General Snobbery
« Obama Signs SCHIP (And the First Couple Visits a Charter School) | Main | Ding Dong, Ty's Sasha and Malia Dolls Are Dead »
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.

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (98)

I saw this post over at Abagonds this is wonderful. So beautiful what an awesome father. This is just so beautiful a wonderful teaching example!

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

Wow!! I'm so glad you're doing this! This is such a beautiful and powerful post.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermzroz

You made me cry. You spoke of my journey. I must share this. Thank you.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterrikyrah

Oh, Danielle. Thank you. For trusting us with your memories. And advocating for our babies. And knowing--and saying--what's true. All too many of us grew up smothered by that same mindset--that what was white was beautiful, and everything else paled in comparison. It's so very poignant that it was your father who showed you better. Not all of us were that lucky.

How blessed are we, then, that you've taken on this monumental task? And that you've used your voice--that beautiful voice--to say it loud?

As the mother of two beautiful little brown baby girls, I thank you. And I support you. And I'm going to tell all my mothers what you're up to, too.

Work.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDenene@MyBrownBaby

Wow. This is wonderful. Thank you so much. I can't wait to read the finished project.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEvelyn

how many non mixed folk are in your great wall of sexy? Replacing white with biracial doesn't help the cause much either

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpoliticallyincorrect

Brava -

Words cant express how I feel about this post. Its like you saw me, its how you knew me, knew how hard it was for me, how hard it was for my father and my mother, my cousins, my aunts, and how hard it still is sometimes. Being Black woman in America is hard. Being a black immigrant, with no black friends in a VERY white town, is all out war! Thank you Danielle.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSidra Lestrade

I had the same experience, but with my art teacher in the 2nd or 3rd grade. No one ever talked about me being the only black girl in my class. This teacher actually acknowledged my color. I gave her a picture I had drawn and of course, the person in my picture was white. Well, the teacher looked at it and said she liked it but then asked me why I never painted or drew anyone like me and she touched my arm and told me my skin color was beautiful. I was stunned. My family told me I was beautiful, but never anyone else. I never expected to hear it and not from a white woman.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergisette27

Great piece. You are so right; black women, we have to start acknowledging and owning our beauty. I live in a small town which means that we don't have a lot of stuff that the bigger cities have. But one thing I have noticed about my town and other small towns - there is always a tanning salon. If black is so ugly - why do so many want to be it or as close as possible to it. Thanks for your piece and good luck.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStealthkitty

I forgot to say how proud I woudl be to have my girls images in your project!! If you need better photos please let me know.

I love what you do.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergisette27

DB; funny (!) and pretty AND smart.

Just wanted to clarify.

;)

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChas Johnson

One: Ryan Booth is adorable and she looks like loads of fun.

Two: I had the same experience with my daddy. I think that is why I am the way I am. My daddy was/is a very light man. I'm chocolate. He used to fight my mother who was also brown to be more aware and proactive about fighting the images I was seeing. He told me I was beautiful. My mother never did. She hated my nose and she said my lips were too big. He thought I was lovely. I could feel the difference between the two. He could have used his color to jockey in our hometown, Savannah, because it was then and still is colorstruck to some degrees. But instead he was one of those lighter people that had heart and commitment to loving his Blackness more healthy than my own mother who despised not being right for the world.

My father too colored figures in coloring books Black instead of White in which I too was doing. My dad though took it even farther and dictated that he hated those paper dolls I played with because none were Black. My mother and he fought over these things.

He fought her to make sure my hair was in afro puffs, wearing a dashiki or something cultural, and he wanted me to know more about being Black when she had no interest in her brown skin for nothing more than Black pop culture.

It's my legacy to know these issues were deep in my family and the person that fought for me the hardest was a light-skinned man that loved his people so much he had to fight them over it in order to try to teach them how to love themselves. That's one reason I am so unapologetic. My daddy was the same.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

As a brown girl who grew up feeling pretty invisible until I hit my 20's, this post brought tears to my eyes. I am already battling this society with my 3 yo daughter who last night announced that her hair is not beautiful. Sigh....

Excellent post. I wish that in the 70's my parents could have done what your Dad did, that is so powerful.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBlackgirlinmaine

That was beautiful. I can just see your Dad coloring with you. That is a powerful image.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDWS

You go Danielle!! Your Dad totally rocks!!

I have a beautifully brown-skinned niece who I love beyond words and will soon have another niece who is bi-racial (she's due in March). I will use what you publish to show them, as they grow up, that they are both equally beautiful, loved, and valued. Peace

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSouthlandDiva

I have to constantly fight the negative messages transmitted to my younger daughter about her hair, which is not as straight as her sister, and about her body, which is noticeably thicker. I constantly worry that my girls will fall prey to the subconscious self loathing that universally affects black people even when we are the only ones in the room. We don't address being color stricken among ourselves; much less make a fuss when Madison Avenue and the fashion catalogs blatantly ignore ethnic aesthetics. On a small scale, my youngest daughter would benefit just by her own grandmother not referring to kinky hair as "bad". On a larger scale, we have to confront our own color prejudices before any complaints about the mainstream can ring true.

I echo the suggestion that BlackSnob cast a critical eye at her "Great Wall of Sexy". I know it originates on another blog, but perhaps it's time to create your own wall, one that more frequently affirms darker skin and black features. Not that anything is wrong with biracial or lighter features, but it's a shame for black people, on the whole, to continue limiting our tastes to only the Eurocentric standard.

