"If God knew I would feel insecure about my skin and my hair, then why would he choose to make me born like this?"
—Leah, age nineteen
Leah and I met through a mentoring program at my church when she was in middle school. It took her some time to embrace the idea of having or needing a mentor. Leah was a shy and quiet girl and was cautious about opening up to anyone unfamiliar. Occasional text messages just to checkin eventually turned to regular Skype conversations over the next several years. Leah considered her childhood to be full of joyous memories. She came from a loving home with parents who took care of her and her three siblings.
She went to Christian schools growing up and remembered feeling very anxious about the messages she received.
“My teacher called Obama the antichrist,” she recalled.
Comments like this bothered her, but she could never determine if they were racist or critical of Obama’s politics. Nevertheless, she never felt singled out or ostracized as most of her classmates were black like her.
“Things were pretty normal then,” she said.
However, when Leah switched from her small, multiethnic private school to a larger public school, she experienced major culture shock. She was one of very few black students there.
“It was my first time experiencing microaggressions and racism on a daily basis. I didn’t know how to deal with the fact other people thought negatively about my skin and my hair. They would make jokes about black stereotypes.”
She particularly hated when other students touched her hair without permission. The subtle and blatant disrespect was difficult for Leah to process, so she kept her feelings to herself even though these experiences depressed and weighed on her heavily. Eventually, the negative effects of it all came out in other ways.
Leah suffered from severe anxiety and depression, which subsequently turned to self-harm when she was fourteen years old. The physical effects the self-harm had on her body didn’t bother her because she didn’t think she was going to be around long and couldn’t conceive of a future. Even now, one can see the scars on her frail nineteen-year-old arms. She tried to hide her wounds from her family with adhesive bandages; but since companies typically made those bandages for lighter skin tones, her wounds were difficult to conceal.
Leah couldn’t avoid her parents’ intuition. “I was cutting, but eventually I couldn’t hide it anymore.”
When they discovered her scars, they were horrified and scared for their child and immediately took her to a therapist. “I self-harmed because I wanted to see my pain on me,” she admitted. While working with her therapist, Leah realized her depression had led to her cutting. She eventually stopped self-harming and then eventually stopped going to therapy.
Though Leah stopped cutting herself, she next developed an eating disorder. She articulately explained the transition as though she had examined the psychology behind her choices:
I felt out of control based on the fact that I have darker skin and kinkier hair. Every time I looked in the mirror, I felt broken, and I couldn’t control those aspects of myself, so I became obsessed with controlling my weight. I noticed when I gained weight that I would feel so much worse about my skin and my hair; but when I lost weight, at least I had this that was good about me.
This time, she went into an intensive day treatment and outpatient program to treat her disorder. However, the atmosphere at the treatment program didn’t help her.
“I was surrounded by skinny white girls. My therapist was white. My dietician was white. I didn’t want to talk about race or racism because I was the only black girl.” As a result, Leah withdrew into herself.
Leah was nervous when she finally mentioned her discomfort with being the only black girl in the facility to her therapist. Her therapist, a white woman, didn’t understand but tried to help.
“Sometimes white people say ignorant things without meaning to. She was my therapist, but she was also human and I understood that, but it didn’t help me.”
Again, Leah stopped going to therapy.
When Leah enrolled in college, she found herself in a new space with new people, but the same issues plagued her. She was alone again, just like in her high school and day treatment facility, surrounded by crowds of people who did not look like her. One night while at a party, Leah drank far too much, self-harming in a different way. She was rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. The nurses were additionally concerned when they saw her scarred arms and frail body. Leah was taken to an adolescent treatment facility for two weeks—yet another place where she was the only black girl and another place where she encountered racist comments.
“One day, we were lining up for lunch and someone asked where I was. Another girl responded, ‘How could you miss her? She’s the darkest one here.’”
Wherever she went, the racism and microaggressions followed her. Upon leaving the adolescent treatment facility, Leah returned to her first intensive day treatment and outpatient program. This time, she successfully prevented the isolating environment from affecting her progress and graduated from the program after a year. She was proud of herself for graduating. She felt her depression and anxiety were getting better. Still, Leah questioned if treatment could ever truly help her.
“I graduated because there wasn’t anything else they could do for someone like me.”
Since then, Leah has had a few relapses. “It’s not so bad to where I need to be hospitalized, but I’m managing.” She’s less depressed and no longer suicidal, but she admits she hasn’t completely addressed her insecurities regarding her skin color and hair.
“If I could conquer those things then I wouldn’t need my eating disorder anymore.”
Leah recalled meeting a girl in the treatment facility who said God put her through anxiety and depression for a reason. Leah resented that statement.
