Thursday, June 24, 2010

Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue... When Does Experimenting With One's Look Become Self-Hate?

Having a teenaged daughter who has two black parents, a white step-father and bi-racial half sister is perfect fodder for anyone who wants to write a family blog on race, identity and family. Almost daily she says something that raises issues I think are appropriate for this blog, but not always does she give me her consent to talk about them. Yesterday, she told me something supremely interesting, but when I asked if I could blog about it, she said "No." I even offered to change it up some. She still said no. I think she's being slightly unreasonable-- after all, none of her friends would EVER do anything as boring as read her MOTHER's blog-- but I respect her and her privacy. You'll all just have to wait to find out what she revealed in one of our (ongoing) mother-daughter talks yesterday. She did, however, give me permission to recount today's story.

It begins in Walmart (like any good story) with a discussion over makeup. I had promised her she could start wearing it in high school and now Sisi wants a ton of it. Since she starts that institution of higher learning this Fall, she's lobbying hard to build her supply: eyeshadows, mascara, thick black eyeliner.

"No," I said. "First, it's still summer. You're not in high school yet. Second, until you're buying it yourself, I'm in control of how much makeup you can wear. And I think mascara and a little lip gloss is enough. Maybe a neutral shadow. We'll see."

She argued with me: I'll spare you a repeat of all that. But what she said when she finally gave up on eyeshadow and liquid eyeliner is where I once again confronted questions of race, identity and the double-standards of it all. Because after a long pause, she asked, "If I saved my money and bought them myself, could I have blue contact lenses?"

My daughter has perfect eyesight-- she only wears glasses in costumes or in the sun--so the purpose of these contact lenses would be cosmetic only.


Sisi in her doctor costume last Halloween. Very fake glasses.

But her suggestion triggered so much more in me. In the space of a blink, I thought of Toni Morrison's masterpiece, The Bluest Eye-- the story of a black girl who longs for white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.
I thought of the story I read of the Caribbean woman who paid close to $8,000 for a surgical procedure to turn her dark brown eyes blue-- a procedure that failed-- and nearly went blind in the process. (Read about it here.) I think of James Brown singing "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud." I think of chemical relaxers and hair weaves, of colorism, of just how hard it can be to affirm that "black is beautiful" in a culture that makes daily assaults on brown eyes, kinky hair and curvy figures.

My daughter, like most teens is a voracious consumer of this culture... and now she wants blue eyes.

"Absolutely not," I said before I had really thought about it. "You have beautiful brown eyes, why would you want to cover them up?"

"But you let me dye my hair," she reminded me.

True. I did. Not only did I let her dye her hair, I let her dye it purple, in the hope that being allowed to do it would get the desire for "crazy hair" out of her system once and for all. It worked.

"So what's the difference?" she demanded.

The difference of course, is everything that blue eyes suggests to African Americans about our "insufficiencies." And I was about to say something along that lines, but instead I thought of my other daughter, my Lil Bit, with her green eyes and fair skin. In my mind, I fast-forwarded a decade, and imagined her asking me the same question: "Mom, can I have blue contacts?"

My initial reaction was the same-- "Why would you want contacts if you don't need them to see?" but after that, I had no issue. There were no concerns of pride in racial identity, no worries about self hate, no need to defend the choice beyond reasons of finances or frivolity.

As soon as I realized that I was applying a double standard to my daughter's choices about how to experiment with the beauty God gave them, I knew I was probably being unfair to Sisi and loading her up with the same limited (and limiting) notions of black beauty that hamstring the choices of so many. I realized that because I'm sensitive what others have defined as "black beauty" (e.g.natural hair, brown or black eyes, a big butt, or whatever) my automatic refusal to even consider her request was, in fact, applying the same kind of double standard that black women are subjected to daily. If we choose to straighten our hair-- we're trying to be white. When white women straighten their hair, it's a choice. When we wear weaves or wigs, we're trying to be white. But when white women wear "extensions" they are enhancing their natural hair. When we change the color of our eyes, we're trying to be something we're not. When white women do it, they are experimenting with a fresh look. It's a double standard and it's silly and unfair. While the black community as a whole may continue to define "blackness" and black women according to narrow and specifically "authentic" images, it's not something that I want to perpetuate in my own family.

