How we choose to define ourselves, inside out, sets the tone for how we navigate through life—and how life intrinsically navigates through us. As black women, our need for a sense of identity and self-worth—and the importance attached to it—brings to the light the values we often accept placed by society, and the manner in which we treat and regard ourselves. We recognize, too, that there is a danger in allowing others to define who and what we are.
In her 2008 award-winning news documentary The Souls of Black Girls, filmmaker Daphne Valerius took us on a riveting examination of the truth about self-image disorders, beauty standards, and the degrees by which black women view themselves, in and out of the media. The Souls of Black Girls was a blueprint that originated as part of Valerius’ journalism program while at Emerson College, and has received national recognition and numerous awards. Included in the film’s assessment on the historical and modern representations of women of color [and beauty standards] were prominent African Americans such as PBS Washington Week moderator Gwen Ifill, actress Regina King, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, rapper and cultural activist Chuck D., cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis, Juanita Jennings, and more.
When I asked Daphne Valerius how she personally defines culture, beauty, and image, this was her response:
“It’s an individualistic definition. Ultimately, culture and beauty is something that we have to define for ourselves. It starts with identity. Your beauty and identity come from your culture first, because culture has a way of influencing identity. For me, being a woman and growing up Haitian-American, one of the first things I recognized was that my parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti, and that was a part of my identity. I found beauty in that.
I find beauty in the shunt of my history. I was 10-years-old and I knew who Toussaint Louverture was; I felt that I could identify with that. I could identify with the fact that I was part of a great culture that had power and beautiful language. Those things, alone, reared me to have a clear awareness of who I was, which was very different from the African American experience. In my culture, there is beauty in the family unit, in the language we speak, the food we eat, and the music we listen to. Although, I was born in the United States, the Haitian-Creole language was my first language; that’s what my mother knew until she learned how to speak English, which I learned as I was going to school.
Culture, beauty, and image are really about how you self-identify as a human being on the earth. That’s how I’ve been able to arrive at that place. Yet ,that beauty that I experienced through my culture and language, and all of the things that connected me to being Haitian-American, also tainted what I saw around me. So, there’s a tainting that happens being in a culture and in a society that celebrates specific images, which don’t necessarily reflect what your beauty and truth are.
The challenge is in defining what your beauty is for yourself. That’s where the real question is. How do you identify beauty for yourself? If you’re looking on the outside, everything else is going to contradict what you know for sure, based on your culture, the people you know, the language that you speak, and things of that nature. I come from a people who have a beautiful culture and historical background, but it’s also tainted by the American experience, which sort of washes away that beauty and tells you that something else is beautiful. That’s where much of the contradiction lies. It took a very, very long time for me to even arrive at that place—that was my ultimate struggle.”
(Image: Courtesy of Filmmaker and Producer Daphne Valerius)
During the rest of our interview, Valerius elaborated further on the impact of her impeccable film, The Souls of Black Girls. Check it out below:
BLACK ENTERPRISE: Your award-winning documentary The Souls of Black Girls was a necessary and poignant on-screen conversation piece. Given your intercultural experience, do you feel that African women view themselves, their image, and their beauty much differently than African American women?
Valerius: Yes—I believe that it may come from a few different things. On one hand, you’re exposed to American culture, so you see beauty all around you. You see beauty in your mother, your grandmother, how she raised you, family morals, and the food you eat, whether you’re Nigerian, Liberian, and so on. But, it isn’t until you are a young black girl going to school, when, for the first time, someone calls you ugly or says your hair is nappy. You figure, “Oh, I never knew there was anything wrong with what I look like, my hair, the language I speak, or the clothes I wear.”
