General Snobbery
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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)

My God, this post brought tears to my eyes. I've written (but not nearly as eloquently as this) about the statements made about and to little black girls; statements that destroy our sense of self and leave us feeling un-beautiful. Amazing job Danielle.

Here's the post I did about the statements a teacher made concerning how whites don't find black features attractive... www.makeuptheoryworkshops.com/2009/01/psychology-of-makeup.html

February 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTodra Payne

Thank you for fighting for the beauty of our children.

March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShelly

We can never tire of holding Madison Avenue accountable for the images that it pushes on the larger population. Danielle you have outdone yourself and I applaud your efforts. We all recall having those "less than" thoughts growing up. As an adult of 19 to free myself from those shackles of self hatred I chopped off my relaxer out, lost a boyfriend over it (told I was going through a phase) and wore my hair natural for the next two decades. Anytime I purchase a gift for a friend's child they are consistently books, board games and other learning tools that feature black children. Living in NYC we've had access to things like that for quite some time. And nowadays the industry is filled with 'afro' centric toys, games and other items check google and you'll see. However, if you ask those vendors, they are struggling because there are still alot of black parents who are still giving their children toys that do not feature black youth of any age. I see it all the time. Here is a real cool thing...in my neighborhood I've gawked at a white child snuggling a small cute, black baby doll while being pushed in the stroller. I wanted to ask the mother "Why?" but chickened out. I'd like to think she was aware of the world her child will enter and wants her to learn to love and care about all types of people. In any event, given the chance I'd have a better sense of what I would ask her and I WOULD ask her, and then thank her. I don't have children but if and when I do I hope one is girl so I can name her Danielle. For real...much love

March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

What a wonderful, loving and sensitive father! Thank you for sharing this tender story.

March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcia Erickson

Powerful writing. Powerful truth. Sorry I missed the cutoff... I've got my own stars shining brightly every day! Can't wait to see your galaxy.

-k.

March 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterk

I loved your post & I totally agree with you that black girls arent told they're beautiful often enough. I also get what the modeling agency said: What they meant by "specific ethnicity"was that the Obama girls have light skin, straight hair, & European features, just like so many other "black" celebrities who are considered beautiful, like Halle Berry or Tyra Banks. While I'm not saying they're not attractive I'd like to just once see the media show a beautiful black girl who is truly black, not biracial, with dark skin, kinky hair, & black features.

March 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarnie B

Olá, Danielle!
Achei seu texto simplesmente lindo e tocante!
A admiro muito e acho sua luta importantíssima!

Hi, Danielle!
I read your text and i loved it, it´s very beautifull and touching, moving!
I really admire you! And that fight against racism and prejudice is essencial!

[I´m not very good in english, i can read better than write, so, don´t strange if you don´t understand me very well, i´m from brazil, and, when i was a child, I only drawn white, blond girls with blue eyes.]

June 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCamila

I moved to the US from South Africa a few years ago, at twelve.
In SA, I'd always been told how pretty I was. My hair was considered long and people always told me how nice my eyes were, how I was lucky I had such an even complexion in such a nice colour. Of course, I knew a lot of Asian girls, white girls and brown girls, and I always felt that they were beautiful -- for their nice hair or nice coloured eyes or skinny legs. I didn't feel like I was less, but I was able to see beauty in all the women.
I think that this is a cultural problem. The United States market favors white people, and when they show diversity, it's in black girls that have European features, Asians with the "right eyes" (one of my friends told me about this -- Korean girls get surgery to get that little fold in the eyelid), Hispanic people that are lighter in complexion.
America is warped. The rest of the world follows in their footsteps. This is a problem not being addressed.

June 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChaechae

Danielle, your father serves as an example for us all. He did not berate white people, instead he decided to show you - your unique beauty without degrading someone else's. In the black race, we try to pretend that issues such as colorism do not exist, and they do. Even within our own race, there is a tendency to lean towards individuals who possess features that are not considered traditionally "black." We have not noticed how Hollywood continues to claim that there have been so many strides for black actresses, and black women in general, but yet, you see the same soup warmed over every time. I think that experience was awesome because it was a father daughter experience. I keep telling people..don't underestimate the presence of a STRONG father figure.

