Teaching My Son to Love Himself

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by Faye McCray

I have always been nervous about having a daughter.  I have two sons and when I was pregnant with each one, I breathed short sighs of relief when the doctor pointed to the third leg waving back at us on the ultrasound screen.  It was not that I did not want a girl.  I am really close to my mother, and I know the lifelong friendship a good mom can have with her daughter.  It was just as a thirty-two year old former awkward black girl, I know all the wounds and healing it takes to grow into a confident woman.  Having my own daughter would be like reliving them.  However, as my eldest son enters school age, I am starting to realize boys struggle with issues in beauty and identity just as readily as girls.

Last week, my son can home with a homework assignment from his favorite teacher.  Each child was given one letter in the alphabet, and the students had to cut ten pictures out of magazines beginning with that letter and write a poem using alliteration, e.g., Pete posed pulling pigs.  I’m a writer so I dug it.  Leaving him a pile of old magazines, I returned about thirty minutes later to where he sat at the kitchen table to see what he had found: pandas, pigs, president, pretty...  The image depicting “pretty” was a petite, fair skinned red-head, eyes wide and grinning widely.  It was clear there had been a person standing next to her in the picture.  Glancing at the magazine scraps beside him, I spied a picture of a brown girl with large spiral curls who was formerly smiling beside the red-head.

“Baby,” I began.  “Why did you choose this image over that one?” I pointed at the red-head and then the brown girl.

“Because she’s prettier and more fun.”

Suddenly, I had flashes of the Dr. Kenneth Clark 1950s doll test.  You know the one.  The one where Dr. Brown placed a white doll and a black doll in front of black school children, and all the black children thought the white doll was pretty and nice and the black doll was mean and ugly.   Seeing my six-year-old son express a preference for the photograph of the white woman raised all of my red flags.  My husband and I are prideful and socially conscience.  Why would our son prefer the white doll…err, picture?

“They are both really pretty,” I responded.

“Yea, but I like that one better,” he declared. “You like what you like,” he concluded.  Firing my own recurring lesson back at me.

Well played, kid.

He was right.  We are drawn to people and aesthetics almost biologically.  At times, our attraction to another human being can be quick and palpable with little thought to race and some would say, even gender.  It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about my son’s “attraction” to the red- head.  Whether my son ends up with a white woman, black woman, white man or Hispanic man, I’m Team Happy.  Happiness is my biggest dream for my son.  I was more concerned with what finding the black girl less attractive said about how he felt about himself.

The thing is we all have preferences: tall over short, slim over chubby, white over black,

but if we are honest with ourselves, and let’s face it, we all could use a little honesty; we’d realize our preferences have been conditioned since before we could speak.  There is a reason I can barely look into the television when Brad Pitt is gazing back at me with his beautiful, cornflower blue eyes… he’s hot… but also, every prince charming/hero/good guy has looked something like him since I was five years old.  The definition of beauty has been taught to me for longer than I was even conscious there was a lesson.

A little over two years ago, I decided to grow out my relaxed hair and wear my hair in its naturally curly state.  It was the result of my ongoing, hard-fought personal journey to self-love. When I was a little girl, you couldn’t catch me playing princess without a shirt hanging over my head for pretend long hair, and school picture day was never complete without a spread of straightened bangs adorning my smiling face.  I spent most of my twenties with long weaves and chestnut-colored contacts.  Despite my head full of kinky-curls braided beneath, I could barely look at myself without extensions.  One of my biggest fears was that a meteor would hit the earth at the exact moment my stylist finished taking my weave out and I would be caught braving the apocalypse with natural hair.  Seriously.  I felt sexiest with long, straight hair grazing my shoulders, flipping it when I danced or watching it spill over my husband’s (then boyfriend’s) face when we kissed.  The pile of kinky curls sprouting from my head didn’t dance; they didn’t play; and they didn’t even follow directions when I told them to stay straight.

 It took time and effort to see the beauty in my curls, but I refuse to be too hard on myself.  Most of us, regardless of ethnicity, grew up watching some version of the same impossibly skinny, blonde girl shaking her thick, straight tendrils to get the guy.  That Herbal Essence girl orgasmed every time she touched her hair.  I never did that.  Whether your thighs spread too wide from your waist, your nose grew a little too far from your face, or your hair grew too dark at the roots, I would wager we have all struggled with self-acceptance in our lives.  Peace is that moment where you confront the fact that you will never be the 5’5 blonde kissing Josh Duhamel on the movie screen.  Peace is that moment when you realize maybe you never really wanted to be.  You were just constantly taught that you should.

My path to self-love meant rejecting my own conditioning.  Confronting the images I had consumed that fostered the subtle self-hate that continued to linger longer than I care to admit.  Seeing my beauty was decision.  I remember gazing in the mirror one day between weaves and taking a moment to play with the curls along the crown of my hair.  Watching them twist and turn around my finger and spring out when I released them.  They weren’t as gruesome as I had imagined them to be.  In fact, they were kind of cute.  Suddenly, the thought of putting someone else’s hair over my own felt odd.  It made me feel like I was hiding.  As if I were in disguise.  I remember calling my brother in the midst of my manic epiphany yelling, “When I die, don’t bury me in someone else’s hair!”  I am pretty sure he hung up the phone.  The thing is, I still had my extensions put in that day but like I said, it was a journey.  Every journey has a beginning.

Loving myself does not mean rejecting other forms of beauty.  Brad Pitt is still hot.  I still appreciate a good blow-out now and then.  Loving myself means seeing myself as beautiful naturally too, not just when subscribing to a certain aesthetic.  It means realizing that there is something damn-near divine in the abundant curves of my thighs, and sexy could be my husband grabbing a handful of my soft, unruly tight curls while he kissed me.  Beauty is admiring how my crown of kinks frames my face and exposes the deep valley between my collar bone and the base of my long neck.  Though it would have be nice, I do not have to see images of myself in hair commercials or the latest romantic comedy to know I am beautiful.  I can be beautiful in my own eyes without validation.

My son doesn’t have to fling his head around with a shirt hanging from it like I did for me to recognize the impact that society’s pervasive celebration of one form of beauty has on his budding sense of identity.  The fact that he is a boy is not a get-out-of-jail-free card to the imprisonment of self-hate.  The world hasn’t changed… but I have.  I realize that in order to raise my son to love himself, I need to take ownership of the imagery that I allow him to ingest.  It means counteracting the damage by actively celebrating everything beautiful about him, from his own “fun” almond skin to his deep midnight eyes to his large, onyx curls.  Only then can I be sure that my son’s preference of photographs had nothing to do with self-hate.  That he preferred the bubbly red-head because of the laugh beneath her eyes or because of her bright purple sweater, not just because she wasn’t black.  You can only really appreciate the beauty in other people if you recognize the beauty in yourself.  It took a conscious decision to learn self-love, and it will take a conscious decision to teach it.

Faye McCray is a native New Yorker and current resident of the Washington, DC metropolitan area where she resides with her husband and two young sons.  She is an attorney and author. You can also find Faye's work on her blog, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, Graveyard Shift Sisters, and Rachel in the OC.  You can also find her short fiction collection on Amazon.  Connect with Faye on Twitter @fayewrites.

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