I think for the African, in many ways, we embrace this culture, because that’s who we are; that’s what we are innately born into. It’s within the American culture and society that we are told otherwise. The African American woman and the African woman identify very differently. The African American experience in this country has been accompanied by such brutality and slavery, and there is no innate connection to anything of beauty. When African Americans speak of their experience, they are speaking from a place of pain—from the slave ships, to the cotton fields, to this–and there is no beauty in that. There is no other language; there is only soul food. There is no beauty in the imagery of what you know about your history–being black and American in this country. It may be harder for the African American woman to identify feeling beautiful versus the African, because the African has somewhere to turn to. It may be that they know they have a tribe in Ghana, even though it’s complex and contradicts it in many ways, there is still beauty in that connection.
BE: The Souls of Black Girls is such a confirmatory title that addresses the totality of the black girls experience with image–skin color, mentality, weight, hair, and so on–particularly as it relates to the media. What most compelled you to make this film?
Valerius: The title, itself, was inspired by the book The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. DuBois. I read that book as an undergraduate student at St. John’s University, and I just loved the book. He talked about the duality of having to be an American and black in this country, and the contradictions that exist within the identity of a black person in the United States. But then, within that, I found a void because he didn’t speak to being a woman, [because] he could not.
As a woman, there are so many other elements. Not only do we have to be black, not only do we have to be American, but we also have to be female. That’s an identity within itself. The inspiration for the title came from that place and from my own lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. For years, I spoke about the beauty of being Haitian-American, but to be honest, I grew up feeling like the ugly duckling.
For many years, I was teased and called “Daffy Duck.”I had dark circles around my eyes; I suffered from hyperpigmentation and allergies at a very young age. I was always taunted, teased, and placed in an environment with schools where I was the one black girl in my class. I was very aware of my surroundings, and of the fact that I was different. To add insult to injury, I once had a crush on a white boy, who told me–first– he would never like me because I was black, and second, [he would never like me] because I was ugly. That takes a tremendous toll on your self-esteem. I carried much of the burden of not feeling good about myself for years. The one thing I knew for sure was that I was smart; I soared with my academics. I always placed high on testing, and at one of the top high schools in Rhode Island. So, I knew that I had my academics going for me, if nothing else.
BE: Was it this experience, also, that catapulted you into researching the effects of culture, beauty, and image in the media?
Valerius: Absolutely. I was given an opportunity to do research as a Ronald McNair Scholar, while being an undergraduate student at St. Johns University. By the time I reached college, I had arrived at a place where I was completely aware of who I was and confident in certain areas, but there was still a residue of low self-esteem and self-confidence that lingered. While I wasn’t sure as to why it was still there, I was sure that it couldn’t be just me.
I decided to apply my research on the topic of identity, just to explore what was going on. One of the images of the woman that really impacted me was rapper Lil’ Kim. I grew up with the music of Lauryn Hill and Lil’ Kim, and they looked like me. I loved Lil Kim’s music, but by the time I reached college, Lil’ Kim had begun to transform into someone nearly unrecognizable. No one was having that conversation, not even from a place of love. That’s when the light went off. I had to question, “Where does that come from and why?” And no one was talking about it.
Much of the film’s inspiration came from that research. The Ronald McNair Scholar Program prepares minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue a higher level of education–at the doctoral level. My research fulfilled the requirements of the program, and I knew that I was going to graduate school. In my final thesis project, I naturally reverted to all of the research I’d done. That’s how The Souls of Black Girls came to be–then, it became its own entity.
BE: As black women, what responsibilities do we hold to ourselves and others, when it comes to encouraging positive images in the media?
Valerius: It’s completely our responsibility. People ask me all the time, ‘Why are we still having this conversation after so many years?’ The hardcore truth is that we still need to have this conversation. We’re doing it each other. White people weren’t the ones bashing Gabby Douglas’ hair at the Olympics. We do it to one another, and then we do it to ourselves.
A philosopher and scholar that I so admire is the theorist Antonio Francesco Gramsci, talks about the theory of hegemony, and how the concept of what we see around us reflects back to us. When we put out the energy and feed into it, the energy of those images come back to us.
