired of the Disney array of princess consumption, for my daughter and my sons. We love American Girl products - from the Addy series to the modern girls of today, but Addy was a slave and we haven't seen a doll of the year yet that reflects a Black girl in our modern society. Doll choices and selections have changed, true, but it isn't all for the better.

The Bratz collection is still beyond me - dolls that reflect the worst parts of our society - belly out, skirts that show more than a little leg, hip hop gear and ice marketed to an audience of pre-school and elementary age girls. Our role as mothers, mentors and role models has to be to raise and elevate the expectations for girls in our society. There is no shortage of toy options - but we as parents have to fully invest in developing secure, well-adjusted and beautiful girls - from the inside out. Kiri Davis is proof that it is indeed possible. I'm proud of the potential the future holds.

When we look in the mirror we are faced with the collection of images that have shaped our thoughts, no matter what is looking back at us. Kiri Davis reminded me as a mother about the necessity to overcompensate for what the media, classroom, dolls, peers, etc. have to offer. Motherhood offers so much in the opportunity to raise the next generation. As evidenced by her video - our job should not only be to build up our own children, but the children of our greater community as well.

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