In a culture that promotes white beauty standards, Black girls are more at risk for developing body image issues. Words and affirmations from Black female rappers can be the body positivity they need.
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Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion on a designed background
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Janelle Michelson eagerly scrolls through her phone, her eyes fixated on the screen of the tiny communication device. A few seconds later, the lyrics of "Body" by Megan Thee Stallion blasts the air of our Zoom call. Janelle, 13, from Houston, prefers listening to music as her form of entertainment as opposed to social media or watching TV, just like many other teenagers. For this teenager, however, her choice of song is a bit different.

Her mom, 35-year-old Clare Michelson, curated her playlist to mostly include body-positive songs from Black female artists like Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion. Michelson says this move was done with the intent of acquainting her daughter with body-positive lyrics that would boost her confidence. 

Music has always been a great tool for empowerment, and for many adolescent girls who often report higher instances of being dissatisfied with their bodies, listening to body-positive lyrics could be a great way for them to boost body esteem. The larger music scene, however, has continuously promoted certain body type—slim, Caucasian girls—making it difficult for Black girls like Janelle to resonate with what is often portrayed. Listening to Black female rappers changes this dynamic.

In a world where the Black female body is either invisible or hypervisible, these rappers weaponize themes used to objectify women and convert them into a source of pride. For Black girls who have historically felt that their bodies were inadequately represented in the media, this is game-changing and their moms know it. 

"Most music videos by Lizzo tend to feature Black women of all shapes and sizes. Seeing a 'mirror' of herself has not only boosted her body esteem, but also made her focus more on how she feels about herself and her body, instead of how she feels based on society's ideals and perspective," says Michelson. 

Michelson adds that having the knowledge that some of these rappers faced online trolls who criticized their appearance has encouraged Janelle to be more open about her own body image issues. 

"Sometimes, she'll come to me and say how much she doesn't like a feature about herself. Or how someone at school commented on how large her thighs are. By countering such negative messages with positive reassurance on her beauty, she gets the much-needed reaffirmation about her body."

Janelle is just one of many Black girls who is dissatisfied with her body. According to one study, Black girls are more likely to diet and are 50 percent more likely to exhibit bulimic tendencies than their white counterparts. Dr. Toya Roberson Moore, M.D., a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Eating Recovery Center in Chicago, partially attributes this to the inadequacy of Black female body-positive artists in mainstream media. 

For the Black girls who are gradually witnessing a change in this narrative, internalizing body-positive lyrics, as opposed to simply those that objectify their bodies, is a huge step in improving how they feel about their bodies. Such body-positive messages should also be accompanied by other positive habits like establishing healthy eating habits, physical activity, positive friendships and a positive inner focus.  

Dr. Lisa Hinkelman, Ph.D., the CEO of Ruling Our eXperiences, advises Black moms to make conversations about body image a part of day-to-day interactions with their daughters. For instance, moms can remind their daughters that rapid weight gain is considered normal during this period. That way, they are able to accept the changes that come. Parents should also remember to talk about their own bodies in positive ways. Parents' actions can bolster body-positive messages teens are already consuming from the media.

When body positivity isn't possible, Ruth Micallef, an MBACP-registered psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders, says learning to respect their bodies through body neutrality is an attainable goal for girls whose body esteem may be low. "Constantly feeling positive about your body is not always realistic, depending on how we feel day-to-day, especially for teens," she says.

And integrating messages that will help teens feel better about their bodies can be fun. Michelle Kamau, 40, from Nairobi, Kenya, says her ideal way of promoting a positive body image for her 15-year-old daughter, Cynthia, is by dancing together to Black female rappers, like Lauryn Hill, on lazy Sunday afternoons. She says artists like Cardi B. showcase how she'd like her daughter to feel in her own sexuality—free and comfortable. 

"Having dance parties to said artist is an easy way of creating open conversations on whether my daughter is comfortable with her body and sexuality. If she's not, we'll have a candid conversation on why this is the case and what can be done about it," says Kamau. "However, I'll be quick to call out any over-sexualized and body-obsessed lyrics. As much as I want her to be self-expressive, eliminating such messages is key to developing a healthy, non-objectifying perception of her body." 

It may be difficult for Black moms to talk about sexuality with their daughters, even though doing so has been linked to enhanced closeness, better self esteem, and decreased negative health consequences. This, Kamau says, is a narrative she wanted to change with her daughter. 

"Megan Thee Stallion has become a strong advocate for exposing the over-sexualization of the Black female body through her songs like 'Thot Shit,'" says Kamau. "This has impacted a valuable lesson to my daughter on standing up to anyone who tries to objectify their body. She also speaks to me about similar situations she may have experienced online or in real life."

Mom Clare Michelson advises other Black moms to remind their daughters that there is no standard of beauty. "If they know that beauty comes in various forms, they'll be less self-critical about their appearance and that of others as they grow up," she says. 

Initiating conversations with potential friends has now become a regular thing for Janelle. She has also become more confident in trying out new hobbies, both in and out of school. Her mom says that she would have never mustered the courage to do those activities before and attributes it to the positive outlook she has developed about herself. As for Cynthia, Kamau says she stopped comparing her appearance and achievements to that of her peers. "She is also no longer afraid to be herself in front of others. I owe a lot of that new-found confidence to Black female rappers."