It is absolutely essential to me that BOTH my girls grow up to believe in their limitless potential. That potential is not simply in academic, career or professional opportunities: it also extends to much more mundane choices like how they wear their hair. And while I still think it's silly to wear contacts if you don't need them to see, if Sisi actually saves her money and insists on buying them, I'll do my best to see it like the purple hair-- as a mild and youthful exploration into counterculture. Blue contacts would also bring her some questions-- and perhaps even some disdain--from some who might feel that her choice abandons something fundamental about black identity. I know we'd have to have a lot of conversations about all of that. Still, I believe my daughters can have a strong black identity-- even with purple hair and blue eyes.

What I really don't want to see is any tattoos... but, for now at least, that's a worry for another day.


  1. I'll second that notion on the tattoo part. I'm 21 and I could never see myself getting one.

  2. I have 4 teen daughters, all biracial. All five wanted contacts and now have contacts. Just for fashion, not for seeing. As a white mother, I had the same reaction as you. Why would they want to change the perfection that their dad and I created. I am the only one in the family with blue eyes. I was worried that they somehow got the message that brown eyes weren't beautiful.

    Turns out, their only motivation was to stand out in a crowd, like any other on developmental task teenager.

    We allowed them to put color in their hair. No one got hurt until the 15 year old surprised us with 'Incredible Hulk' green one week before the trip to Gran Gran and Pop Pop's in Texas, having made plans for months for grandma and the granddaughters to have professional pictures taken.

    The tatoo thing? Been there. Done That.
    I am so over teenagers.

  3. @Laura-- LOL on the green hair! Thanks for posting this: it makes me feel a bit better. Did you buy them for your girls, or did you make them purchase the contacts with their own money? I'm hoping we'll skip the tattoo thing, but she's making noises about piercings, which are ALMOST as bad. But at least with a piercing you can take the jewelry out!

  4. deep subject and not easily understood by all of us. I think the North American standard of beauty, which doesn't even equate to what Europeans consider beautiful has always been based on the Aryan standard. Its a fictional image that says beauty = blond hair and blue eyes. I mean less than 2% of Caucasian women have blue/purple/gray eyes since its recessive genes, while brown/Hazel and black are dominant genes. A whole industry build its $billions on white women bleaching their hair to death, wearing blue contacts, just look @ most of the women in the media from fake barbies on suppose news networks to celebrities.

    Its hard to fight against these kind of images when you live among it, even for women of color. Even though your daughter is coming to age in a society where the media exploit youth and innocence beyond race, the deep rooted racism on beauty standard hasn't changed.

    My cousin and brother were debating with me a while back about buying my niece a blond barbie doll. To them the black barbies were ugly and it pissed me off. Their argument was if these industry create realistic black/brown barbies we will buy them....then the argument turned into how little Amira tend to pick the white one. I responded by pointing out because she sees all around her what is considered 'beautiful'.

    I think you should let your daughter try it and hopefully one day soon she'll get over it. She might also feel that a lot of her friends and even her bi-racial sister might be more beautiful. We all go through these insecurities and eventually come out of it by having loving and understanding parents like yourself.

  5. sorry for the double post, but here is a great blog about beauty and diversity run by a black woman from the fashion industry:

  6. I knew a black girl in college who wore baby blue contacts. I thought it was the most disturbing thing, EVER.

    I also knew a white girl in high school who wore cat eye contacts- I couldn’t ever look her directly in the eye.

    I believe only 1 in 1,000,000 people of African descent can actually have blue eyes. So to me this did reek of self hatred- wanting to look like something she could never be or have any possibility of ever being. But I also had to acknowledge the olive complected white woman who dyes her hair blond or wears blue contacts. Does she hate herself too? After all blond hair and blue eyes are representative of genes that she doesn’t naturally represent. Maybe, maybe not. I think the difference is a darker skinned white person has a greater likelihood of presenting those genes whereas a black person would not. That’s probably a double standard on my part and representative of my own biases.

