I realized that my music-video obsession had gone too far when I found myself singing along with Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice.” When the video appeared on BET’s Rap City, my younger sisters—Shabi, then 17, and Shaz, 18— and I scrambled for the remote to blast the volume. Bopping along, we sang, “We don’t love them hos!” Then I felt sick.
I was a junior at Columbia University majoring in African-American studies who ordinarily flinched at the word bitch. So why was it so easy for me to repeat Snoop’s off-color mantras? Why didn’t I change the channel? Sure, my sisters and I had fun watching the upbeat and sometimes funny videos that accompanied the latest songs without thinking about their implications. But the real answer lies in years of conditioning and uncritical acceptance of television images.
As teenagers and even younger, Shabi, Shaz and I learned to dress, style our hair and speak by watching videos on BET’s Rap City or Yo! MTV Raps. When I was 13 and my sisters were only 10 and 11, we dressed up in our mother’s high heels and twisted our T-shirts into midriff tanks. Then we danced in front of the TV following instructions from rappers to “Just shake ya rump!” As I got older I bought $20 lip glosses—well beyond my student budget. I even tried to color my hair with Beyoncé’s highlights (it didn’t quite work out). I dug deep, maxing out two credit cards with purchases for trendy purses and leather boots I could barely walk in.
Then, during my last year at Columbia, something changed. The Ludacris video for “Fatty Girl” was in heavy rotation. The song had sparked a trend validating curvier body images, but I felt conflicted. Rappers seemed to be appreciating a body type that mainstream media would not recognize, but for all the wrong reasons. They only endorsed women’s bodies as a focal point in lyrics praising their own masculinity and virility. For the first time I didn’t sing along.
After a discussion in class of the complicated history behind Black-female stereotypes perpetuated in the media, my professor pointed out the negative impact of videos on my self-esteem. He suggested I stop watching them for a time to see what would happen. I wondered how I would learn new dances without them.
After two months of video withdrawal, I was bored and frustrated. Conversations with peers dragged when I couldn’t discuss the latest artist releases. As I was forced to come up with other topics, my discussions were redirected to current events or our latest reads. When my best friend and I got into a spirited conversation about a book we had both read, we decided to start a book club. Our first title, Finding Fish by Antwone Fisher, was a gripping coming-of-age story. My book-club friends and I related to the main character’s struggle with adulthood, sparking animated discussions about our own fears and insecurities. There was much to listen to. I had begun a powerful dialogue with myself and others, and my spirit was expanding. With so much to talk about, I didn’t need videos as I once had. My confidence increased as I began to appreciate my own sense of style. I even left home without mascara, and it felt okay.
Sure, I sometimes catch myself falling into old patterns. But I realize that I fall back on my music-video habit when I’m feeling vulnerable. Videos make me nostalgic for a simpler time with my sisters, offering a familiar way to lose myself in the mindless entertainment and forget my problems. I see now that it’s better to address whatever’s bothering me head-on. Have a good cry. Talk to friends. Exercise. Write. And move on to life’s next adventure. Now when I look in the mirror, even when I’m not double-coated with mascara or shimmering with expensive lip gloss, I see a complete person, perfect as I am.
Zulaika Jumaralli is an editor living in New York.