This blog was written by Zhudi Pan, an intern with the Children’s Defense Fund for the Summer 2021 semester.
In my role as a CDF Freedom Schools® intern, I was prompted with the question: when was the first time you remember reading a book in which the main character(s) looked like you? It hit me then that I could not remember. I racked my mind through all the books I read in my childhood, all the TV shows I watched growing up – from Junie B. Jonesand Nancy Drew to Drake and Joshand iCarly– and I could not conjure up a single image of a Chinese American protagonist.
We tell our children to love themselves. But how can they, when everything that’s been presented to them tells them that they don’t look “normal”?
I began to love my physical appearance when I started college, but I remember in elementary and middle school when I used to go into the bathroom with the other girls and keep my head down while I was washing my hands. I didn’t want to look straight forward and see myself in the mirror hanging above the sink. The other girls would dawdle, fixing their hair and smiling at themselves in the mirror, but I would avert my eyes and walk quickly out. It’s only now in my early twenties that I realize it wasn’t that my black hair and dark eyes were not pretty. It was that they were not “normal” in my understanding of the world at that time.
I was an avid reader when I was young, and my mother took me to the public library at least once every week where my favorite books to borrow were the Nancy Drewseries. I idolized Nancy Drew because she was so beautiful, brave, and intelligent. But I never felt a connection with her. Because I had dark hair, I connected more with her friend George Fayne, who was a tomboy and conventionally, the least pretty of the group. In the same way, I connected more with Buttercup, the black-haired Powderpuff girl, and Snow White, the black-haired Disney Princess, both of whom I believed to be the least pretty. Because I saw no Asian female protagonist, I struggled to make connections to the characters I loved, and I struggled even more with seeing the characters I did identify with as beautiful.
But mine is only one piece of a collective experience. Children of all minority races in the United States likely feel unsatisfied with themselves at some point for things they cannot control, like the color of their skin and hair. My best friend in college told me a powerful story about her high school experience struggling to fit Eurocentric beauty standards. Unlike me, she went to a high school where almost all the girls were Latina and looked like her. Yet she struggled as well; she never felt that there was anything wrong with her dark hair until her white theatre teacher implied that she wouldn’t be able to play the roles she wanted with hair and eyebrows as dark as hers. The characters that she dreamed of playing – Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, Glinda the witch from Wicked– had only been played by white girls up until that point. Her theater teacher instilled in her a feeling of self-inadequacy that had nothing to do with her performance ability but with features of herself that she could not control. She then dyed her hair blonde and restricted herself to wearing long-sleeved clothing even in the hot summers because she wanted her legs and arms to be as white as possible. It was only in college that she started to embrace and accept her culture and womanhood and realized that she missed her natural dark hair.
Often, it is only upon growing up and maturing – often when we start college and see the diversity of people in the United States – that we learn not only to accept ourselves, but to love ourselves for what makes us unique among our peers and co-workers. Yet, even for a mature adult, it is difficult; not seeing oneself represented in what one consumes has an immensely powerful impact on an individual’s perception of themselves and the world around them. This cannot be overstated.
Children shouldn’t have to wait until maturity to begin to internalize the words, “love yourself”! Better representation in books, tv shows, and news media should start now: through empowering our children to be their genuine selves, encouraging them to engage with a variety of books and media, and showing them that they are the right person to make a change. Schools and after-school programs should plan diverse reading curriculums that are representative and appropriate for every child. Our resources and attention should be focused on them – as they are the ones who will be creating a better future where the characters in our books will represent the people who live in this world.