  7. I'm not sure about this. I think a lot of young black girls would prefer to be black but "light skin" with "exotic eyes" over white. I can't count the number of songs aimed at young girls from black male artists that have "light skinned, redbone, yella, etc., etc." in them as a form of praising beauty.

  8. I really think this is completely off the mark. When have black women wanted to look like white women in extreme numbers? More seem to WANT to look like light skinned black women. Not necessarily directly biracial, either. I would really hope that black women would stop their "fight" against the "white woman's look" and direct it towards their own community's (men in particular) bias towards LIGHTER skin (with or without the colored eyes) The fight is with the wrong group of people, lol. Thats why it seems so silly.

  9. @Huda-- Thanks for the link.

    @ Angelina--You may be right for some darker-skinned girls. Sisi is fairly light-skinned, so I initially read her request as wanting to be closer to white, not "more light." I do think, this is about what she thinks boys will like, however.

  10. Your daughter might just want to experiment with this. I know that when I was in high school, I got contacts for the very first time (as opposed to corrective lenses/glasses). I was excited about it, so I convinced my mom to let me try green contacts. They didn't look too bad, but by the end of the year, I was more than happy to show off my own dark brown eyes. I guess it's just one of the many phases teenagers go through...though, I'm 20 and I still don't really see myself getting a tattoo!

  11. As soon as she realizes you don't have a problem with it, she will grow tired of the issue and move on to the next thing. The process by which you arrived at your decision is an interesting one. As you know, my girls are much younger. I plan to make as little fuss about things that don't really matter as I possibly can. Besides, they have to arrive at and develop their own identities. Unless they want to do something that may bring physical or otherwise irreparable harm, I will try not to stand in their way. Of course, it's easy for me to say that now. I look forward to your update on this issue.

  12. OK can I be the only one here to just emphatically say, 'HEELLLL NO!" to that question. LOL

  13. @Tanesha- LOL! Tony said the same thing!

  14. I think the reason why your daughter would want blue contacts would be the important thing to look into. Is it just a fashion thing, or is it because she doesn't like her own brown eyes? The answer to that would be the most telling.

    As I mentioned to the person who turned me on to this blog post on twitter (LOL), admiration of something is fine, but fawning over something you don't have is problematic.

    By the way, have you ever thought about the term "fair skin"? I hate when people (especially Black people) use that term. If you describe someone's skin as "fair", what does that say about those who don't have that kind of skin? Is their skin "unfair"? I know some people think it's a seemingly innocuous term, but I think it speaks volumes and it sends a very bad message.

  15. I think it's an issue black women are required to consider, in a world where the "blond/blue-eyed" beauty standard is held to be the highest standard.

    *Especially* when encouraging AA daughters to date interracially.

    I get more "beautiful" compliments from men -- of all races, mind, not just black men -- when I have a weave in.

    It's not just black men who are colorstruck.

    And I know that's something that runs contrary to some rhetoric on many BWE blogs, but just like any other fact these blogs clamor that we face, I think it's worth contemplating, not running away from.

  16. I agree, MR. While it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all different "types" can be considered beautiful, there is definitely a cultural standard. As women, we end up struggling with that standard in many different ways. Sometimes we bow to it, sometimes we challenge it. Ultimately, as a mother, I would hope to help my girls discover what is beautiful about themselves--and to keep working to broaden our society's definitions of beauty.

  17. You know, Reading this particular story... I believe I would have acted the exact same way..before reading what you had to say. Thank you for helping me, see outside of just the "black and white". I look forward to reading through the rest of your blogs for some insight into how an interracial family, or certain situations, work. I recently started dating a white man. He's stationed in the DC area. When we spent a weekend together sightseeing, I felt so uncomfortable because of all the looks we got. He's affectionate. so he'd think nothing of leaning over and giving me a little kiss. and people would literally just stop and stare. I've never been in a serious interracial relationship. Even stopped dating white men for years. My dad's side of the family is against it. my mom's side doesn't care. It's quite the predicament i tell you! But I do think he's "the one" and am not going to let my fam or any of my insecurities stop what's going to be.