Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Willow Smith's Hair as a Lesson to Us All

You have, no doubt, heard about Willow Smith's hair lately. It's been all over the feminist blogosphere because Jada Pinkett Smith wrote an amazing response to the criticism that she "let" Willow do her hair any way that she would like. Among the many amazing things she said, she wrote,
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.

It should go without saying that I totally agree with this. Feministing also pointed out that Will Smith made a similar comment in May. (Side note: could we maybe once and for all back off this little girls' looks now?!)
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.
You have got to love parents that 1) talk like this about their daughters 2) present such a clearly united font. It's refreshing.

And while this situation is up front and center in the media, I'd like to take a moment to suggest that we take a lesson from this. Because this is hardly just about a little girl with very high profile parents to defend her. This situation is about how we treat all little girls.

As someone who has long worked with young women and girls (and as someone who used to be one) I can attest to the fact that the cultural message that feminine beauty is the number-one-most-important-thing-ever is alive and well and perhaps stronger than ever. I know Girls as young as 2 who have shown an understanding of this. The message from the very start of her life places her desires as secondary to a larger purpose to be pretty for someone else to look at. This isn't really news. But what's interesting about the Smiths' comments is that they remind us that these messages can be implicit in some ways you might not expect. I imagine that when a parent says to a girl, "NO, YOU CANNOT SHAVE YOUR HEAD!" they're not thinking, "Yes! I have affirmed the notion that her body is to be controlled by others!" They're probably actually thinking, "That would look awful, I wouldn't like that!" (Key word being I.)

So what is the message that a 10 or a 12 year old would get from you making decisions about their hair? It's important to think about the implications of this. In a discussion of this article on Facebook, one of my coworkers, who is one of the mothers I respect most in the world, had this to say (emphasis mine.)
I wouldn't like it if my daughter chose to shave her head, but it's her head not mine. Too often we as parents get caught up in thinking that our children's choices are a reflection on us instead of realizing that they are their own individuals with their own ideas and paths to follow in life. Save the battles for truly important things - clothing choices and hair are not that important in the scheme of things.
I couldn't agree more. I know that sometimes hair and clothing can seem important, but when you really look at the spectrum of life, they couldn't be more meaningless. Besides, when a girl wants to do something unconventional with her looks the rest of society will shame her enough for that decision. (Let's not for get Miley Cyrus' hair cut, Megan Fox's tattoos, or any celebrity plastic surgery ever.) Why should her family add to the negative feedback?

But moreover, my point is this: If we are a people who believe in the bodily autonomy of each individual, we have to respect that at every turn, especially for young girls.

1 comment:

  1. The most interesting thing I've seen about this entire "issue" (as it really isn't an issue, it is a choice that Jada and Will respect and encourage) is how many black women I have seen vilifying Willow and Jada. That's not to say I haven't seen any black women praising them (like myself and a good deal of my friends) but the whole debate makes me want to sob. I can handle discussions about gender, race and hair on their own, but when discussions about the three are inseparable I kinda lose it.

    Take for example "Good Hair". I broke down about 30 minutes in and haven't been able to finish it, and I'm one of those chicks who (unfortunately) believes that crying is a sign of weakness).


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