“If that were the case for me, then I felt like God was playing me. What was the purpose?” she reflects. “If God knew I would feel insecure about my skin and my hair, then why would he choose to make me born like this?”
Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?Who taught you to hate the color of your skin?—Malcolm X
I remember the first time someone called me the N-word. I remember the first time someone called me “darky.” I remember the first time someone called me “nappyhead.” These racist moments remain etched in my memory, teaching me from a young age that black girls are undesired and rejected. It has taken me years to renounce these messages and recover from their harmful effects. I’m amazed by how much black women and girls have to unlearn. We are born into a system designed to oppose every aspect of our identity, including our skin complexion, hair, attitude, and overall identity as women. The antagonism we face begins at such a young age and from so many different directions that even the most spiritually, emotionally, and physically protected black girls have a difficult time countering it.
For centuries, prejudice and negative stereotyping have attacked black women and girls’ characters and physical natures. Leah is a casualty of this reality, and she is tragically far from alone. Most struggle in silence like Leah does, trying to find a safe home for their identity.
The Only Black Girl
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a time when Brooklyn was seemingly 100 percent black American. I honestly don’t remember seeing anyone who didn’t have dark skin. I was young, so I thought this was normal. Of course, I recall seeing other faces from time to time, whether in person or on my television screen, but it wasn’t a thing. Being part of a cultural majority was my reality. When one is a member of a majority, one doesn’t have to process what it means to be the other, either rationally or emotionally.
My family moved to the New Jersey suburbs when I was in second grade. The grandness of the suburbs fascinated me. Everything seemed so big, including my new school. It seemed there were hundreds and hundreds of students. And these students looked nothing like me. I was confused and overwhelmed, and I could not find one person who looked like me. I was lost.
My young mind couldn’t process what was happening. Though I felt very different, I still tried to make connections with the people around me. I tried to join in by playing with two white boys on the playground. One was happy to hang out with me; the other protested, “We don’t play with n*ggers,” already comfortable and conditioned to use racist language.
Other students asked uncomfortable questions like, “Why does your skin get like that?” or “Why does your hair shrivel up like that?” or “Can you tan?” At eight years old, I had to educate those around me about different aspects of being a black girl. I went from a carefree childhood experience while being part of a cultural majority to a confusing, pressure-filled, self-doubting childhood experience full of so-called “teachable moments” as the only black girl. I was the only one in my classes, the only one on my team, the only one in class pictures.
I recently asked a few high school girls who attend predominantly white schools how they felt about being one of the few black girls there:
When I’m in class, I’m the only person of color all the time. I always have to have my guard up but at the same time, I try not to get too annoyed at certain things. —Tenth grade
You have to be mentally tough. If you’re not already mentally tough then it can mess you up. Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not. But you really can’t have any off days. —Tenth grade
You definitely have to wear two faces when you’re the only black girl. You can’t say certain things when you’re around the white crowds as you would feel comfortable to say when you’re around the black crowds. —Twelfth grade
Whenever we talk about African American history in my history class or English class, everyone would turn and look at me like I’m the only black girl. God forbid we’re reading something like A Raisin in the Sun or Othello. Everyone would turn around to me and ask if I know anything about stuff they had questions about. I’m thinking we’re all reading this at the same time and learning at the same time. —Ninth grade
Most people don’t understand how being the only one (representing a race, gender, or other demographic) can affect a person psychologically. They assume it’s not a big deal. I remember having a conversation with a friend about a minority student’s frustrations regarding the lack of representation in leadership on their campus. My friend didn’t understand why people couldn’t just look past all of that and feel comfortable as human beings. Although he meant well, I pointed out this was easy for him to say as a white male in an institution that was, on paper, only 51 percent white, but that appeared 90 percent white when one was walking through campus. I remember what it felt like to be in the majority as a child. Those who are in spaces where they are the majority don’t think twice about their personhood; they don’t have to do so.
Leah’s struggle with her dark skin is no surprise. Despite the fact that our skin is its own rainbow of brown colors, somewhere along the line our rainbow of brown people became simply “black people.” Historically, societies in many different countries use “black” as a racial designation to describe darker-skinned people, but they rarely associate this blackness with goodness and beauty and frequently associate it with negativity, both aesthetically and culturally. These negative connotations of blackness have carried over throughout generations, designed to position lighter-skinned people as superior over darker-skinned people.
