"Are those your earrings Emmy is wearing?"
I ran into a neighbor recently while running errands with my daughter Emmy. As we were chatting, she did a double take at Emmy's medium-sized hoop earrings.
"No," I said, steeling myself for yet another scolding about my parenting choices. "Those are Emmy's earrings."
"Oh, she's grown," my neighbor said.
I knew it wasn't meant as a compliment. The concept of being "grown" is a toxic ideology passed down through generations in our culture.
Many of us grew up hearing the rules about what constitutes being too "grown" or "fast." Pull your skirt down. You ain't grown. Don't talk to that boy. Stop being fast. Put that hair in a ponytail. You can't wear your hair down—too grown. Hoop earrings? Slip-in shoes instead of buckles and straps? Spaghetti straps instead of short sleeves? Nail polish? (Especially not red polish, God forbid!) Shorts above the knee? What kind of attention are you trying to attract?
The labels "grown" and "fast" and the thinking that goes along with them have been, in my opinion, horrifically destructive for black women. Boys are never too grown. That's why we all have a cousin everyone calls "Man" or "Lil' Man" (shout-out to my college boyfriend, who has been called "Man" his whole life).
We teach boys to be men from birth. We tell them to "man up!" Even when they're babies, we say things like, "Look at my little man! Oooh, girl, he LOVES women. Mmm-hmm. Look at him, trying to kiss all over you. My little man is too much. He loves pretty girls! And he's only 3! Look at him staring at you!"
No one would ever dare say that a young black girl trying to kiss on a man or even seemingly admiring or flirting with a handsome man was acceptable.
Calling a young boy a "man" is normalized. But we would never call a young girl a "woman." Why? Girls have to earn their way into womanhood. But boys are born men. And it's destructive for both genders.
How many young black girls in our generation were cooking meals, watching over their siblings and left at home after school for hours—but couldn't decide how they wanted to wear their hair or the size of their earrings or the color of their nail polish? I had to beg my mom to let me cut my hair—and I was a junior in high school holding down an after-school job.
In our culture, things like cutting your hair and wearing red nail polish are symbols of womanhood. And even when we are expected to behave like women, we're often sent mixed signals by being warned against being visibly similar to adult women.
I'm not entertaining this ideology with Emmy. Yes, she wears hoop earrings. Yes, I let her color her hair with hair chalk. (And I would even let her streak it with real hair dye if she wanted to. It's just hair color, not a tattoo.) She can wear any shade of nail polish she wants, and while I'm careful about making sure that she wears age-appropriate clothing, I let her wear tank tops, shorts above the knee and even two-piece bathing suits. (I wasn't allowed to wear a two-piece in my parents' presence until adulthood. No, really.)
There are limits. Emmy can't wear her hoop earrings or any kind of jewelry to school, purely for safety reasons. Playground plus hoop earrings equals potential catastrophe. She can wear the jelly sandals my mom always banned. But again, it depends on where she's going. Beach, yes. Class trip to a farm, no.
One thing I can't get past? Children wearing heels. Emmy is only 8, and whenever I take her shoe shopping, I'm always surprised by how many children's shoes come with heels that are high enough to be on a women's shoe. I do think that high-heeled shoes should be reserved for adults, for safety reasons and because it just seems too much like playing dress-up.
I realize that makes me sound hypocritical. If I don't care about Emmy looking "grown," why not let her wear heels to formal occasions? I don't have an answer to that. It's just a holdover from my upbringing that I can't let go of yet. Just like Emmy's hair. If she told me she wanted to cut it, I'd say no. I feel like she needs to be a certain age before she can cut her hair. It makes no sense at all—having a short haircut doesn't mean she's morphing too quickly into womanhood.
Clearly, this is an idea that's tough to process, and I'm still figuring out what my boundaries are. But what I do know is that I will continue to rail against the labeling of black girls as grown with a negative connotation, especially when, in so many situations, they're required and expected to be just that.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.