Black women finding positive self-image harder to come by


A lovely African-American woman enters a room, glowing with confidence, dignity and self-assurance.

Heads turn.

Should any of these people summon the nerve to speak with this woman, they would probably find that her road to exuberant self-confidence was paved with obstacles and challenges, and filled with plain hard work.

The truth is, black women have never had it easy, and some say that in many ways the going is getting tougher.

Look at the images of African-American women that bombard them each day via television, movies and rap music.

Julia Boyd, the author of "In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem," which will be published this fall by Dutton Press, says, "A young black woman in the '90s faces more negative stereotypes than any other segment of the population, both in her own mind and in the mind of the general population."

The reasons are various, according to Ms. Boyd, a Seattle-based psychotherapist and writer.

There is the long-standing stereotype of the black woman as superwoman. She supports a family and, in most cases, heads it on her own. She shoulders any burden and relies on no one. She nurtures her extended family, keeps her home spotless and is devoutly religious.

Then there is the new Hollywood stereotype of the black woman. summed up by a women quoted by Ms. Boyd: "I'm supposed to dress like Tina Turner, dance like Janet Jackson, sing like Whitney Houston and have a career like Clair what's-her-name on the Cosby show. And if I don't match any of those stereotypes, then I'm supposed to be on welfare."

Rap music is especially insidious in its portrayal of black women, Ms. Boyd says.

Things were different a generation ago, Ms. Boyd and others say.

In some ways, they believe, self-esteem was easier to come by, even though African-Americans suffered open discrimination and, in the eyes of popular culture, were almost invisible.

June Caldwell, a retired health professional who grew up in Harlem more than 50 years ago, says, "There were negative images of black women out there when I grew up, but nothing like today.

"You just didn't see black people on TV or in movies, and if you did, their portrayal was so unrealistic compared to what you saw in your own community that it had no effect on your self-esteem."

Angela Davis, the political activist who is now a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, deplores popular images of African-American women.

In a recent lecture at Johns Hopkins University on race and sexuality, Ms. Davis said that today's black woman has the new insult from "some of her own black male cultural workers [films, music, rap, video]" added to the long history of injury in which "she was seen as body parts, reproduction machine, economic meal ticket or object of some male fantasy with no consideration for her own joy, fulfillment or pleasure."

Ms. Boyd says, "Self-esteem is a core of personal beliefs that we develop about ourselves over the years. We receive many of these core beliefs from messages directed at us both individually and collectively as black women. To develop and maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem, we need to receive two basic messages -- 'I am lovable' and 'I am worthwhile' -- and we need to get these messages consistently," Ms. Boyd says.

JoAnn Jones is a contributing editor to Heart & Soul magazine.

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