For example, you have a black female executive at a television network, and she’s aware of the culture, the struggle, and so on. Discussed in her meeting are the ratings from her program, which are skyrocketing because people are watching. How can she then justify to her network that people are not watching, when the ratings are so high? In the final analysis, media is going to push out what generates money and sales. So, as women of color, we have that responsibility, and–unfortunately–we’re all guilty of it. We’re all contributing to it. As black women, we need to have these conversations and be on the frontlines doing something, because we’re the ones doing the damage to one another.
BE: What are some actions that we, as black women, can internally employ to reaffirm who we are, how we see ourselves and our sisters?
Valerius: One of the things we can do is to really begin to speak our truth, honestly, and to one another, especially when we’re hurting. That’s the only way we can begin to heal. It needs to be less about having a conversation about your shoes, or your Louis Vuitton, or what’s in your bank account. Instead, we should be talking about how we’re hurting. We are so amazing, yet, we tend to give our power and energy to so many things that have no meaning or value. Nowadays, we have so many reality television programs and shows, but these are all women who are hurting on the inside. They’re hurting because of the relationships they got into. They’re hurting because of their marriages that are failing. They’re hurting from a lack of self-esteem and identity, and no one is doing the work to heal.
Most times, I love to see women just speak honestly about their truth. One of the things I encourage women to do is pick up a copy of the film, invite your young ones and young girls who love you and are looking up to you. This is an opportunity to have many of these honest conversations about what they are struggling with. I used to have those conversations, here and again, with my own sister, or with my cousin. I would ask, “Do you think I’m ugly? Do you think I’m pretty?” And that kind of dialogue opens the door on a very real level, because so many of our girls do feel that way. They wake up in the morning feeling inadequate. If we spoke to one another more vulnerably, about our truth, I believe that would be a huge step in the right direction.
What is Daphne Valerius Working on Now?
Nearly 10 years after the making of The Souls of Black Girls and being among the hundreds of private screenings held at institutions, organizations, colleges, and universities across the U.S., our conversations on culture, beauty, and identity continue to permeate, inside and outside, of those walls.
Valerius says, “We need to restart the conversation, because the issues are even more complex now. With the younger girls of this generation, the complexities lay in much of social media, and its rating system(s). Now, young girls are basing their validation on Facebook likes, retweets on Twitter, likes on Instagram, and who’s watching their YouTube channels. The dialogue now needs to shift, because we need to talk about what’s affecting these girls today, versus 10 years ago. Where are we now and what is happening with our girls?”(Image: Courtesy of Daphne Valerius)
Inspired to empower girls beyond her documentary, Valerius launched I AM HER Apparel line, an unapologetic fashion brand empowering women and girls to leave their mark. To date, I AM HER Apparel collections have been seen on Showbiz Tonight, VH1, TVOne, ASPIRE-TV, and in Ebony magazine.
After overcoming a private battle with a severe form of facial paralysis, Valerius aspires to influence, encourage, uplift and serve women and girls from her battle scars along her journey to recovery. Based on her transparency and vulnerability, Valerius coaches one-on-one, by sharing her deeply personal journey of healing through a series of online master classes called “Being Her Best Self with Daphne”. In doing so, she helps women and girls shift their thinking of themselves in two distinct areas: conquering fear and conquering insecurities from false self-perception.
Her documentary-in-progress, The Souls of Black Girls, Too , will continue the awareness and examination of the global struggles of black women and girls, as it relates to self-esteem, self-love, identity, and questioning of their standards of beauty and self-acceptance.
For more information regarding the film please visit www.soulsofblackgirls.com.
(Image: Author Rochelle Soetan)
Rochelle Soetan is the author of “Tuesday Morning Love” the inspirational book and international blog. She is a contributing author of the Award-winning anthology “More of Life’s Spices: Seasoned Sistah’s Keepin’ It Real Volume 2” which was nominated as a Finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award in 2013 and granted Honorable Mention Book for Women’s Studies across the country. She anticipates the release of her spiritual memoir “Bridges: A Season of Surrender” in late spring 2017.