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Tuesday
Feb032009

On Little Black Girls, Beauty and Barbie Dolls

Ryan Booth, "Harlem's Flyest Toddler," submitted by someone who loves her dearly.In my effort to show the world how beautiful black and brown children are (and that Sasha and Malia aren't the unicorns of black children that Madison Avenue is making them out to be), I've received more than 40 emails from happy friends, relatives and parents all wanting to be part of The Black Snob's efforts to show the true beauty of our daughters.

Because that's what this is really about for me.

For some background on why this issue really stuck in my craw and the statement that sent me over the edge, click here. But I want to give you some background as to why I feel so strongly and as to what I plan to do with your beautiful girls.

Along time ago at a kitchen table in an all-black, middle/working class neighborhood in St. Louis, Mo.'s North County a young Danielle Belton, age five, loved to draw and color more than anything in the world. My older sister, aka "Big Sis, bka Denise, didn't like to color, so I inherited all the coloring books she never used.

I could draw for hours and color for hours, but all I drew and colored were white people.

I would take out my Barbie coloring book and select the yellow crayon for her hair, the blue crayon for her eyes and the pink "flesh" colored crayon for her skin. I would make her "beautiful" in what my little noggin thought was beauty.

What's funny is my parents, like many black parents, were trying their hardest to make sure myself and my sister had positive images of other black women and ourselves. My mother constantly fought with the toy store owners about getting in more black dolls because she wanted to buy me Barbies, but worried about how having a gaggle of blonde Malibu and ballerina Barbies could effect my young mind. She immersed us in our culture. She told us we were beautiful all the time.

Yet I still drew and colored nothing but white people.

Then one day, at that kitchen table, my father approached me. Rather than go into a lengthy speech or be embarrassed or shame me, he approached me as you would approach a five year old.

He asked if he could color with me.

I, of course, was pleased that he wanted to join in. My father worked in management for McDonnell Douglass at the time. He was almost always busy at work or winding down from stress. Plus, he was the sole wage earner in the household, hence we didn't get to spend as much time together. I loved playing with my father. I never turned the man down if he was in the mood.

So he took one Barbie page and I took mine. I, quite proudly, made my Barbie look just like the one on the cover, blonde and blue-eyed. Then I looked over at daddy who was coloring his own Barbie but he had done something entirely unexpected to me. He'd taken the brown crayon and made her skin brown. He'd taken the black crayon and gave her beautiful dark hair. He showed his finished picture to me and said sweetly, "Don't you think she's pretty too?"

This was my first "mind-blown" experience. At five it had never occurred to me that I could make Barbie or any drawing anything I wanted it to be. I was following "the rules." Barbies were white. Beautiful people were white. I had never occurred to me that I could "break the rules." I looked at my dad's coloring and thought that was the most beautiful Barbie in the world.

I never colored a white Barbie again. I wanted them to be all as beautiful as the one my father had made.

He didn't have to lecture. He didn't have to get mad. He understood that I just needed my eyes to open to the possibility.

Years later I would do the same thing for my baby sister Deidre, seeing her do the same thing I did as a little kid, coloring all the people white. I showed her my black drawings and she too agreed, the black Barbies were beautiful too.

Whether we realize it or not, no matter how hard we try, the world is sending a message to our children: You are not good enough. You are not pretty enough. You are not wanted.

This is told to Asian girls about their eyes. To Latinas about their brown skin and dark hair. Told to anyone with a permanent tan and a flat nose.

And it's told to us.

We see it and hear it all the time. I went to a great elementary school with great teachers, yet I had a principal who seemed to relish in telling us how awful we were. I had a third grade teacher once tell our class we should be proud we were brought here as slaves from Africa because people in Africa were starving and poor. (My mother had a few words with that teacher and she later apologized to the class.) My mother did find us black dolls that we loved. My mother continued to tell us we were beautiful as we were. And it was an all-day, everyday struggle when every image in magazines, on TV, at school and even from other children is telling you -- not good enough.

All three Belton Sisters (left to right) Danielle, Denise and Deidre

From being in elementary school and hearing other little black girls my age fantasize about marrying white men to have "pretty babies," to being a freshman in high school and having a jealous friend berate me for having "thick lips."

Of course by then, all my parents' hard work had not been in vain. When someone criticized my thick lips I blinked at them like they were insane. I knew my lips were beautiful. I knew some woman in Hollywood was lying on a plastic surgeon's table getting injections to get what God gave me naturally. How could it be ugly if people were paying for it?

I was sensitive about being called a nerd (although that never stopped me from being nerdy) and sensitive about having such a big ass (but that had more to do with not liking negative male attention from perverts), but when it came to my large nose, thick lips, big eyes and undeniable black features I knew I was the shit and everyone else was wrong.

