I never really thought me and Jada Pinkett Smith had much in common, outside of us both being married to funny, charming, smart and good-looking guys (lucky us!). But recently, I came across articles about her 12 year old daughter Willow getting a colorful buzz cut and the reaction the media was having towards the haircut, but also their reaction towards Jada-as-Mom, in essence: “how could you let your daughter do that to herself?”
Here was Jada’s response:
“The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self-determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain.
“Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.”
WOW. That one hit me right in the heart. An audience inside me started clapping and stomping and shouting “yeah!” I have not always been so strong, but it was apparent to me that me and Jada had something very deep in common.
As parents of young kids, it doesn’t take long to be confronted with the concept that your child is an individual unto themselves. Sure, as babies they almost seem to be an extension of ourselves, doughy bodies that have basic needs and could really care less whether you dress them in Baby Dior or garage sale hand-me-downs. They can be just as happy with a pot and a wooden spoon as with some fancy plastic toy. They don’t have real preferences outside of physical and emotional comfort.
But sometime as they near the two-year mark, they begin to get it themselves. The “hey! I’m a person, and I want that!”-notion that heralds the phase known as the Terrible Twos. The kids get it long before the tired parents do. It’s not terribly convenient when your child starts expressing themself. Aw, why can’t you just go along with what I say… I’m older and I know better, and it’ll be faster and go more smoothly… But no go, sorry! Remember, your toddler’s favorite new word is NO.
I had my own Jada-moment when my daughter was 2 or 3 years old. She started wanting to dress herself, and we’d be getting ready for pre-school and I’d see her come out dressed in some eclectic ensemble—her pretty purple flowered dress with plaid pants and a red-and-white striped headband and dirty canvas shoes. Oh dear, I’d think. I don’t remember if I got it right away, or if I tried to coax her into choosing something different, like “Your pink tights would look so pretty with that dress, are you sure you don’t want to change?”
What I do remember is that fairly quickly, I realized I had a choice to make: I could try to force my daughter to wear what I wanted her to wear, by using shame or my authority to make her do it. Or I could let go and let her wear what made her happy, to have her own self-expression. What were my values here?
Sure, some part of me wanted to bring my pretty little girl out into the world in a pretty little outfit. As Jada put it, making her a slave to her mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. That part was all about me, and how I wanted the world to see my daughter, and see me as her mother. But stronger than that was my deep desire that she have “the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain.”
I wanted her to be MORE than my own petty wish to have her be pretty. I wanted her to be MORE than how the culture tells us girls need to look and act and be. I wanted the same for my boys, too—for them to know that it’s okay to be themselves, no matter how they choose to be. But I identified with my daughter more, having an urge to make her be seen how I wanted her to be seen.
My daughter is now 21, and she’s grown to be a young woman with a strong sense of self. I can’t say I was perfect in mothering her and keeping my issues from butting in—she is usually pretty good about pointing it out when I’ve crossed boundaries. Just as I know she’s learned a lot from me, I’ve learned a lot from her too. I’m so glad we’ve managed to push away a lot of the cultural messages about girls and women, or to have more awareness about them when we do get bogged down.
I applaud Jada Pinkett Smith for standing up for her daughter, and stating so clearly the pitfalls of how we and society handle our daughters. She’s had to live out her parenting choices on the world’s stage—I just hope the world can listen and hear this truth. For the sake of ourselves, our daughters, and all the girls to come.