In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark created “The Doll Test,” a series of experiments to study the psychological effects of racism and segregation on black children. They used four different dolls to test black children between the ages of three and seven on their perceptions of race. They asked the children to identify the doll’s race and which doll the children preferred. The majority of the children chose the white doll, associating it with positive characteristics, and associating the black doll with negative ones. In subsequent decades, the doll test has been given numerous times. In 2005, Kiri Davis produced a seven-minute documentary called A Girl Like Me where she administered the doll test with twenty-one black children. She would ask, “Can you show me the doll that is the nice doll?” Many children would point to the white doll. “And why is that the nice doll?” “She’s white,” one of the children answered. “Can you show me the doll that looks bad?” Davis then asked. Many children pointed to the black doll. “Why does that look bad?” They responded, “Because she’s black.” Finally, Davis asked, “Can you give me the doll that looks like you?” All of the children pointed to the black doll.
Black children like Leah or the ones in A Girl Like Me psychologically process antiblackness at young ages, having experienced it in various aspects of society and their everyday lives. They know they are black and they know blackness bears negative associations; therefore, they naturally associate themselves with that antagonism.
Imagine going through life having to qualify the hair that sits on top of one’s head. Most black girls don’t have to imagine; this is how they go through life. Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Black hair might not always be that way, but within the current US context, it is such a defining aspect of the lives of black girls and black women.” Many are introduced to this reality at a young age: people touching their hair without permission, questioning the change in length when they take their braids out, or grappling with what it means to have kinky hair.
I had a head full of full, thick hair growing up. Getting my first perm was a thrilling rite of passage. Finally, my hair would be “straight.” Only when I got older did I begin to analyze the complex issues with why straight hair was considered the social norm. I had to ask myself why my hair was not acceptable. I questioned what having straight hair meant. I recently asked several teenaged black girls what they consider to be “good hair.” Their responses varied:
- Good hair is anything that is straight hair.
- You have to look exotic. It can’t shrink towards your head when you shower. And if it does, it has to be 3C loose curls. That’s the acceptable natural.
- Good hair to society is long and blonde.
- Bad hair is hair you have to perm or relax.
Many of the girls, however, said they had reclaimed what it means to have good hair in their older age, stating they perceive good hair as healthy hair. Every black girl has her own hair journey. For some, the hair journey is moving from a place of hair resentment to hair love. In this movement, a black girl realizes she must study and learn about how to care for and nurture her hair. She realizes her hair requires investment and love.
Something that seems so small, such as walking into a black beauty supply store or beauty salon, can be such a restorative moment for a black girl. Something about the experience can feel very much like coming home. Many of us have spent much of our lives walking into stores where most of the products aren’t meant for our hair. The products don’t have our faces on them, and the advertising and product language have little relevance for our hair and our culture. In these black beauty supply stores and beauty salons, everything is catered to us and our sensibilities.
For many young black girls, having kinky hair is a curse instead of a blessing. The hair journey is all about loving and accepting our identity as a gift. The fact that black girls have to go through these journeys at all is bewildering. The majority of us must go through a lifelong process of learning to love our hair because we have been conditioned from a young age to hate it.
So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
—Genesis 1:27 NLT
God never intended for us to hate the way we look. God never intended for us to see people as less or as something negative, something other. We are created in God’s image and likeness. We are intended to represent the unique aspect of God. Black women’s skin and hair, like mine and Leah’s, are rare illustrations of God’s image. We are all God’s gift to the earth and the beautiful embodiment of the imago Dei.
Imago Dei, a theological term rooted in Genesis 1:27, says human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. While this is a fascinating concept, humans have struggled to conceptualize what it truly means as it relates to them as individuals and to other humans and living creatures. There are many different interpretations of imago Dei; some suggest it grants human beings dominion over the earth or that it reflects human beings’ rational nature while others define it as human beings having an actual physical resemblance to God. Many imago Dei interpreters reject the notion of human beings and their physical resemblance to God. They contend that overemphasizing physicality can lead to ascribing human attributes to God, which can limit our understanding of God to a particular image. Western interpretations have been limiting in their depictions of God’s image, generally reducing it to a singular white male figure. However, all human beings, with all of our differences, reflect God’s image. This diversity shows God’s image is multidimensional and filled with an immeasurable medley, not limited by one interpretation.
Beyond the physical image, the reflection of God’s nature is an important factor of the imago Dei. Christian theologian, Daniel Migliore thoroughly analyzes the imago Dei in his book Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, writing, “Human life depends upon ecological systems and structures of interrelationship. Stated briefly, we live in dialogue. Long before we are conscious of that fact, we exist in response to and interaction with others.” This means our flourishing as human beings depends on our ability to live in connection with each other. We can also learn more about God through this interconnection.
Black girls are made in the image of God. While this shouldn’t be a revolutionary statement, it is because of how rarely people acknowledge this fact. Black girls hear far more messages about how their aesthetic falls short of traditional beauty standards than they hear about how they embody God’s image. Even the more-accepted black girls get qualifiers like “pretty for a black girl,” suggesting their beauty is notable among other black girls, but not for girls in general. Black girls’ hair, skin, and bodies are constantly under a microscope and are usually considered inferior. In failing to value black girls, we miss an essential part of God’s image.
