The policing of a black woman’s image begins almost from birth. Indeed, from the time we are small girls we are made aware of the importance of our looks. The internet frenzy over Blue Ivy’s “unkempt” hair before she was even two-years old is proof-positive that young black girls are not granted the freedom to just “be.” President Obama, and the first black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater, Misty Copeland, discussed these very issues during the first of a three-part video series by TIME and ESSENCE, led by TIME reporter Maya Rhodan.
Copeland, who once struggled under the scrutiny of having what was perceived as a build too athletic for ballet, spoke about changing this perception to allow for more diversity in the ballet-community.
I think that having a platform and having a voice to be seen by people beyond the classical ballet world has really been my power… It’s allowed me to say, it’s okay to have a healthy athletic body. We are fully capable of doing everything that the person who doesn’t have an extremely athletic body…that it’s possible to have any skin complexion, to have a healthy body image for the ballerina body…I think forcing a lot of these top tier companies to address the lack of diversity and diversifying the bodies that we’re seeing in classical ballet.
President Obama also spoke directly about coming to an awareness of the pressure placed on all black women as it pertains to their image (emphasis ours):
When you’re a dad of two daughters you notice more. When I was a kid I didn’t realize as much, or maybe it was even a part of which is the enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way. And being cute in a certain way. And are you wearing the right clothes? And is your hair done the right way. And that pressure I think is historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women. But it’s part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance. And so Michelle and I are always guarding against that. And the fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful.
I do think that culture’s changing for the younger generation a little bit more. You see Beyonce or you see some of these pop stars and what both white, Latino, black children are seeing as representative of beauty is much broader than it was when I was a kid. You just didn’t see that much representation. And that’s healthy and that’s encouraging. But it’s still a challenge. I mean Malia’ll talk about black girl’s hair and will have much opinions of that. And she’s pretty opinionated about the fact that it costs a lot, it takes a long time, that sometimes girls can be just as tough on each other about how they’re supposed to look. And so it’s, as a parent, that’s a constant learning process that you’re trying to hold the fort. And that’s why somebody like Misty ends up being so important.
Both President Obama and Copeland are hopeful for the future, especially with social movements like Black Girl Magic leading the helm in celebrating the beauty and intelligence of black women and girls:
To hear Copland and President Obama dive more deeply into these issues and many more, watch their interview here: