Earlier this year, Jada Pinkett Smith came under fire for allowing her 12-year-old daughter Willow to cut and color her hair.
In response to this criticism, Smith recently wrote an open letter on her Facebook page, defending her decision. She said:
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.
Her father, Will Smith, echoed this sentiment in a May interview in Parade magazine, saying:
“When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world.”
Now, I’ve been a pre-teen girl. I distinctly remember the stereotypical angst that came along with “discovering myself” at this awkward age. My entry into the world of hair experimentation came in the form of Sun-In, the spray-in hair lightener that smelled, nay, reeked of lemon.
I was lucky that my parents allowed this form of self-expression at such a young age. This was a “gateway” product that paved the way for a range of different hair colors and lengths throughout my teenage years.
This year, I became a mother. And with this came a new understanding of my own mother’s perspective during my formative years. Sure, she was probably rolling her eyes at each new crazy stylistic decision, but she let me do it. After all, it’s just hair. It’s fun! It grows back!
Would any eyelids have batted if it had been Willow’s brother who had changed his hair? Or is the real issue here that Willow chose a traditionally masculine style, when as a female in the public eye, she should be opting for feminine styles?
As a female, I’m intensely aware of the fact that our bodies are constantly under scrutiny in the public eye. And as a mother, I too hope to instill a sense of confidence and composure in my children.
Sadly, it’s obvious that the issue of society dictating how women should look begins as early as age 12.
I applaud the Smiths for so consciously empowering Willow’s self-expression. By allowing her to change her hair, they are refusing to participate in cultural guidelines for the female appearance.
And further, by speaking up about their reasons for doing so, they are inspiring other parents to independently assess the values they want to foster in their children.
In a follow-up post on Facebook, Jada wrote:
“I will simply say this…there is no need to do ANYTHING…LIKE…ME. Simply…allow these conversations to give YOU the confidence to examine the idea of allowing YOURSELF the freedom and boundaries that make YOU happy. Even if they are not so popular.”
Tessa Needham finished her PhD in Performing Arts at the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2008. Her thesis explored the potential of performance to provoke change, and part of her research was Bodily, a solo theatrical performance about body image. She loves technology and the creative arts, and is passionate about the different cultural forces affecting the body image of girls and women. She teaches computers and does freelance creative work: www.tessaneedham.com.