A mother shares with Shondaland how her toddler’s shows, books, and dolls are reshaping her perspective and healing her soul.

disney junior rise up sing out

My daughter bounces to the beat of “Super Bonnet,” a catchy song from the Disney Junior series Rise Up, Sing Out. She’s joyfully watching little brown girls on-screen with fluffy hair like hers praise the joys of wearing a bonnet. I feel a sense of joy, not just in watching her be a carefree kid dancing to a song but also watching her see girls who look like her celebrate this small but meaningful piece of our culture. And I am not alone, as several other parents have shared now-viral videos of their little girls also loving “Super Bonnet.”

I’ve been struggling for months to get my daughter to sleep in a bonnet. The thought of her already lovely, soft, and abundant curls rubbing on even the gentlest of sheets keeps me up at night. Black girls have to be more delicate and intentional about our hair. She, of course, doesn’t understand any of that. She is 1 and a half. Toddlers do not yet care about the aesthetics, cultural significance, or history of Black hair.

Pretty hair meant pain. It meant sitting in a smoky kitchen as my mother pressed my hair.”

But I do. I am her 37-year-old mother who had my own struggles with hair. Being “natural,” or choosing not to chemically alter my hair, was a revolutionary act in a world where straight hair was the norm. Anything else was deemed subpar and unkempt. In the mid-2000s, the closest thing to natural-hair representation on TV was when a random Black girl’s hair happened to curl when it got wet — nothing like mine, which at the slightest hint of rain would morph from the flowing tresses everyone was wearing to a mass of tightly coiled fluff. “Broccoli head,” my classmates called me.

In college, I tossed chemical relaxers for good while still regularly straightening my hair. It wasn’t until my 30s when I backed away from that — a personal choice to learn and embrace the texture that grew from my scalp. For me, it was another defiant act but also an act of self-love that took decades and thousands of dollars in products and services for me to make.

A 1-and-a-half-year-old little girl doesn’t recognize that. She, a hilarious, tiny person full of wonder, rubs her tiny hands over my coils, giggling as she pulls a small section like a spring, then releases it, watching it bounce back almost into place. She doesn’t see the years of emotional labor or identity struggle. She’s just a baby playing with mommy’s hair. This same child sits between my legs, as most Black girls do with their mothers, allowing me to comb and twist her hair. But when it comes to that bonnet, at best, she might allow me to put it on her head before a nap or bedtime, only to snatch it off her head. Toddlers are a trip.

something so tender about a mother's love

I’m shaping my daughter’s normal — and reshaping my own.

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When I was only a few years older than her, “pretty hair” meant pain. It meant sitting in a smoky kitchen as my mother “pressed” my hair. A jar of Blue Magic grease, a hot comb, and a chair from our kitchen table with a pillow on it positioned in front of our stove. It meant sitting as still as possible, cringing as the hot comb got a little too close or the grease sizzled. My mother would gently blow on my head, and that loving and reassuring breath almost blew away my anxiety of having a heated metal comb passed through my coils. Almost. I think about the pain of watching stylists argue about who was going to do my hair, and when they did, how rough they would be, yanking and pulling, sucking their teeth, or calling me “tender headed” if I dared complain.

Pain was the payoff for beauty. Straight hair was expected for all celebrations and big moments: picture days, school plays, recitals, and holidays. For special occasions, the only hair that was appropriate was straight hair.

How times have changed. Now, Disney has a song dedicated to the bonnet. Curls and coils are more commonplace. Fellow “broccoli heads” are blooming like flowers in a field in late spring. The CROWN Act, legislation that combats hair discrimination, recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. And as our tiny family watched, my little girl on my lap, we witnessed soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson being confirmed while donning “sister locs.” Textured hair is now also for special occasions.

These are the times my daughter will be raised in and the images she will see. They matter. I, as her parent, am helping her at this young age shape her identity. As we read bell hooksHappy to Be Nappy, she will learn to embrace her hair texture. As she snuggles her HarperIman doll, she learns to love her own skin. As we read Vashti Harrison’s children’s book Little Leaders featuring real-life heroes like Florence Joyner, Ida B. Wells, and Julie Dash — people I didn’t know about until I was much older — she will learn to embrace our history.

Happy to Be Nappy

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$7.35

It is important to me, her mother who grew up without nearly the same access to representation, for my daughter to have things that represent who she is and where she comes from.

Through these acts, I am shaping her “normal,” and in doing so, I am reshaping my own. With each show she watches, doll she loves, and book she reads where she sees someone who looks like her, she won’t be othered but centered. Normalized. Because she has this access, she won’t have to overcome the cultural hurdles I did to learn about, accept, and finally love herself. She will be raised in a home where she is valued, protected, and treasured. And this is healing to the small child within me who always craved it.

Now, if I can just get her to wear that bonnet for bedtime.


Whitney Roberts is a Philadelphia-based podcaster and writer who has contributed to Wired, i-D Magazine, and Medium. Follow her on Twitter @TheReclaimed.