That's why you have to wage a war from the time your son or daughter crawls out of the crib to get them to where my parents got me. You have to show them over and over images of our beauty. My mother bought us the book "When and Where I Enter" and "I Dream A World." I read "The Color Complex" as a teen. We had regular study sessions over the works of Jawanza Kunjufu. She even dragged us to his one film, "Up Against the Wall."

She told us over her pride in having an "African nose" when people mocked her flat, wide nose. She encouraged us in music and dance and art, surrounding us with as much good energy as she could. Because it was her versus the world, a world that wanted us to believe we were not beloved or lovely.

Our father took thousands of pictures of us. My grandfather introduced us all as his "pretty, smart granddaughters from St. Louis." And no matter how bad a day I had at school I would look in the mirror with tears in my eyes and see myself as beautiful and tell the world it was crazy if it couldn't see what I saw.

I was lucky, but I can't say other black women were. And even with all my mother's work, I still had complexes over my hair, dealt with other people's complexes because it's hard to block out that message that says you're wrong.

So now we have the beautiful First Daughters, two girls who remind me of my sisters and myself. Of my cousins and elementary school friends and to hear someone talk like Sasha and Malia are some rarity, two lovely black girls, as if they were some anomaly you can't find, enraged me.

Here finally, finally an image little black children could see and go "that's me!" They could see everyone complimenting their beauty and feeling proud knowing they shared in that beauty. But then this statement was made by Marlene Wallach, president of Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, was like a kick in the teeth.

(T)he First Daughters are tough subjects to match. “It’s a very specific age and a very specific ethnicity, so there aren’t that many girls that would necessarily fit the bill.”

I wondered if I was making too much of it, but then remembered five year old me coloring those pages and pages of white women and thinking every white woman I saw was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen simply because she was white. I remember once arguing down to my mother that I DID have blue eyes, fixated on a slender, non-existent blue ring around my dark, dark brown eyes. Then to cry, reading Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" nearly 15 years later and finding that Pecola Breedlove was inside of me and just about every black woman I knew, even if they fought that negativity every day. And when I framed it that way I knew I wasn't over-reacting. I was taking a stand.

Enough is enough. Light or dark. Long hair or short. Curly or straight. I'd seen many beautiful little black girls in my lifetime, yet they were growing up just like I had, watching MTV and wondering what's wrong with me. Flipping through the pages of Elle and Vibe Magazines. Stuck between Jennifer Anniston and a video ho in what you were supposed to be.

So with this project I wanted to both bring to light the true beauty of all girls, especially those battling that negativity that destroys self-esteem and makes for a deep sadness of feeling unwanted and unloved. I wanted to not just make a piece of literature to combat ignorance, but a love letter to all those little girls I wanted to embrace. That I wanted to sit down next to and color with. That I want to tell "you are special, if to NO ONE ELSE, but to me."

One part political piece, one part tribute, I'm going to take the beauty of these ordinary girls and show that Sasha and Malia are simply part of the bigger picture, simply two stars in a galaxy of lovely, little girls. That many black parents love and see the beauty in their children just as Barack and Michelle cherish the wit and brilliance and beauty in their daughters.

And that's why I'm doing it.

Out of the pictures sent to me I will select from many of them and send a brief questionnaire to the parents, relatives and friends who submitted the little beauties asking about their personalities and talents and put together a tribute piece to our children.

Then use it as a weapon against ignorance.

I will post the full work on the blog and in a hardcopy form to be sent out to the blind so that they may hopefully open their eyes, hearts and minds and see how shallow they have been.

If it heals the heart or helps prevent the pain of another Pecola, another me, another black woman struggling with her own self-image, it's worth it.

-----

If you still want to be part of the project you have until Feb. 8th to send pictures to moi, via email.

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Reader Comments (98)

Beautiful post, Danielle and I had some of the same sentiments you've had here..

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNoelani

Wow.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdukedraven

The was definitely one of my favorite reads recently! Your father did something so simple, but yet so amazing! I would hope that everyone takes to heart what you wrote here and use it to make an impact on a little girl's life somewhere.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter[fung'ke] [blak] [chik]

Great essay! It should be required reading for all Madison Avenue firms.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermetricpenny

A wonderful post and a wonderful idea! Thanks for writing it.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbagond

i dont remember how i came across your blog, but it was awhile back and i thought you were funny and pretty smart. now i can't say i agree with your blog most of the time, but i keep coming back and enjoy your view on things.

that was damn good story there and thank you for sharing it with everyone

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrobert

Thank You for writing that because that message being sent out into the world was really needed. That was incredible.

