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Willow Smith and Female Body Image: Why Girls Have the Right to Own Themselves

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Internet, I think I have a new personal hero. This week, Jada Pinkett Smith sounded off at critics who were upset that she would "let" her daughter, Willow Smith, buzz her hair -- despite long locks being a signature of Willow's style. (All the better to whip back and forth.) Because the internet has nothing better to do than pick on little girls for being different and the mothers who "enable" all this ungodly self-expression, people took issue with Jada's decision to allow her daughter to dictate her own personal style. Willow Smith is 12 years old and not a Barbie girl. Surely, she can dress herself, right?

I guess not.

Pinkett Smith took to Facebook to address the "controversy" and tell the haters to go back to the incestuous Reddit holes they crawled out of, stressing that her daughter's hair choices are her own--and no one else's. Let the "War on Girls" commence:

The question why I would let Willow cut her hair. First, the let must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are her domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It's also a statement that claims that even little girls have the right to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.

This statement perfectly echoes what Will Smith said back in May during an interview with Parade magazine, when asked about his daughter's right to her make her own choices:

We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it's like how can you teach her that you're in control of her body? If I teach her that I'm in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she's going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world.

It's not just about hair. This incident is sadly emblematic of a culture where women's bodies and identities are open for public dissection -- like those frogs in Biology class--and women are shamed if they deviate from the expected norms of feminine appearance. Christina Aguilera gets called fat for owning her curvy body, and back in her most plus-size days, Jessica Simpson couldn't take a picture without someone comparing her to a whale or asking who ate Jessica Simpson. Hilary Swank is a man, Sarah Jessica Parker is a horse, Rumer Willis has a potato head, Jennifer Lawrence is too "big" to play Katniss, etc., etc. On Felicity, Keri Russell couldn't even get a short, boyish haircut without half of the country freaking out about it. Felicity was only as good as her golden locks.

That shaming of women's bodies starts when girls are young and first learning to internalize the norms of a society that tells them they are merely the measure of their waist and bra size. Back when I taught drug awareness courses, most of the already-skinny female students in my class were on diets -- often administered by their parents -- and one was battling an eating disorder. These girls were made to believe they need to be beautiful and perfect to be loved, to fit into a narrow box of identity that not everyone is meant to fit. Your worth is not determined by who you are but how you look -- as if young girls were cattle at a marriage auction. Stay pretty and some rich guy will pay a handsome dowry for you someday, like Courtney Stodden! Dream big, ladies.

By the way, these girls were in 5th grade. They were slightly younger than Willow Smith.

If I ever have a daughter, I want to raise her in a world that's better than this, where a twelve-year-old doesn't have to worry about starving herself to feel worthy of love. If we want to make a difference in these girls' lives, we need more parents like Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, who are willing to stand up for their daughter's right to choose -- her body, her hair and her identity. Women and girls everywhere have a right to own themselves, and if we want to empower them to be strong, confident women, we need to start respecting that self-determination and stop subjecting their choices to such paternalistic scrutiny. We need to let girls be girls.

This was originally posted on Thought Catalog, and you can read the original here.