Maybe Kanye West didn’t anticipate the criticism when he sent out a casting call for only mixed race women [“NO MAKEUP” and “MULTIRACIAL WOMEN ONLY”]. Never seeing the historical body images passing before him; ignoring the historical references to hair and skin color; pretending his call somehow was exempt from history’s vicious hold. An external debate immediately raged, seeking to determine his intent in making the call.
Recently when talking with a friend (a former client) the meaning of the call played out. Her words conveyed a different refrain – a mother’s worry about her pubescent child. Changing, adapting, budding, developing is a child’s lot – part of life’s passages. The parent’s lot: undefined frustrations, unrelenting anxieties, unwittingly speeding the aging process.
“Confident, too admiring of her looks, convinced she has the best body ever.”
“You see any self-doubt?”
“Oh no… not my child”!
I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth
“I don’t know what I am going to do with her.” As the last of her words trailed off, a slight chuckle emitted, moving from one point to the next, then the next, before settling in the recesses of my mind. Time continued her predictable dance.
My mind wandered, moving to another time, place and conversation, seeing a former staff member’s (and friend) anguish. A mother’s worry etched every contour of her face, conveying information foreign to her youth, not knowing what to do with her child’s open celebration of the first coming – of her menstrual cycle. Telling she wanted to share with others, requesting permission to call. “Granny”…! “And Tantie”…! Celebrating the coming of age, excited – she was girl-like, woman-like; scaring her mother, pleasing her mother – causing the appearance of the unpredicted, unexpected emotions – another one of life’s gifts to parents.
The staff member (Pat) allowed her to call. Laughter muted by undefined tears, seemingly worrying about how to interpret the celebration. Be assured, the child suffered terrible teenage anxieties related to height, body, and appearance; those anxieties would be required to step aside and wait another day – not that day. I observed, “You have done a good job”; bestowing a sense of self-worth, wiping away the shame that she said she experienced at that age. She still shook her head as she shared the “my-my” experience.
“My, my how things have changed.”
“Did she call … Your mother? Her aunt…?”
“Oh yes. Acted as if it was her birthday?”
I felt as if I was repeating myself during the most recent conversation. Congratulating, looking backward – forward – telling Debora, “You have done a good job.” Seeing and hearing the roller coaster begin – slowly climbing upward, rocking side-to-side, creaking, stopping, then rapidly descending. Hoping for the best; praying for the best. Calling out for salvation during the horrifying, right-of-passage, ride. Her “I guess so”, was said in a mother’s voice – acknowledging, fleeting, not at all assured, seeing the vision of the invisible stamp discovered on her child’s side, “no guarantees.”
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say – come dance with me
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen
Janis Ian’s voice reverberated in my head, unheard by Debora, competing with but not abating the debate raging within, “Have we turned the corner?” The need for a no makeup movement tells me we have not. The persistent, societally acceptable, targeting of women – body shaming – makes clear, we have not. What we say. What we see. What we cherish. All say that we have not. A telling historical song, remaining embedded in our psychics, as if the song has been placed on repeat, playing over, over, over again.
Time continued to conspire. Debora continued to talk, testing periodically to determine whether I was actually listening. I was. I wasn’t. Thinking about history and images, wanting so much to inject race, knowing full-well the societal concepts of beauty historically, traditionally didn’t mean black girls – brown girls – colored girls. Good hair – bad hair. Dark skinned – light skinned.
We have made progress, have we not? Things have changed, haven’t they? Pat’s news, Debora’s news, tells me it has. The definition of beauty is no longer a stagnant constant. The worries still exist, the roller coaster of life still horrifies; no matter how well-ensconced our children may be, no matter how confident.