Friday, June 23, 2006

A Father’s Presence Helps Young Girls Resist Shallow, Sexualized Self-Images

Date: Tuesday, June 20, 2006
By: Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com

When I was growing up, I remember two occasions when I felt my father’s pride blanketing me like a comforting sleep.

One was the time when I was eight years old and had memorized Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” speech. The other was eight years later, when I beat out hundreds of other high school students in Jacksonville to win a countywide essay contest -- and a trip to Valley Forge, Penn.

He and my mother snapped Polaroid after Polaroid of me ascending the escalator at the airport for what would be my first flight ever -- me all smiles in my hot pink pantsuit and lime green and pink blouse and scarf. That ensemble was glaring enough to force a person into prescription sunglasses prematurely, but my father’s smile was almost as bright.

Funny thing, though. While I remember my father being proud of me for my academic achievements and my smarts, I don’t remember him telling me that I was pretty. He never pushed me to go out for the cheerleading squad -- even though being a cutesy, cartwheel-turning cheerleader was my life and one of the most popular “jobs” in high school.

And maybe the fact that I can’t remember him telling me that is a good thing. Good because the memory that stands out is that my dad pushed me to see my worth in what was in my head and in my heart, and not on how I looked and whether I could get guys to like me.

I think about my father -- who’s still very much alive, by the way -- when I think of the scores of young black girls who are growing up without a strong father or no father in their lives. While there’s a saying that it takes a father to teach his son to be a man, I believe that an addendum ought to be that it takes a father to teach his daughter to love herself for what’s inside, not for what’s on the outside.

Unfortunately, the outside seems to be getting all the attention these days. So much so that it tends to shout down everything else.

Look at the teen magazine racks these days, and you’ll find not only pouty, sexualized teen models gracing the covers, but teaser articles that tend to be more about how girls can make boys like them than how to prepare for college. There’s Lil’ Kim, who has found lewdness and lawbreaking to be lucrative, and Kim Roberts, the second stripper and convicted embezzler who e-mailed the public relations firm that represented Lil’ Kim for advice on how she could market the Duke lacrosse team rape scandal to her advantage.

We’re talking rape allegations here.

And who can forget Karrine Steffans, the video vixen whose sexual prowess with assorted rappers earned her the nickname “Superhead.”

You’d think she would have cringed in shame at a nickname that, in another time, would be fodder for locker room obnoxiousness. But not Steffans. She wears it on a shirt.

Now, I know that every black girl who sees this kind of craziness won’t hinge their esteem on their looks or their sexuality. I know they have to know that there are other ways to make money -- to get rich even.

But I believe that black girls who don’t have the guidance and the endearing presence of fathers may be more vulnerable to caving in to the images of black girls that BET beams over the airwaves. Lil’ Kim’s relationship with her father was tumultuous, and Steffans’ father was absent for much of her life. And while these women may have chosen their current lives regardless, I have to wonder whether they would be weighing their worth by their ability to titillate if they had gotten the message early on that their beauty was only one small aspect of what they had to offer.

That’s a message that a caring father is eminently qualified to impart to his daughter.

Such messages are especially needed nowadays, as videos and magazines inject images of idealized, over sexualized women into the brains of young girls on a daily basis. Fathers can counteract that culture of shallowness. Can protect their daughters by making them feel worthy of love and of life’s good things, regardless of whether they are cheerleader, cover girl or music video material.

So now I look back and realize how lucky I am to have a father who was more pleased when I accomplished something from what I found in the books than by what I saw in the mirror.

Because in the end, my esteem beamed brighter than my reflection.

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