Black Teenage Girl Laughing

Her pronouncement sent a chill through my spine—heavy and wintry and thick. “But I look… I look… I look like a boy!” my daughter insisted, doing a slow wall slide down onto the kitchen floor, dissolving into a heap of tears and tantrum, torn to pieces over, of all things, her hair. She wanted expensive extensions so that her locs could swing below her shoulders. I wanted her to love the hair growing out of her head, exactly as it is, because it is beautiful and unique and hers. My gentle “no” did not go over well.

Now, when I was 15 and worrying about what the popular girls looked like and who the boys found attractive and how I could overcome this dark skin and these thick thighs and this big ass and this kinky hair and all this straight-A, honors brain and the bargain store clothes, and actually get someone to, like, notice me, there were no tears. No fall-outs. Bettye, my mother, didn’t play that. School was for the learning. Work at the factory was exhausting. Ain’t nobody had time for a daughter’s whining over hair and boys.

Buck up. Ignore them. Focus on what is important. That’s what my mother said. That’s that old school parenting right there. It worked for Bettye. The effect it had on her daughter? Untenable.

See, the thing about being 15 is that the hormones are raging and that independence is kicking in and comparing yourself to the knuckleheads around you is inevitable, and the more you look at your reflection in the mirror, the more things you find wrong with yourself. Especially if no one is pointing out all the things that are right. Left unattended, self-esteem can wither and wrinkle up like a sticky raisin in the sweltering summer sun.

I know this for sure. Spending half of a lifetime picking myself apart and thinking everything that falls between the top of my head and the soles of my feet were wholly inadequate gets you really clear on such things. I hated me. And I hid myself under baggy clothes and a bare face and sensible shoes, insisting that being pretty wasn’t important at all—that being the smart, do-it-all workhorse was the only thing that mattered. I was 40 years old before I effing figured out that wearing make-up, dressing in cute outfits that fit and flatter and taking pride in rocking an adorable hairstyle is not about impressing or competing with anyone else. It’s about me loving me. I would just as soon chop off my hands and sever my own tongue than knowingly let either of my daughters feel the way that I did all those years before I had that epiphany. To spend even one second thinking they are not enough.

So I make the conscious decision to water.

Some days, this is not an easy proposition. My child is 15 but still, she is my baby. Just a few more years and she will be off on her own adventure—college, a career, her own home, maybe marriage and a few babies, too. My time with her—these very specific, hands-on, face-to-face, heart-to-heart moments—soon will be no more.

So in a rush of emotion and brain throb and yes, a smidge of fear, I am thinking—always thinking—about what else needs to be taught. This is how you iron a skirt with pleats. This is how you shop for groceries on a budget. This Roy Ayers song is the backbone of Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” one of the best songs about Black girl angst ever written. This is a good credit score, that guy is an example of a good dude, over there is a neighborhood in transition and that’s not necessarily a good thing. My baby listens. Sometimes she asks questions. Sometimes she’s annoyed by the lessons. I know that she tucks it away and recalls it when it counts. But the beauty stuff, that is new.

Luckily, girlpie is open to growing responsibly—to blossoming into her own at a reasonable pace. She’s stunning, really, with these gorgeous copper brown locs cascading all around her chocolate face, the perfect exclamation point to her Beyonce thick—all curves and hips and booty and Black girl goodness. Some days, I look up and I see her there and my heart skips a beat. My daughter is blossoming into a beautiful young woman. She just doesn’t know it yet. So I tell her so. This is important. Confidence—the ability to square the shoulders and hold your head up high and celebrate your own loveliness—is as exquisite and rich as a Ruby Woo lippie. Looking good helps you feel good about yourself. Feeling good about yourself makes you feel secure. Feeling secure makes you feel like you have super powers—allows you to get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful on the inside. This is important, too.

I help my daughter do the work.

That work started from the womb, you know—from the moment that cold, sloppy goop was slathered on my belly and the sonogram revealed her to be a girl child. I hung pictures of our family on the wall all around her crib, so that every day she opened her eyes and looked up she would know she is loved. I filled her library with books featuring characters that look like her, so that she could see herself in the imagination of others. I rocked her to sleep to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and India.Aire and Earth Wind & Fire and Lauryn Hill, so that she could feel love of self deep down in her soul. And every day—every single day—I told her how pretty her hair is, how I adore her face, how her skin is the same amazing color as “mahogany,” my favorite Crayola crayon, how strong and beautiful are her legs and her shoulders and her arms and her booty and back and feet.