July 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterZion

I'm coming to this late, but I just had to say this is literally the first blog post that ever brought tears to my eyes.

I wish you all possible success with your project and hope that it reaches girls that need to hear it.

July 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSoda & Candy

This was phenomenal. It made me think about my past and how I grew up wishing I had green eyes and being white. It took me a looong time to realize that I was beautiful on the in and outside. I recently read Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye and was in awe because it reflected us, till this day. We need more powerful people like you to continue what you're doing and to tell our youth no matter what race or ethnicity that they are indeed beautiful.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTelly Long Legs

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October 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLapygrimirape

Hi Everybody,

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December 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDianaUrtan

Thank you for writing this, it was beautiful. When I read this I had to think of my 6 year old daughter, she calls her complexion Black (like the crayon black) and mine Brown. I had to let her know her complexion, my complexion, her brothers complexion are all one color and that is Black and Black is BEAUTIFUL, no matter what shade of black it is.

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErikalynn

so much time and energy to skin - you have got to be kidding me! what about character and integrity, self-esteem from great parenting period where what you look like on the outside is the least of your f,in worries b/c you are to busy becoming something great to spend this much time on outward appearance - what about asian dolls and jewish dolls and mexican dolls and indian dolls - not enough of those either but last I heard about china they are to busy becomiong the next superpower and their females are not worried about f,n barbie dolls - come girls - you are teaching your young ones to continue to hold the flame of insecurity -

September 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCat386

We are on the same page, wavelength, plane and planet! Great article- I will definitely pass it on!

Absolutely beautiful post. Black women are really beautiful, with gorgeous tans and well-curved bodies. Not to mention rockin' hair!
Naomi Ford
www.envision-beauty.com

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Ford

I think it's great to teach about the beauty of blackness, but also important to teach the beauty of diversity and other cultures.

Another reader mentioned that we have the media portraying blond hair and blue eyes as beautiful because white people are in the majority. I completely agree and don't think it's some kind of racist agenda, I think that if it were in some place like Somalia you would probably also see very few commercials portraying white women as beautiful.

Definitely buy your girls black barbies and keep their hair natural or braided, but maybe also buy them white and latino (if that exists) barbies and teach them that beauty comes in different forms, and that doesn't make any one culture or skin tone more beautiful or uglier, just different.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Hey very nice blog!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds also..

Really cute. I like it...

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarbie

Wow! is all i have to say. Being a African American woman i didn't always embrace my hair but i have decided to grow my natural hair out and I am proud! Many of us were told by relatives and outsiders that our hair wasn't good enough b/c it was loosely curled or it was too course. Until I read this article I never realized how skin color and beliefs play a major role with how we define ourselves and the relationships we build with others.

Thanks for the inspiration b/c fucking BLACK.GIRLS.ROCK!

January 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMannie

I come from Athens, Greece, and I have the huge luck to be teacher of creative dance and other creative activities to an immensely beautiful, smart and sweet girl, who's mother is Greek and father African. She gets bullied at school for being different and, according to me, also because of the envy that her being so charismatic causes to others...The coloring book story reminds me of the numerous times she and I have spent together making drawings of herself and other people. She too quite naturally is greatly influenced by the "white beauty ideal" and tended to even draw herself as somebody else, somebody with "white" characteristics. Slowly we managed to start making much more realistic drawings of her wonderful self but still she feels a lot of rejection for herself caused by the dominant attitudes in society and others...Such a great great pity...It really makes me angry! Every time I see her I feel the need to let her know how beautiful she is, what an amazing person she is...Thank you for your story, I came across it accidentally and I felt very well and justified by reading it. Thanks again!

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlexandra
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