by Kamaria Muntu
9th November 2012, 14:22 GMT
A teacher friend in Savannah, Georgia told me a story about how an African-American freshman high-school girl was left behind on a field trip because the Principal said her hair wasn’t up to par. The African-American student had no chemical straighteners in it, and the hair was in a ponytail with barrettes – the Principal went on to say that her clothes which were clean were also not suitable. My friend who is a Caucasian woman of Irish heritage, attempted to object as the girl looked fine to her. The student was still left behind – one of a series of abusive incidents in the all Black High School that caused my friend to resign.
Gabby Douglas is a most wonderful and amazing athlete who is the Cover Girl for the December issue of Essence Magazine.
The issue celebrates Women of the Year. Ordinarily I may have understood the empowerment aspect of ranking such an accomplished teenaged girl as a woman. But Gabby Douglas on the cover of Essence is out of context, and it actually diminishes her tremendous accomplishments as a teenager. For instance, if actor Pam Grier were nude on the cover of Essence in her late fifties, that would be an empowering statement for a middle-aged woman. Yet, if 12-year-old Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada were to do the same in a few years, that would be child pornography. Gabby gracing the cover of Essence as a woman has caused me once again to think about how remiss we are as a society when it comes to the protection of our children. Not unlike two other phenomenal super-stars of sport, Venus and Serena Williams; Gabby has had to endure nasty and racially disparaging criticisms of her hair. The fact that the Williams’ family stood firm in their values when Venus and Serena were under attack for wearing braids and colourful beads, reflective of their culture, demography and more importantly – reflective of the fact that they were still just girls, is something the Williams parents should always be extremely proud of.
Gabby Douglas is a girl – not a woman yet. But that hasn’t stopped a sizable number of Black people from laying their hair angst on the shoulders of this child. And even when they feel they are being the most supportive, they have somehow missed the mark.
To give an example – in the maelstrom of controversy surrounding Douglass’ hair during this past summer’s Olympics; writing for CNN’s InAmerica, professor, and McArthur genius award winner Tiya Miles, made some germane points in her Op-Ed piece Why Focus on Gabby Douglas’ hair? Miles offers, “African-American women feel that we have to “represent” through physical appearance. We know that when we step outside our doors, people do not only see and judge us as individuals, they see and judge our entire community and racial group.”
Because Miles possesses this understanding, it is surprising when she states – “After her stunning win, tweeters who publicly demanded “why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” and charged “gabby douglas gotta do something with this hair!” distracted the nation’s attention from what really mattered in the moment.
Really? After centuries of enslavement, legal and institutional racism and the cultural demonisation of Black people’s physical appearance, it was tweeters that “distracted the nation’s attention from what really mattered in that moment.” It is interesting how said tweets have turned Gabby into a mini industry.
Miles would have done better to question; how would some ignorant comments on a social networking site become a platform for major national and international debate, unless the varied mainstream media outlets that Black people do
not control, gave those ignorant comments a platform.
In our obsession with the external, it seems we’ve lost sight of not only our traditional values, but also of the obvious. Had we simply said, when issues of Gabby’s hair arose – that Gabby is a teenager, a child, and discussing any aspect of her physical appearance is inappropriate. Had we simply said, Black girls wear their hair in ponytails; sometimes they hold it down with hair clips, pins, ribbons – as it is in perfect order for children to look like children, and those who think otherwise are perverts – perhaps then we could have quelled the spectacle of putting this young girl’s looks up to public scrutiny. Yet we entertained this sick nonsense, because while we constantly preoccupy ourselves with the exteriors of what it is to be African, to be Black; we routinely and dutifully engage the thought processes of a morally bankrupt culture.
And now that Gabby is on the cover of major women’s magazines in glamorised outfits, (keep in mind she is not sporting prom dresses) – hair tossed about, being sexualised for mass consumption, the excitement of her misguided adult fans is shameful. By adopting the “look at her now” attitude when it comes to Gabby’s more Hollywood persona, it gives validity to the self-hating and hateful individuals who didn’t know any better than to speak of the teenager with derision in the first place.
It suggests she wasn’t attractive enough looking like a child. Even hairstylist to the stars, Ted Gibson, demonstrated sensitivity about the girl’s age when the decision was made to give Gabby a celebrity style. “It’s tricky
because Gabby is 16 and I don’t want to do anything to make her look 25 years old,’’ said Gibson.
