First day of school, backpacks, and body image

Natalie had her first day of preschool yesterday!  We found a small preschool right near our house and office that we think will be a great fit for Natalie.  On the first day of school, they rented a huge bouncy castle with a slide for the kids to play on – Natalie had a great time!  For now, she will be going to school three mornings a week, and coming with me to the office the other two mornings with a babysitter.  My coworkers may not agree because of the extra noise, but I love having the kids in the office with me!  Natalie always pops into my office to tell me random things, loves to help our custodian clean, and always helps get tea and cassava for Muigai and myself.  For now, I’m working in the office in the mornings and spending the afternoons at home with the kids.

Natalieschool                                                           Here is Natalie looking all grown up with her big backpack



I would like to vent for a minute about the difficulty I had in finding Natalie a backpack.  She wanted a pink backpack so we went to five different supermarkets in search of a backpack (here supermarkets are like Walmart in that they often have lots of household items, clothes, electronics, etc in addition to food).  The supermarkets only had a small selection of backpacks for girls, and every single one of them had a white pop star (Hannah Montana, High School Musical, etc) or a white cartoon character (Disney princess, Barbie, etc).  The worst one I saw was one that had the word “Beauty” in sparkly letters and then a generic, Barbie-like character with pale white skin, blue eyes, and long flowing blonde hair.

When I worked at EMU, I wrote and presented a presentation on media and body image, and I touched on issues of race, globalization, and body image.  Every culture has their own standards of beauty, but globalization is allowing us to export our Western standards of beauty (thin, pale skin, Caucasian facial features, long flowing hair, etc) all over the world.  This leads to messages to women like this commercial from Egypt for “Fair and Lovely” skin lightening cream, where the woman claims that her dark skin has prevented her from landing her dream job:

So the backpack with the generic blond “beauty” is bad enough in the US, where only a few girls will ever look like her.  But it’s terrible in Uganda, where 0% of ethnic Ugandans will ever have white skin and long flowing blond hair.  I refuse to buy a backpack for my daughter which promotes a standard of beauty that she will never be able to attain.  She will always have beautiful brown skin and tightly curly hair, and I want her growing up with the message that those features are equally beautiful.

It also really bothers me that this encourages young Ugandan girls to idolize American pop stars.  I wish someone would come up with a line of backpacks that feature strong African heroes like Wangari Maathai, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Leymah Gbowee – women that young girls can be proud to aspire to emulate.

I want to be clear that my frustration is not directed towards the Ugandan supermarkets, but rather towards the corporations that mass produce these backpacks in China and ship them, along with Western standards of beauty, all over the world.  Because these bags are made so cheaply, they undersell local products and make it difficult for local alternatives to arise.  I am sure there are other places to buy good backpacks here, and some local alternatives, but we haven’t been here long enough yet to know where to find them.

Anyway, I was finally able to find Natalie a nice, plain pink backpack at the market across the street from our office just a few days before school started and she was very happy with her new bag.

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