In 2007, Canadian author William P. Young published The Shack, a novel about a man who experiences a tragedy that leads him to a divine encounter with three strangers. The leader of the three strangers is a woman called “Papa” who fulfills the symbolic role of God. While The Shack isn’t perfect, the choice to illustrate God as a curvy black woman is significant.
Many influential Christian leaders call The Shack incorrect, dangerous, and heretical. “It misrepresents God,” one pastor has said. There is a strong correlation between The Shack’s physical depiction of God and these criticisms. In the film adaptation, actress Octavia Spencer played the role of God. More controversy over God being a black woman ensued. Joe Schimmel, pastor of Blessed Hope Chapel in Simi Valley, California, said:
Young’s pretentious caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, non-judgmental, African American woman called “Papa” (who resembles the New Agey Oprah Winfrey far more than the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ—Heb 1:1–3) . . . lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.
In contrast, people seldom question Hollywood films and artwork traditionally depicting God as older, white, and male. Traditional images depicting this singular “image of God” are rarely considered heretical.
The controversial response to the image of God as a black woman helps illustrate why the message of the imago Dei has not been received by some groups, particularly black women and girls. If people consider an image of God as a black woman harmful and heretical, then imago Dei is not for everyone. If people can only envision God as male and white, then imago Dei is not for everyone. In her own way, Leah’s initial question echoes this false idea: What was the purpose in God creating her if God knew she would feel insecure about herself? God did have a purpose in creating Leah in God’s image, but unfortunately, larger society has failed her by excluding black girls and rejecting their aesthetic.
Imago Dei must be more than an ideological concept. It has to be practical for everyone, especially those who are not getting the message. It is more than simply “how we view others.” Imago Dei must translate to spiritual practice, the intentional discipline people engage to develop spiritually. Spiritual practices are designed to bring us closer to God and transform us into more connected human beings—connected to God, connected to one another, and connected to ourselves. For black girls like Leah, imago Dei can be an intentional practice of engaging them as one would honor God. By engaging black girls as the imago Dei, we connect deeper to ourselves, to one another, and to God.
Practicing imago Dei profoundly impacts how we treat others. Our own perception of God and our care of others are directly related. In the Gospels, Jesus, when asked to name the greatest commandment, responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). And Jesus proclaims the second-greatest commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Girls like Leah are our neighbors, and we are to love girls like her with the same care, respect, compassion, and concern as we would ourselves. As a society, we have failed to recognize and honor the imago Dei of black women and girls. Adopting an imago Dei practice with our local neighbors, and more specifically, the black girls in our communities, is a commandment of God.
We are all created by God in God’s likeness. The false notion that only one particular type of person reflects God’s image causes irreparable damage to black girls. The imago Dei is not exclusive, and we must be held accountable for allowing that bias to pervade. Girls like Leah need to know they, with their kinky, curly hair and black skin, are an express reflection of God’s creative genius.
I contemplate who Leah would be had she been born into a society where her black skin and kinky hair were embraced. I question how effective a few encouraging voices can be in a world infused with negative messages about her being. I wonder who Leah would be had she gone to a school where her peers accepted her as equal, marveled at the beauty of her skin, and kept their hands out of her hair. I think about the opportunities her white therapists had to research, ask questions, and explore how they could’ve provided the best environment to care for black girls like Leah. Black girls have challenges specific to them and cannot be lumped into an “all girls” category. Leah didn’t have any of those avenues of escape, so she had to find her own way.
I caught up with Leah over video conferencing while she was in London on an exchange program with her school.
“Do you see God in your story?” I asked.
“I am by no means healed,” Leah responded, “but I have encountered other people who relate to my story who are black girls and they’ve said to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never met another black girl who has had these issues. It’s always other white girls.’ I do see God in that. Being able to heal others as I’m healing myself.”
Leah has come to terms with why God made her with her unique features. She still struggles, but she no longer resents God for it.
“I don’t feel that resentment anymore,” she said in a later conversation. “I realized we can’t comprehend why God does things. It still makes me upset from time to time.” As I reminded Leah she is the imago Dei, she responded with a confidence I had not ever seen in her.
“God is a black woman.”
I asked her to elaborate.
“Well, it’s kinda like the whole thing with Jesus having to go through suffering for humankind in order for him and us to be raised to something higher. I feel like since black women have had to carry the world on their shoulders and suffer, how could God not be a black woman?”
This is an excerpt from Parable of the Brown Girl chapter 2: "Parable of the Insecure Brown Girl."