Still, she has her moments when she doesn’t like what she sees. We all do, of course. That’s human. But at 15, it’s especially challenging, particularly when you’re a Black girl with natural hair, being raised by parents who don’t allow the weaves, risqué clothes and make-up masks that seem to be the fashion and beauty choices of practically every other Black girl in our local public high school here in Atlanta. I will not be sending my kid to the 10th grade looking like an extra on the set of “Love & Hip Hop.”

This, of course, is what’s was behind the desperate quest for loc extensions. I get it. It’s not easy to be different in a sea of cultural clones. But rather than let her fall victim to trying to be like everyone else, I wiped her tears and held her in my arms and we made a plan for how she could look more like how she wanted to look. We worked first on ways to style her locs, Googling pictures and YouTube how-to videos for cute looks she could pull off on her own. Then we dove into her wardrobe, discussed her personal style and added key pieces that represent it. She is now allowed to wear eyeliner and lip gloss with a smidge of color. And when she walks out the door to school, this kid is totally badass—in a way that is age appropriate and a full reflection of her burgeoning personal style.

Of course, she is really clear that there is so much more to being a beautiful person than looking pretty and dressing fly. Being intelligent, outspoken, thoughtful, kind, hardworking, independent and more is a given. Each is a work in progress. She’s getting those in, too.

But being beautiful on the outside will, for sure, help her get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. And loving herself for her, and nobody else.

* * *

“Watering the Flower: How I Help My Daughter Embrace Her Beauty,” first appeared as part of the “Raising A Badass Girl” series on MyMamihood.com. Read the entire “Raising A Badass Girl” series here.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

12 Comments

  1. You are a flower. This is beautiful. People don’t understand how intentional you have to be in *every* way with your babies. I could relate to every line.

    • Thank you so much, Tarana. You are an inspiration to me as a mother and as a woman for many reasons, and one of the biggest ones has been your intentional parenting. I learned first hand how this has manifested itself when I had the privilege of interviewing your lovely daughter. She is nothing short of amazing. And I know she has you to thank. I adore you, #SameBrain!

  2. This is beautiful, Denene! My husband and I try are very intentional about making sure our daughter knows she is beautiful, inside and out. Because like you, I knew what it felt like to dislike what I saw in the mirror. Those days are no more for me, and I pray my daughter won’t have to feel the way I did.

    When her hair fell out from chemo a few years back, some of the kids were teasing her, saying she looked like a boy. That she could brush that off, at just 5 years old, told me we were on the right track. We remind her constantly that her black girl beautiful is nothing short of incredible, and we’re already starting those lessons with her baby sister.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Jennae. Your daughter has such strength in her young years, and that’s no small fete. That has EVERYTHING to do with you and your husband. I’m so proud of you two. And I enjoy seeing pics of those two delicious girl pies. Y’all make some pretty babies! Keep doing what you do. Not just for your babies, but for all of us!

  3. This is spot on. When society keeps telling our girls in so many ways (both overt and subliminal) that nothing about them is beautiful, parents do have to help them see and feel their beauty. It’s a constant and intentional act, but so important. Thank you for posting this..well done momma.

  4. My Kyra-girl just hit 13, and thankfully, she hasn’t voiced any appearance insecurities yet. I’m bookmarking this to reference when that day comes. I’m no fool; I know it WILL happen, eventually, no matter how much water and self-esteem
    MiracleGro I dump on her between now and then.

  5. Like you said, we all have our moments. I’m about 10 years older than her and I remember my teenage years. I used to want to fit in so badly and thought I had to look like other girls to be valuable. My ma has always been big on validation but teen girl feels still seeped in. And couple that with figuring out my sexuality…..YEESH. Thankfully, I made it out relatively unscathed. As a 20-something, I’m seeing the method to my mom’s madness. I see why she didn’t buy her girls white dolls and the art I buy, from my clothing to painting prints, reflects the beauty of Blackness. To this day, every piece of art in my mom’s house is Afrocentric. While some Black girls get crap from their moms when they went natural, my mother did my big chop and we go to the barbershop together now. Even as an adult, she continues to validate my sisters, myself and now her grandchildren. My mom is still my mom but she is one of my greatest allies and friends. I’m sure your daughters will say the same about you when they’re around my age.

  6. In a way, my parents forced me into the you-are-perfect-the-way-you-are mode by not allowing me to primp. It played out in the long run that I benefited from being a “tomboy” (read: athletic and strong) and acting like my brains mattered more than my beauty. I learned to love my feminine options more in my 30’s and now in my 40’s am seeking “girly” opportunities. Great for you and Lila to express those facets now and make it work on both ends. (BTW- I love your Promise video)

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