Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Adoptive Mama Stretch Marks

Do you realize how much society programs us about what we "should" look like? If you're into things like The Dove Campaign For Real Beauty or the recent no-Photoshop pledge from Seventeen Magazine or maybe Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair or even something like this movie: Dark Girls or maybe the movie Miss Representation you probably are and this will be me preaching to the choir. If you're not up on any of the above mentioned resources, take a gander at 'em some time and start to really THINK about what the media you're immersed in all day is telling you about what is acceptable about your appearance. And the media for sure has a message for you: signs of aging are unacceptable until they're unavoidable. You must look like you're 20-something until you're 60-something. (Did any of you see comments critical of Hillary Clinton's wrinkles on Facebook posts that praised her for shutting down a sexist line of questioning about what fashion designers she favors? I saw a LOT of that.) Your hair must be straight to be "professional" or "serious". (I'm as thrilled as the next curly girl that curly hair is making so many appearances in commercials, but take a deeper look at the way it's portrayed - always as the flip, fun, crazy thing, and never as the serious, intelligent, professional, respectable thing.) The best hair and skin are blond and tan, respectively. Dark hair and skin are "exotic" and a "curiosity" - good for art - but not exactly acceptable and certainly not for movies or magazine covers. The darker the skin, the less acceptable it is (and this isn't exclusive to American society, worldwide there are caste- and class-based prejudices against the dark skin associated with rural or agrarian-working people.)

So, recently on a website called Chocolate Hair / Vanilla Care for folks who (like me) have adopted transracially and want to do right by our children in their specific hair and skin care needs, there was a mom who started a conversation. Her question was fairly simple, but it sparked a lot of response and discussion. She had a history of wearing blond highlights, and though she had been blond as a child, her hair had darkened starting around 13 and been dark since. She had decided that embracing her natural hair might help her daughter to do the same. This is a big deal for young black girls - take a look around at the black women you know and survey how many of them wear their hair in its natural state. There is a lot of pressure on black women to "be presentable" by either straightening their hair or wearing a weave, or spending a lot of money on elaborate styles. (Did you hear about all the criticism of Gabby Douglas' hair while she was busy winning an Olympic Gold Medal?) This mom had gotten a lot of pushback, from people as intimate as family to people as distant as cashiers looking at her ID in the store. And she was wondering if she really should go back to blond? Was she teaching her daughter something valuable by persisting, or was she just being obstinate about something that didn't matter much?

A lot of people, quite rightly, said that what matters is not so much what you do or don't do with your hair, but that you are happy with it, and confident in yourself. They echoed again and again the sentiment that nobody's opinion of your hair matters but your own, and if you are happy with how you look, then rock on. I took a slightly different tack. I think she should absolutely persist with the dark, natural hair, and here's what I said about why:

I think you are experiencing something valuable right now - society is telling you that blond hair is more appreciated and "better" than your natural beauty. Developing coping strategies from this experience and embracing your own hair's color will help you be a better ally for your daughter when she starts to internalize those same messages that her hair is more acceptable, more sophisticated, more beautiful when it is straight and light-colored and shiny. There is nothing wrong with straight blond hair, but it is certainly not BETTER than curly brown hair!
One of the reasons that transracial adoptive parents are counseled to find adult role models of color for their children is that they need to see people who live under the same pressure they do, modeling appropriate responses to it. It's one thing to say "be proud of your gorgeous curly hair!". It's another thing entirely to demonstrate specific ways in which one may do so. Practical example trumps sermon EVERY. TIME. Further down the thread, several comments turned to adults who color their hair to cover up gray, and whether this was good, bad, or neither. I have thoughts on that, too! And here is what I said about that:
I think the impulse to cover our gray is the same impulse our chocolate children feel to lighten their skin and straighten their hair. It's the societal message that youth is more acceptable and more valuable than age, that straight blond hair is more acceptable and more valuable than curly dark hair, and that thinness is more acceptable and more valuable than curviness. Have you ever noticed how in movies, all the women either look 20 or 80? There are few 40 or 60 year old female roles in movies. You're not allowed to be gray until you look like the excellent Jessica Tandy or Dame Judi Dench.

Personally, I rock some silver streaks - definitely more since I brought my babies home! They're like my adoptive mother stretch marks!


Leslie said...

I am living for the day when I have enough gray or silver to have that pretty, pretty salt and pepper look. I have a friend who actually looked younger once she stopped coloring her hair dark and went with her natural silver/white

Lazerguppie said...

My grey is not a pretty grey and makes me look sallow... so I will continue to color it. If my base hair color were not strawberry blonde but your gorgeous dark locks, it probably wouldn't make me look that way. It has nothing to do with society. Just my own vanity.
I have earned my grey, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it :)

Thalassa said...

And I think that's a perfectly good reason to keep your hair colored! :)

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