Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sing a Black Girl's Song: Body Image

For the last few weeks I've been working with fifth and sixth grade girls of African descent making collages, scrapbook pages, and whatever else you can imagine doing with magazines, glue sticks, and some poetry.

The first week or two the girls were pretty creative, but notice anything?

You guessed it. Light skin, long hair, slim to skinny figures. Yes, there are women of color in the last collage. But put in context with the other two (which are representative of the whole) it is both the exception and blatantly unexceptional. At the end of the day, all of the women look very much the same. When I took my girls work home and took a look, the glaring truth was disturbing and painfully obvious. Asked to find "positive" images, and when given no other guidance, they unerringly choose women who looked nothing like them.

But I took the responsibility on myself. After all, it was my mistake to give them mainstream magazines like Lucky and InStyle to choose their images from. So I went on a metaphoric dumpster dive for positive images and I gave them more specific instructions. On a canvas of pre-selected images of women obviously of African descent--with dark skin, kinky hair, and some with a little more bump to their rump, although that last was hard to find even in an Essence--the girls would add positive words from the same magazines, little pictures, and words/phrases from the poem "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou and "Let it Go" by Keyisha Cole.

I rubber cemented their images on cardstock and in class this week I passed them around.

Initial reaction --> "Uh UH! I don't want that one!"

Now, I let that slide. Normally I do let them choose their own images so it seemed logical that they would cry foul when I gave them what would be their main image. And, accordingly, when I made it clear that this was what they had to work with, most settled in.

But a couple of students were adamant. "I DON'T want that one. I don't want those!"

These were students with the images of the darkest women. One was what I thought was a shadowed image of a long, lanky woman with dark, velvety skin in an ad Johnson's Baby Oil. The other was an editorial page but the featured image was Angie Stone.

So I tried diplomacy. "Well, what's wrong with those images?"

"I don't want them. What about this one?" The one with Angie Stone flipped it over. Hers was one I'd forgotten to glue to cardstock. On the back was an ad with Beyonce Knowles at her tragic mulatta loveliest for American Express. I rolled my eyes inside. Jeez.

"No, not that one. In fact, here." I corrected my mistake, glued her image down, leaving her with Angie's dark eyes smiling at her. "Here you go."


Meanwhile, across the table, the student with the Johnson's ad was cutting out a full page Herbal Essences ad prominently featuring an ambiguous Latina. "What are you going to do with that?," I ask. Diplomacy.

"I'm going to cover it," she smiled. And proceeded to place the ad, the entire full page, on top of the darker woman.

No way. Diplomacy, I saw, was going to have to go out the window. Not that I am one to crush creative impulses, but this was getting ridiculous. In actuality, I was beginning to feel a little helpless and frustrated.

I shook my head. "Nope. You have to use the image I gave you. You can add around it if you want."

She glared at me. When I looked up again, she'd cut out some words like "Beautiful" and "Feel Good."

And she'd placed them on top of the dark woman's face and thighs in preparation for gluing them down.

I moved quickly. "Whoa, buddy. Now what are you doing?"

The girl wrinkled her nose. "I'm trying to cover her! She's naked!"

"She's not naked. You can't even see anything. Just that beautiful brown skin." I said it deliberately. And she and her partner jumped right to the bait.

"Uh uh! She's not brown--she's CRISPY!"

"Yeah! She's BLACK!"

I smiled. "Oh yeah? You're right. And that's a Johnson ad, so she's all oiled up and beautiful. Something wrong with that?"

The girls blushed, smiling, shaking their head, shrugging--didn't know what to say. And I was thanking God that at least they didn't immediately respond that, "Yes, there IS something wrong with that." Because I don't know what I would have done.

So I tapped the image, deliberately moving the words out of the way. "She's got beautiful skin, don't you think? You should move the words around it to highlight that. And highlight her face."

Groans. Aww mans. Ahh, c'mons. But they moved the words around so that Beautiful floated (just below the face, dangerously close) gently along the woman's arm and Feel Good was tattooed on her thigh.

Meanwhile, the girl with Angie Stone was busy cutting out Beyonce and placing her beside Angie on her picture.

I watched warily, but decided there was only so much I could do with their creative license. I'd at least succeeded in stopping both of them enacting internalized oppression violence on the women's faces.

I spoke too soon.

One of my more promising students, a serious, creative girl who'd actually taken herself away from the group into the corner to work, came over with a smile. "I'm done!" I smiled back. I'd given her a fashion couture shot of a dark brown woman with braids coiled in a sophisticated coif around her head. I was excited to see what she came up with.

Beautiful. And violent. "This is really great--but why did you write across her face? And put "Rise" across her nose?"

This student had the presence of mind to blush. She shrugged. "I dunno. I messed up."

I was grinding my teeth inside, because I didn't want her to think she messed up! Darn it self-denigrating-youth-of-color!

