Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Body Image, Vanity, and Privilege

I spend a good portion of my (white, privileged) day talking to young girls and women (mostly white, privileged) about how the world is only concerned with their bodies. How their bodies look - not what they can do. How their bodies are flawed, and what products and services (surgeries) they need to correct their bodies. How their bodies must be (as Twisty calls it) beauty2k compliant, which of course means their bodies must be attractive to men.

I spend a good portion of my day talking to girls and women about how they are more than what they look like. They are more than how their bodies are judged. I spend massive air time talking about how we could appreciate our bodies for what they are capable of. We could appreciate ourselves for what we're capable of. Advertising be damned, we could be human whether or not we're beauty2k compliant.

And then I read this post from Womanist Musings this morning; an open letter of sorts to the Jolie-Pitts (actually really just to Angelina, there didn't seem to be the sense that Brad should do the hair care for the girls) telling them that Zahara's hair is a mess, and that equals bad/racist/privileged/ignorant parenting. (She's not the only one - Google Zahara Jolie Pitt Hair)

So I read this post and I kept fluctuating between "I'm white and privileged so what do I know" and "maybe Zahara's family doesn't care about her hair because they care about her person instead." We're talking about a little girl. From what I hear an active, happy, engaging little girl. Maybe she doesn't want her hair done. Maybe she'd rather run around and play then worry about how she looks.

I have read (I couldn't know) that Black hair matters. I know that we live in a racist culture that politicizes and judges Black women by their hair. But we also live in a sexist culture, one that demands women (and girls) look a certain way (read: attractive to men). I can't help but think that to break free of the racist and sexist cultures must be liberating. Black or not - FUCK what people think about your hair, or your lips, boobs, ass. What if WE as a culture cared more about what girls (of any race) can or want to DO?

While it's valid that the Jolie-Pitts may be lacking in some cultural understandings, this doesn't convince me that because something is culturally true that it's right. Musings may be right that Zahara may be faced in the future with judgment about her hair, which may be the fault of her white parents not understanding how to care for Black hair. But I would like to imagine that in those moments of Judgment Zahara would respond. FUCK what you think about my hair, I'm a whole person, and that would show me that perhaps her parents gave her more than styling cream.

*In related news, Chris Rock comes out with a documentary called Good Hair this week stemming from a conversation with his young daughter who wished she had her friends "good hair".

Update: Gender Across Borders saw Good Hair and has a review up raising some really pertinent points about authenticity (and privilege!)


Danine said...

Since the author of the Womanist Musings post is black, I think she has a right to her feelings, to a point. I think it's valid for black people to have opinions about how white people raise black children. Well, as much as it's appropriate for anyone to be able to tell someone else how to raise their kids.

There's a point to be made that you and I as white women can't possibly know the importance of hair in African-American culture and we probably shouldn't judge that.

On the other hand, it is just hair. It shouldn't be more important than personality, intelligence, social skills or hey, what our bodies can actually do.


Criss L. Cox said...

I think the trigger for that post is specifically Black hair. As non-Black women, we don't know what it's like to wash and style Black hair, and I know I am ignorant of the history of Black hair (which a child doesn't know, but an activist mom/woman like Renee at Womanist Musings does, which causes her to see things you and I don't see when we look at that photo).

Reading the comments on that post there are several Black women who did not agree with her, but that doesn't mean she's wrong (I know plenty of women who will tell you there's "nothing wrong" with your average beer commercial or the outfits the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders wear...)

Black hair, and its care and maintainace, and styling, are symbols for much bigger issues. Another issue raised in that post was White parents adopting Black children, and because of their white privilege being unable to teach the Black child about Black culture, all the small things, like proper care of Black hair. I think the point of her post was not that the girl's hair needs to look "pretty" (or "white"), but that it needs to be cared for properly (shampooed, combed, oiled). She was asking for basic hygiene and care, not a certain standard of beauty.

DancingGrapes said...

I totally appreciate your comments and the points being made that the original post is from a perspective I can't know. At the same time, I'm not sure that it's really about hygiene so much as being passable in society. I just mean to wonder where cultural sensitivity stops and cultural change needs to stop.

Criss L. Cox said...

True. But I don't know who has the right to draw that line... It's probably in a different spot for everyone (as you can see in the comments to the original post, many from Black women, who read the post the same way you did).

Danine said...

Criss, I had to laugh at your comment about your Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders commercial. I assume that might have been directed at me and the DirecTV commercial post. If so, touché, my dear, touché. Very good point, indeed.

Also, Kate's points are valid about hair and body image for every woman but somehow I think non-black women, especially white women, probably need to stay out of the black hair debate. I think we've probably caused enough damage. I don't think I, as a white woman, get a vote on this topic. So with that, I'm going to pipe down and be quiet now. :-P