-by Ieshia McDonald, Contributor
Her name is Christie. She is Mattel’s first African-American doll, who was introduced to little black girls in 1968. Christie was a part of the talking doll line that Mattel released at the time. She sported a jawbone-length press ‘n’ curl with big brown eyes, winged eyeliner and red blush on her cheeks. Although her hair was straight, her tresses appeared to be thicker than that of the present doll. It wasn’t until 1971, that Christie began to sport a more European-inspired ‘do. From French waves to bone straight hair, Christie sported every chemically achieveable style imaginable. By 1997, with the release of “Beyond Pink Christie,” she finally sported a style that catered to black girls, appearing to have gray-colored micro braids. ‘Micro braids Christie’ was followed by the 1999 release of the “Brandy” doll that captured the singer’s facial features, and duplicated her signature braids down to her baby hairs, a sign of toy companies more accurately depicting black girlhood. More diversity seemed to be on the horizon for Mattel dolls. Unfortunately, in 2015 Christie’s hair is still the same, apart from a loose curl from time-to-time.
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My Barbie dolls were mostly black. They had stylish clothes and fanciful careers, or titles; but they never looked like me. Now mind you, dolls are not usually made to look like you, the owner, (except for American Girl dolls, which I considered switching to as a child) but I still wanted my doll to remotely resemble me. American Girl dolls, unlike Barbie, represented several ethnicities with diverse background stories. You could even send in a picture to the company to personalize the doll to look just like you. Of course, these dolls had the same facial features for the most part, but their hair texture, skin color and clothing was personalized for the owner. However, receiving a black doll from the American Girl doll line meant I would possess a doll that was inherently a slave. And this was a little more depressing to my 8-year-old self. Basically, when I was growing up, black girls were reduced to ideals of beauty stemming from white culture or slavery. Mattel, however, is attempting to change this slim ideal of beauty in the toy industry with the recent release of the Barbie Fashionistas line. The line features up to eight different skin tones and 22 hairstyles, a step toward diversifying the doll line.
I never fostered the idea of wanting to be white because of the dolls I played with; that came from actual social experiences. But it did make me realize that straight hair and white skin was the norm, and brown skin and textured hair was a rarity. I didn’t necessarily strive to be the white standard of beauty because I played with white dolls, but more so strove to meet the standard of beauty that my black Barbie dolls set for me. While their hair remained bone straight, my coiled roots needed a touch up, and I felt like something was wrong with that.
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The “dolls tests” were a series of tests conducted in the 1940s by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. In the test, Kenneth and Mamie used four dolls that differed only in skin complexion, placed them in front of black children ages three to seven and asked them to identify the doll they preferred. Results showed, that not only did most of the children prefer the white doll, but they also used more positive characteristics to describe the white doll. Dr. Clark concluded that segregation made African-American children feel inferior, a damaging effect to their self-esteem. Fortunately, the most recent renditions of the “dolls tests” did not overwhelmingly conclude with the same results as the first tests. However, they are still quite alarming, with both black and white children attributing beauty, intelligence and behavior to fairer skin.
But luckily, these ideals are gradually changing with the creation of more diverse dolls for black children to play with. Small business owners are creating dolls with an array of black hairstyles and features. California mom, Karen Byrd began customizing her daughter’s dolls’ hair in various African-American hairstyles, which, in turn, led to her launching Natural Girls United!, where she offers dolls with customized hairstyles for sale. Florida mom, Angelica Sweeting, created the Angelica doll in response to her younger daughter stating that she did not like her dark skin or her kinky hair. She created a doll just for her, with similar features to her daughter with natural hair. The Angelica doll has free flowing natural hair, which can be styled however her owner chooses; the hairstyles to try on this doll are limitless. In 2003, Salome Yilma and Yeworkwoha Ephrem launched Ethidolls in New York. Their line is dedicated to highlighting various African cultures and beauty ideals. Dolls stem from historical royals such as, Makeda, the queen of Sheba. Their dolls wear braided and other textured hairstyles. And Dr. Lisa Williams, founder of Positively Perfect Dolls, also has the same goal as the aforementioned manufacturers: changing how children perceive themselves and others by exposing them to various types of beauty. The dolls range from “buttercream to chocolate skin,” with straight and curly hairstyles.
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Many other doll entrepreneurs have similar stories. Whether it was their own daughters, or just a child that they knew, they recognized the inferiority that was growing within a black girl and they decided to provide a solution to the problem by creating dolls that look more like them; consequently letting black girls know that their beauty does matter.
Dolls are a part of the imaginary life little girls create for their future selves. Black girlhood should not be reduced to one idea, but expanded. The creation and growing availability of diversified dolls fosters this notion, bearing in mind its psychological impact on the next generation.