I’m beyond excited that this chick is here today. Like…someone pinch me, excited! I loved her the minute I saw her badass shoes and fierce outfit. Here’s my fellow…errrr…Social Good Fellow, Denene, queen of badassery! This is beautiful and soft and glides through the heart with the love that only a mother can weave into words.
Her pronouncement sent a chill through my spine—heavy and wintery and thick. “But I look… I look… I look like a boy!” my daughter insisted, doing a slow wall slide down onto the kitchen floor, dissolving into a heap of tears and tantrum, torn to pieces over, of all things, her hair. She wanted expensive extensions so that her locs could swing below her shoulders. I wanted her to love the hair growing out of her head, exactly as it is, because it is beautiful and unique and hers. My gentle “no” did not go over well.
Now, when I was 15 and worrying about what the popular girls looked like and who the boys found attractive and how I could overcome this dark skin and these thick thighs and this big ass and this kinky hair and all this straight-A, honors brain and the bargain store clothes, and actually get someone to, like, notice me, there were no tears. No fall-outs. Bettye, my mother, didn’t play that. School was for the learning. Work at the factory was exhausting. Ain’t nobody had time for a daughter’s whining over hair and boys.
Buck up. Ignore them. Focus on what is important. That’s what my mother said. That’s that old school parenting right there. It worked for Bettye. The effect it had on her daughter? Untenable.
See, the thing about being 15 is that the hormones are raging and that independence is kicking in and comparing yourself to the knuckleheads around you is inevitable, and the more you look at your reflection in the mirror, the more things you find wrong with yourself. Especially if no one is pointing out all the things that are right. Left unattended, self-esteem can wither and wrinkle up like a sticky raisin in the sweltering summer sun.
I know this for sure. Spending half of a lifetime picking myself apart and thinking everything that falls between the top of my head and the soles of my feet were wholly inadequate gets you really clear on such things. I hated me. And I hid myself under baggy clothes and a bare face and sensible shoes, insisting that being pretty wasn’t important at all—that being the smart, do-it-all workhorse was the only thing that mattered. I was 40 years old before I effing figured out that wearing make-up, dressing in cute outfits that fit and flatter and taking pride in rocking an adorable hairstyle is not about impressing or competing with anyone else. It’s about me loving me. I would just as soon chop off my hands and sever my own tongue than knowingly let either of my daughters feel the way that I did all those years before I had that epiphany. To spend even one second thinking they are not enough.
So I make the conscious decision to water.
Some days, this is not an easy proposition. My child is 15 but still, she is my baby. Just a few more years and she will be off on her own adventure—college, a career, her own home, maybe marriage and a few babies, too. My time with her—these very specific, hands-on, face-to-face, heart-to-heart moments—soon will be no more.
So in a rush of emotion and brain throb and yes, a smidge of fear, I am thinking—always thinking—about what else needs to be taught. This is how you iron a skirt with pleats. This is how you shop for groceries on a budget. This Roy Ayers song is the backbone of Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” one of the best songs about Black girl angst ever written. This is a good credit score, that guy is an example of a good dude, over there is a neighborhood in transition and that’s not necessarily a good thing. My baby listens. Sometimes she asks questions. Sometimes she’s annoyed by the lessons. I know that she tucks it away and recalls it when it counts. But the beauty stuff, that is new.
Luckily, girlpie is open to growing responsibly—to blossoming into her own at a reasonable pace. She’s stunning, really, with these gorgeous copper brown locs cascading all around her chocolate face, the perfect exclamation point to her Beyonce thick—all curves and hips and booty and Black girl goodness. Some days, I look up and I see her there and my heart skips a beat. My daughter is blossoming into a beautiful young woman. She just doesn’t know it yet. So I tell her so. This is important. Confidence—the ability to square the shoulders and hold your head up high and celebrate your own loveliness—is as exquisite and rich as a Ruby Woo lippie. Looking good helps you feel good about yourself. Feeling good about yourself makes you feel secure. Feeling secure makes you feel like you have super powers—allows you to get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful on the inside. This is important, too.
I help my daughter do the work.
That work started from the womb, you know—from the moment that cold, sloppy goop was slathered on my belly and the sonogram revealed her to be a girl child. I hung pictures of our family on the wall all around her crib, so that every day she opened her eyes and looked up she would know she is loved. I filled her library with books featuring characters that look like her, so that she could see herself in the imagination of others. I rocked her to sleep to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and India.Aire and Earth Wind & Fire and Lauryn Hill, so that she could feel love of self deep down in her soul. And every day—every single day—I told her how pretty her hair is, how I adore her face, how her skin is the same amazing color as “mahogany,” my favorite Crayola crayon, how strong and beautiful are her legs and her shoulders and her arms and her booty and back and feet.
Still, she has her moments when she doesn’t like what she sees. We all do, of course. That’s human. But at 15, it’s especially challenging, particularly when you’re a Black girl with natural hair, being raised by parents who don’t allow the weaves, risqué clothes and make-up masks that seem to be the fashion and beauty choices of practically every other Black girl in our local public high school here in Atlanta. I will not be sending my kid to the 10th grade looking like an extra on the set of “Love & Hip Hop.”
This, of course, is what’s was behind the desperate quest for loc extensions. I get it. It’s not easy to be different in a sea of cultural clones. But rather than let her fall victim to trying to be like everyone else, I wiped her tears and held her in my arms and we made a plan for how she could look more like how she wanted to look. We worked first on ways to style her locs, Googling pictures and YouTube how-to videos for cute looks she could pull off on her own. Then we dove into her wardrobe, discussed her personal style and added key pieces that represent it. She is now allowed to wear eyeliner and lip gloss with a smidge of color. And when she walks out the door to school, this kid is totally badass—in a way that is age appropriate and a full reflection of her burgeoning personal style.
Of course, she is really clear that there is so much more to being a beautiful person than looking pretty and dressing fly. Being intelligent, outspoken, thoughtful, kind, hardworking, independent and more is a given. Each is a work in progress. She’s getting those in, too.
But being beautiful on the outside will, for sure, help her get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. And loving herself for her, and nobody else.
Denene Millner is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 books and the editor of the award-winning website MyBrownBaby.com, where she explores the intersection of parenting and race. Check her out on Twitter and Facebook.
Check out the other posts in the series.