By Ashika Sethi
The way we present ourselves to the world shapes the way the world presents itself to us. Time and time again, we’re policed by what society says we can wear, how much makeup is acceptable, how our hair should be tamed.
The way we present ourselves to the world reveals a lot about our cultural heritage, racial and ethnic identity, and socioeconomic class. For those who don’t fit into the Western beauty standards (a very small margin of the population does), the way we present ourselves presents extra challenges. Think of a recent immigrant girl on her first day at a new school in a country who only has traditional outfits to wear and is scared of kids making fun of her, or a young African American woman who is self-conscious of wearing her natural hair to a job interview in fear she may be discriminated against.
If so much attention is put on the way we present ourselves, how much time is it taking away from other, more pressing pursuits? How much of our self-worth is deeply rooted in how the world is going to perceive our appearance?
This experience can be even more challenging for children in the foster care system, who often don’t have access to the same resources of time and money to care about their appearance. What happens to these kids when the way they present themselves to the world is the least of their concerns? What happens to their self-esteem when they aren’t able to access regular personal hygiene, hairstylists, new clothes?
For Sasha*, an African American teen in foster care, the way in which she styled and kept her hair wasn’t on the forefront of her mind. Sasha is a protective older sister to her two young siblings and doesn’t have time or the financial freedom to get her hair styled as she would like. On the days leading up to her first day of school, CASA wanted to help give her a little boost of confidence. Sasha was ecstatic. The week before school began, CASA was on a mission to help Sasha find a hairdresser in town who could take her as a last-minute appointment during a very busy time of year. After searching everywhere, CASA finally found someone who could help Sasha. On the day of the appointment, CASA was there to drive Sasha to her hairstylist, and stayed with her for 4 hours while she got her hair braided and watched movies. When Sasha looked in the mirror afterwards, she couldn’t stop smiling. What may seem like a small act of kindness meant a priceless amount of pride and confidence for Sasha.
The texture, color, style of our hair shapes the way the world sees us. Many times, it shapes the way the world discriminates against those of us who don’t conform to the societal standards. There are countless stories of schools deeming African American hair “distracting” and “unacceptable”, and some schools have even deprived these young kids of extracurricular activities and driven them to switch schools because of the way they styled their hair. Think of how this could affect African American children in foster care, who already experience so much instability.
Children of color not only enter the child welfare system at higher rates, but once they enter the system, their experience is often different from that of white children. Children from impoverished African American communities tend to stay in the foster care system for longer periods of time, according to this study by several federal departments including Health and Human Services. They also have more placements while in foster care, receive fewer services, have lower graduation rates, and leave the system less prepared to be adults according to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services.
For children in the system, and especially children of color, we must be aware of how the world sees and perceives them in order to better advocate for their wellbeing. We need to be cognizant of how a child may feel when they, on top of facing the stress of navigating the foster care system, are also worried that they won’t have enough time or resources to keep up with their personal hygiene. We, as advocates for children, need to not only help these kids gain confidence in themselves but also work towards changing the perception of what is “acceptable” in our society.
If we could build up every child’s self-worth so they felt confident in the way they were presenting themselves to the world, think of the opportunities and grace the world may present them with.
*Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of our clients.
2018 October Featured Story Culture & Diversity Advocacy