For teenage girls that are neither Olympian or wealthy, the message sent by the need for Gabby to be made into a screen siren before she can be accepted and lauded as her girl-self is especially dangerous – poor girls and those whose parents and caretakers struggle with finances will not be able to afford any such Hollywood coiffures or accoutrements. Girls and boys often experience diminished self-esteem because of not looking like the celebrities they see in the media. Too often it’s adults, not just children who continue to perpetuate pop culture obsession with everyone from music stars to reality TV stars. Often its adults who demonstrate dedicated addiction to the glittery persona of the idle rich and seemingly useless. We are engaging a societal norm that
grows our children up much too quickly.
One didn’t have to be a feminist to take issue with the arrival of a sexualised teenaged Britney Spears in the 1990’s, clad in a questionable schoolgirl outfit. Many parents were outraged and rightfully concerned about the effect the image would have on teens and pre-teens. The rapper Foxy Brown was also a teenager in the 90’s when she was put out there with shockingly obscene lyrics, by a now socially accepted mainstream hip-hop mogul. Spears had a nervous break-down, she has since recovered. Foxy Brown has been in and out of jail and her recovery progress is questionable. As I’ve mentioned on Femficatio before, in the UK, child advocacy forums like MumsNet have been successful in leading campaigns to prevent the sexualisation and “growing up” of girls, including the successful 2010 “Let Girls Be Girls” campaign, holding retailers accountable for premature sexualisation of children through their products. What message does Essence send to teenagers when they say Gabby Douglass is a powerful Woman? What problem does that pose for parents when adolescent girls can point to the premier magazine in the international Black women’s community and say “Well, they say I’m a woman”.
I am not equating the unfortunate scenarios of Spears and Brown with Gabby’s life. Miss Douglas is a world-class athlete who has a tremendous gift and is being branded “America’s Sweetheart.” Still, there is a youth-stealing climate that is not nearly challenged enough by grown folks – folks who complain about juvenile crime and teenage pregnancy. With predatory agendas making consistent legal appeals to lower the age of consent, it’s crucial that we draw boundaries between childhood and adulthood.
Woman is not just another word for female. It is defined by a maturation of being.
The same holds true for Black teenaged boys who are often designated as men, all the while their faces are routinely being over-exposed on television and in print for allegedly or factually being caught in criminality’s web. The idea is not only to make society fear them so they can be punished as adults – it also serves to distance us from these children, their vulnerability and abuse at the hands of society, family or both. The idea is to distance us from our culpability.
I’ve seen message boards where grown Black women are declaring eleven year old girl models to be “fierce.” When did
we lose our sense of what is appropriate, our moral gauge? No matter how much the mainstream media sends the message that poking public fun at children is acceptable, (which aids in the serious problem of school bullying by the way) – no matter how many boundaries are crossed with sexually inappropriate teenage marketing, or sexualised images of underage youth that imply children can consent to what they can’t consent to – we need our own benchmarks for protective justice when it comes to how we treat, view, image, nurture and hold fast to our young.
We also need to confront our fear and loathing of adult Black women. The hoopla about Serena Williams’ silly “crypt walk” – (mind you I didn’t even know what that was) caused an over-the-top reaction in the Black community that was hardly necessary. Just a theory, but I often think women’s competitiveness and envy of one another, as well as male insecurity when it comes to adult women – lends it’s self to fixation on teenaged girls. There is a need for broader conversations about the sanctity and sacredness of our children and the maintenance of their childhood years. The fact that anyone can stomach the likes of an R. Kelly or support musical entertainers who have inappropriate lyrics referencing young girls is baffling.
Gabby Douglas is lovely, talented and hopeful like so many young girls with star-bright smiles. She has a few more years until she is a woman proper …
Allow her to have her youth, her Today.
Note: On the issue of lowering the age of consent, I believe it important for all of us interested in the rights and protection of children, that ages of consent not be lowered – but laws like the Romeo and Juliet Laws must be adopted and adhered to in every state in the US, as well as similar laws enacted and enforced around the globe. Had the state of Georgia, USA had solid Romeo and Juliet laws, and not the murky laws regarding statutory rape that was used to convict Marcus Dixon of raping Kristie Brown, the outcome of false imprisonment and horrific trauma to the high school student with good grades and a promising football career could have perhaps been averted. View also the case of Genarlow Wilson for more outraging sentencing in Georgia.