Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Letting little girls be little girls

I read several advice columns on a regular basis, and one of them today had a letter from a stepmother who was butting heads with the mother of her seven-year-old stepdaughter over clothing, makeup, and apparently hair dye.

I have to say, if I was writing the column, my advice would have been, "then stop fighting and relax."

I admit, part of this perspective comes from the fact that my mom very rarely fought with me on these topics. I started dying my hair when I was a teenager, though I can't remember exactly when. And I didn't go with normal colors, I mostly tried out purple, green, blue, and other unnatural shades. I didn't wear makeup because I just didn't really care, but I would spend hours every week painting my nails with colors and patterns. The kind of thing you find on Pinterest now, that's really popular among a lot of age groups, that's what I was doing then.

I can still remember once when I went to a church function with my hair dyed purple, and somebody asked my mom why she let me do that. Mom just shrugged it off, saying that hair dye fades out, or hair grows out, so it wasn't like it was a big deal. I don't think I even understood why this was a big deal for me until recently, when I read a this quote:

“This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain.

Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be."
-Jada Pinkett Smith (quoted from Refinery29)

This wasn't the first time I had heard this sentiment from Willow Smith's parents either, here's an older quote from Will Smith:
"We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it's like how can you teach her that you're in control of her body? If I teach her that I'm in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she's going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can't cut my hair but that's her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she's going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives."

-Will Smith (quoted from ABC News)

And when I thought about it, I realized that by letting my dye my hair, and paint my nails, and letting me reflect my opinions and taste through how I presented myself, my mom was doing the same thing she'd done my whole life. She was letting me be independent and be myself. I was learning to make my own choices, I was learning that I was the ultimate authority on my own body. And sometimes, I lose that lesson in all the deluge of crap that women get faced with every day. Sometimes, I see a bunch of haters and trolls online insulting women for the sin of not being attractive enough and I forget.

I hope that the stepmother from the advice column takes a deep breath and thinks about WHY she cares so much. Why does she want her stepdaughter not to wear short shorts? Why does she want her not to wear lipstick? And then she should ask her stepdaughter why she wants to wear these things. Why, at seven, does she want to dye her hair? Is it to look like her mom? Is it because her favorite actress has a different hair color? Is she being teased at school? Quite a few girls start to want to alter their appearance and their bodies because they're being told they're ugly.

Or is this little girl being encouraged by her mom to do zany things because the mom is trying to get back at the stepmother? Or is the stepmother saying and doing things that the child is hearing as "I have to change to make myself pretty?"

At the end of the day, it's the why that matters, not the clothes. Not the haircut, not the makeup. Because if a seven year old looks at all the adult women in her life and sees that they wear makeup and hears women say that makeup makes them beautiful and that they aren't worth looking at until they've "put on their face" then she's going to internalize that to herself and want to follow. Adult women say these things themselves, this isn't just something little girls get from advertising.

It's only once she knows why that the stepmother can even approach the topic from a sensible angle that isn't just slapping down a little girl's control over her own body. And she'll lose that control to society pretty quickly if she isn't reminded that it's hers. This is a chance for the stepmother to help her daughter grow into a strong, confident, and intelligent young woman. And she wants to just say "no, there's a ban on shorts in my house."

Parenting is harder than any other job in this life, but I think we can do better than that.