February 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterMonique Rucker

Fantastic. Have you thought of sending this to Michelle Obama's website at the White House

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobert M

Thank you.

I am a high school teacher in a Philly charter school - small setting, but full of Black children with lacking skills and obvious self image issues that I have to speak to often (as one of few Black teachers there). I have been talking to my coworker (another Black female teacher - there are 3 of us) about proposing a class or after school "club" for Black girls where we address issues like this very openly and honestly. I've been obsessed, actually, collecting pieces like yours to put together for these young women. Every piece, every reflection, every time we speak out and act and refuse to let these images and IGNORANT ideas about the rarity of Black beauty penetrate is an act of resistance and an opportunity to affect the world view for young Black girls and boys.

My determination is skyrocketing... this must be done.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJaddadalos

That was just awesome. Thank you!

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNoma

Thank you for writing this. It is a wonderful piece. Everyone, from the Madison Avenue types to the everyday black fathers and mothers. If you don't mind, I'm going to link to this post on Facebook. I wand people to be able to read this, and perhaps either understand or come to terms with their own self-image.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter...Fabuloussince1982

@ All

I'm glad you guys were able to get something from the piece. It truly came from the heart for me. That moment with my dad is one of my fondest memories. He truly did teach me that I was beautiful just by showing that there was variety in the world. That I didn't have to simply follow what I thought were the rules.

Feel free to spread it around if you think it will help. I hope it will. That's why I wrote it.

February 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

Thank you for this remarkable post. The remarks made by the modeling agency representative Wallach shows just how much soul-butchery goes into marketing young girls. The objectification starts with the visuals. And its the most powerful.

I remember as a kid having mixed feelings of anticipation and dread whenever I picked up one of my sister's "Seventeen" magazines. None of us were in there, yet we took their message on how you should look as gospel. Alot of us lived with that dread of approaching ourselves or thnking ourselves as beautiful. Nothing supported us to think that way. We came to ourselves through the back doors, sideways, every where but the mainstream - but thank god we did.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFe

I totally agree with you. I feel and understand the point you want to get across. I am totally behind you with this. Thank you, from the 2 little browns girls in my life.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterG

Remarkable post Danielle, beautifully expressed and masterfully written. You pretty much summarized my frustration with the mainstream media and the beauty magazines and hollywood. You know how to truly make a difference in a young black person's life? Give them a positive example of themselves instaed of feeding them the negativity and the stereotypes of their race over, and over, and over again. I am proud to take a stand with you, America has to open our eyes and realize that the overwhelming majority of issues in the black community has rooted from self-image, and the way we are portrayed time and again, you poured your heart into this one.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNAGROM

I will even go so far as to say that the election and presence of President Obama has already impacted millions of black children. I want to scream everytime I see mean-spirited bloggers who dislike the Obama's comment on Michelle's looks. The most common insult? Ape, baboon, gorilla, you know it is as if they have somehow figured out a way to sublimanally send the message that the black woman is less than a woman. That enrages me. It is unacceptable, I believe in free speech and nowadays hate speech and free speech go hand and hand and it is awful. I understand how you feel about this, it is a constant battle, a constant battle to convince ourselves that we ARE beautiful no matter what they tell us, I know exactly how you feel.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNAGROM

Thank you. Thank you. Gracias. Gracias :)

Everything you said is how I felt about my own self image, especially growing up. I appreciate your openess and just being real about how the media, ie magazine, tv, etc affect young black girls and boys. It really needs to stop. seriously. I wish you the best with your mission. :)

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMs. Beans

excellent post...thank you...

February 3, 2009 | Registered Commenterstarrie

Beautiful...thank you...

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I love this project! Would even love to see it go beyond "The Black Snob." Perhaps other black bloggers could help you spread the word?

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlsace

I'm a father of three girls the oldest is 16 and the youngest is 15 moths old. I've always made it a point to remind them of just how beautiful they are. I was having a hard time with the middle one a couple years ago. She wants to be a model and actress. I took her to an audition and when she wasn't picked she was floored. It was a shock to her system to see her overlooked and not much attention paid to for the real "cute girls" as opposed to her darker skin tone. We had a long talk in the bathroom of our home while she laid on the floor crying. I think she has come to accept her beauty, but even still, she's inundated with these images of beauty and I can tell she still has issues with it.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRiPPa

Brava!!!

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichele Davis

beautiful post.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenternyc/caribbean ragazza

Wow, you had me balling. This was wonderful and in my home I always had black dolls from my Mom, but my aunt always gave me white dolls to have a balance.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlesia

Beautiful, beautiful post and great idea for a project.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterconseula
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