My daughter M, for awhile, was convinced she was ugly. She hated the color of her hair, her dark eyes, her darker skin. M is half Japanese, but she looks more like her father than me, with dark chestnut hair and very dark, luminous eyes. She’s a beautiful girl, but she just didn’t see it.
Media plays a big part in this. M loves Disney and princesses, but for awhile, she lamented that she couldn’t be a princess because she’s not blond and doesn’t have blue eyes. “I’m just not pretty,” she’d sigh.
I tried to argue that not all of them are blond, but really, if you look at the primary “princess pantheon,” they are. At least, the most of the famous ones are. “And,” M added bitterly, “the Asian one (Mulan) doesn’t even get to be a princess. She’s just a regular girl.” M hypothesized that if Mulan dyed her hair blond and got contacts, maybe “they’d let her be a princess.” It’s hard to argue. It’s hard to find Asian dolls, especially Japanese dolls, that appeal to little girls. M has a couple, an American Girl and a baby doll, but that’s it.
It’s not just toys. M notices that the world around her has precious few Asian women as role models. She once stood in front of a magazine rack at the grocery store, analyzing the magazine covers, and said quietly, “Where are the Japanese ladies? None of these magazines have Asian people on them. I guess that’s ’cause we’re not pretty.”
She was somewhat reassured when I took her home and showed her some Japanese models, including a friend of mine, and explained that there were plenty of pretty Japanese women, you just don’t see them often in American media. And of course we had to have The Talk about how the media distorts women’s images anyway, and what she sees on magazines is photoshopped and not real. That’s a hard talk for me, because I have to analyze my own body issues. It hurts to hear my daughter vocalize my own despair, not from my race but from my weight, and try to remind myself that I can’t hold myself to unreasonable standards either.
Recently, however, things changed. For her birthday, my two best friends (and M’s “aunts”) sent her some Wonder Woman items as gifts. She got a T-shirt, a costume and some DVD sets of the old Wonder Woman TV show. She absolutely loves them. For the past three months, she’s been wearing the costume and watching the shows.
One day, she said, “You know what I like about Wonder Woman? She’s strong, she’s smart, and she has lots of friends. She’s brave and funny. But also, did you notice that she looks like me? Okay, she’s not Japanese, but her hair and eyes are the same color as mine, and I think she’s beautiful. And she’s a princess too, but she doesn’t have to have a prince to do it. She’s really cool just on her own.”
I haven’t heard about her disliking her looks since. I’m sure there will be days ahead where she does, but for now, she’s happy.
We can teach our girls as much as we can to be smart, strong and independent, but the media creeps in and takes its toll, no matter what we do. It’s important to find strong role models for girls, but also to provide them role models that they can relate to, even if it’s only because they have dark hair. It’s important to talk to them about why we admire these role models. Children take our words to heart, even when we think they aren’t listening.
M said yesterday, “I know what you like best about superheroes. You like it when they use their minds to solve problems and they take care of their friends.”
“So today, on the bus, some boys told my friend A that she was ugly and they made her cry. I told them to leave us alone, and told A she’s beautiful. Also that she’s smart, funny and that I love her no matter what.” She pulled on her Wonder Woman bracelets. “A doesn’t feel brave on the bus. But I do! I’m strong and brave and beautiful!”
A, incidentally, is a cherubic blond, the classic princess type. But I’d rather have a superhero for a daughter.