So if you address the "Wall of Sexy", BlackSnob, I will do my part by withholding my purchases of Barbie products, Disney Princess products, and any other Madison Avenue client that refuses to understand that our beauty and our experiences encompasses so much more than what we see today. Sometimes, attractive, brown skinned people, even those kinky hair and broad noses, actually get through the day without rhyming, bugging our eyes, dancing, or signifying. I wish, for the sake of my girls, for a day when casting decisions, record sales, acting awards, and even comments from grandmothers will be determined by talent and merit rather than the ol’ “brown paper bag” mentality.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBuck

I don't have kids, but I remember very early why all of my friends were curious why I wanted a Christie doll instead of a Barbie. All my friends had Barbies; one even had a Steffie doll. I was the only one with a chocolate-brown fashion doll. She was fabulous with her bright, red bathing suit. I loved her most of all.

I guess I got consciousness early on.
Educate the ignorant; Snob.

The CC

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCulinary Chick

Danielle, I share your outrage and indignation at Ms. Wallach's unfortunate comments. It's bad enough that black women in general consistently receive the message via the media that we aren't beautiful, our features aren't attractive, our skin tone and hair texture isn't desirable, etc. But for Marlene Wallach and her Madison Avenue cronies to suggest that our beautiful little black girls don't measure up----that somehow the First Daughters, Malia and Sasha, don't reflect the beauty of our precious little girls and are, in Wallach's words, "a specific ethnicity", apart from and removed from the millions of gorgeous little black girls who, for once, have a powerful reflection and affirmation of themselves in the Malia and Sasha? That, to my mind, is an abomination and is really too much to stomach. To insult and deny the beauty of our children---our precious little girls? No! Hell no!

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlyric

I don't think the Great Wall of Sexy is problematic. There are and have been people of all shades in it. And if you're looking to include only celebrities in it, you're ultimately going to come up with less darker skinned people, because not enough of them get to become famous in the first place, which is not Athena LeTrelle's (That name, LOL!) doing. It would be like expecting black people to make up 50% of everything in America, when we are less than 20% of the American population.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterglory

@ All

Thanks for the kind words and support. Alas, for those who want to reopen debate on the "Wall of Sexy," the matter is closed (although you can feel free to continue to discuss it among yourselves.)

I explained the "purpose" of the wall here. It's about everyone, not just black people and has an entirely different (jokey) mission.

This particular blog post and project about little girls is about how there are no images of brown girls of any color at all. I'm a woman of diverse interests and I gave up on blackness litmus tests years ago. If I can't care about black girls and boys self-image and think Leo DiCaprio, Leon and Shemar Moore are cute at the same time, then I'd have to say, we're being a little shallow and short-sighted here. But everyone is entitled to look at the wall and psychoanalyze their hearts out.

February 4, 2009 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

Thank you for writing. I have two daughters, and I color with them every chance I get and I specifically color characters with not only brown skin but with all colors. All the women in my family have made sure that my girls have an abundance of different types of dolls, not only with Black features, but also Native American, and most recently dolls that have Latin features.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Beautiful project!

Now I'm not black, but the lack of black dolls thoroughly frustrates me and frustrated me when I was a child. My black Barbiedoll was my sweetest and dearest doll and all the pretty dresses were reserved for her, but I could never find her a little sister or a baby. I later realized how frustrating it must be to be the parents of a black girl and try to find dolls that truly represent her and her family. There is so little choice!

Here's some links, but the selection of dolls is still small compared to white dolls

http://www.liveandlearn.com/blackdollslist.html
http://www.blackdollsdirect.co.uk/
http://www.positive-identity.com/

and a group of women who give black dolls to black girls:

http://www.blackdollaffair.com/

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWIlma

THANK YOU SO MUCH for this. I have posted it to my Facebook page and I'm hoping it will spread further.

You and I had very similar upbringings, including the blessing of having parents and adults in our lives who were PAYING ATTENTION.

My "mind-blown" moment happened when I was 10. I showed a story I had written to my mother and she asked me, "Are any of these characters black?" (I had made much of the fact that the protagonists had long blonde hair and blue eyes. A thesaurus is a dangerous thing.) I was taken aback and because I felt I had to answer her question, I said: "Carl is black." Carl happened to be the bad guy. She just looked at me and said, "Okay." The lecture was all in the look!

I was 39 the next time I wrote a story with a white protagonist. :)

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKL

This was beautiful. I loved what your Dad did for you. What an amazing gift.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterprettylady818

It's a big one this. But I think it helps to try to get things into perspective. Whites have been the majority in this culture and the arbiter of taste and beauty and big surprise 'we don't look like them'. Their ideals of beauty aren't ours and that's life. If you've allowed yourself to accept the values of the dominant culture as pertains to beauty then you're F**d basically, unless you do a Michael Jackson. But that way madness lies... There has to be a new strategy in the black community over this issue. I believe that people need to step back and question more, especially those images and values presented by the media. The blond girl with flowing locks and blue eyes is beautiful? Says who? Certainly not an African grandma I know, who would say they look rather freaky, like a ghost, certainly not warm, soft featured and lovely like a woman ought to be.
In Greece and much of the Meditaranean where people are predominantly olive skinned and dark eyed, blue eyes are considered the 'evil eye' and people wear charms to ward them off. This is not to demonise other races, just to switch things up a bit and get another perspective. Black Americans really suffer most when they chose to see themselves throught other people's eyes rather than their own.

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMillie
Editor Permission Required
You must have editing permission for this entry in order to post comments.