"No, just think about it for next time. Try to find images that would frame her beautiful face. Especially the contrast with her clothes, how it highlights that lovely brown." Word choice deliberate. But she still looked a little flustered so I pointed out that the strawberries were a nice, clever touch. She went back to her seat smiling.

The rest of class was uneventful, or at least the events ran along similar lines. But by the end I was exhausted. I'd thought by giving them images of black women with no option to skate around them that they would simply transfer the positive from the white/mixed race to the dark. I thought it was an issue of lack of option.

But it was much more complicated than that. From outright erasure to discrete vandalizing, these girls did their best to remove themselves from identification with the images, to deny the beauty and humanity of the photos, and to replace/rewrite/retain the stereotypes of beauty/good/healthy/nice as white/light that they'd been socialized into. And they were prepared to argue with me on the matter! Although, like I said, at least they weren't so bold as to say directly to me, "Kinky hair is ugly and black skin is too."

Man. Kenneth Clark would have a field day.

And I won't lie--I felt personally attacked. Although I know they didn't mean it, here I sit, in solidarity with them, dark brown just like they are dark brown, kinky haired just like they are kinky haired (albeit some with relaxers) and the first image they reach for is lighter skinned, long haired Beyonce or Christina Milian. And, even more frightening, the first image they reject is dark skinned, curly haired Angie Stone. Where then does that leave us, my darlings? What do we think of ourselves if we are ready to paste newspaper over own arms and thighs to cover up the color, if we are ready to scrawl permanent marker across our faces, slam white paper over our flat noses to mask the sight, if we are read to tear out an image of a white woman and glue it wholescale over our entire SELVES because we don't like what we see?

The choosing of one the white image I was prepared for. The absolute rejection of the black one I was not.

And I'm not prepared, at all, to deal with this. How do I approach this issue in a way that is not going to squish their creative juices but is also going to challenge them on a deeper level to CRITIQUE these ideas of beauty that they are already indoctrinated into?

Any ideas? Comments welcome, necessary. Help me sing a black girl's song....


Be Fun Pad (read between the lines!) said...

start asking questions, and don't let them off the hook. Wait patiently for them to answer you.

so by questions--I mean--doing something like when they are all grabbing for the lighter/white representations--say, "hold up hold up hold---let's stop a minute. What do you see in these pictures?" Then go from there--why do you like these pictures? What makes you feel happy about these pictures? Is there anything that makes you mad or sad? Do you wish you could be like the women in these pictures? Why or why not? Who do you think *made* these pictures? Why do you think that they made them? Do you think everybody looks like this? Why do you think that they choose women who look like this if not everybody looks like this? Etc etc etc. Then use the pic's of the darker skinned/black women and do the same thing.

Make them think about this--and your gonna get a lot of girls who are going to say "i dunno" or not want to talk about it--so Start off with the easier questions and be *really* encouraging about their responses.

When you start working with the images with the darker skinned women--be *really* prepared to share a bit of yourself. Tell them about when you felt uncomfortable with your appearance. Or what you felt like when somebody made fun of your appearance. Or when you saw the pictures and felt happy and wonderful because at last there was a woman who looked like you--and they may shut down here, and not want to admit anything--cuz kids are just like that--but you may get one or two girls who say something, and that will inspire others as well. And if you don't--at the *very* least, slowing them down and forcing them to think through some questions will make them actually think about what YOU say, you know? store it away and remember it when they're ready to hear it.

Another thing to consider as well--just so you don't get too frustrated with yourself--lots of times kids at that age are attracted to bright shiny objects and stuff that is really familiar to them. so they will use light skinned images because that's what they're *used* to seeing. I mean--watch BET or read Latina! and you see light skinned ambiguous looking women, you know?

So they're gonna take what they're used to, to the point of actively rejecting what they're NOT used to.

I had this same issue with some young women who I am really close to--and it breaks my heart to seem them do certain things--like one of them *always* picks blond white women to be their "avatar" thing when she is online or playing Wii--I've asked why and she says because she things "yellow hair is pretty". I have to totally stop myself from shaking her and saying, baby, BLACK HAIR IS PRETTY TOO!!!!--but I've learned that the better thing to do is give her the tools to figure that out herself. give her the questions to ask when she looks at something, you know?

anyway. i could go on and on! :-)

i'm looking forward to hearing more about this--AND--their artwork *IS* very beautiful. they have a great sense of style.

Kismet said...

be fun pad (*huge smile*),

Thank you for the advice. I need to get better at asking questions AND not letting them off the hook, as you say, because I think I let them slide sometimes. Partly because I feel so ill-equipped to address their concerns. AND I'm wary (nervous, embarassed) to point to my own experiences with those very same images.

But coming to them out of my personal experiences with body image will have to be the way to address both of those. I'm going to have to get braver--big time braver.

*sigh*, time to search through some more Essence magazines....

Thank you :) Come again!

elle said...

On one hand, I want to cry. It reminds me so much of the "doll" tests.

But on the other, I'm glad you're challenging them. Please, please keep doing so.