Finally, a doll that represents our natural hair. Why this matters to our daughters, and why it took so long to get here.
Natural hair dolls are finally an item you can buy -- you no longer have to create them yourself. For years, CurlyNikki and the whole of the natural hair blogger world has been teaching women how to use pipe cleaners and hot water to turn any Barbie doll's straight hair curly. The process has been touted as a fun activity for moms and daughters, a good chance to talk about natural hair while creating dolls that are a bit more realistic in terms of what anyone's natural hair looks like.
But now, as so often happens in the natural hair community, one woman took matters into her own hands. Karen Byrd, founder of Natural Girls United, has made turning silky straight Barbie hair into not only curls, but all types of natural hair styles from locs to afros and everything in between, a sustainable business.
Byrd told the Huffington Post that she got the idea when browsing the doll aisle with her daughters, now 14 and 12. The lack of diversity in that aisle got her to thinking and in 2011, she started a business to address the issue.
And now, Byrd has a 51-person-long waiting list that she works continuously to fulfill, with plans to bring on more employees and expand to the UK, Australia and Africa.
The goal is, of course, to provide young girls with dolls that look more like them.
"I had dolls that were gorgeous, but they didn't look like me," Byrd told the Huffington Post about the dolls she had when she was little. "When I looked in the mirror, I would be confused -- like, am I beautiful."
Even among differing skin colors in the doll aisle, almost all dolls have straight, silky hair, and the community hasn't been quiet about the in accuracy. Back in 2009, Mattel launched a line of Black Barbie dolls, all with straight hair, causing controversy between the brand and the natural hair community.
The search for black dolls has a few passionate subscribers including Samantha Knowles, the producer of the documentary "Why Do You Have Black Dolls?"
"My parents made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes," Knowles told Bitch Magazine. "We didn't have exclusively black dolls, but we had mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of conversations with my mom, and she would say, 'Oh, you don't know what I had to go through to get some of those dolls!'"
Even harder to find, if not impossible, are black dolls with hair that actually mimics natural hair texture. Silky and straight isn't only a poor representation of natural hair, but there are unhealthy consequences in thinking that only silky, straight hair is beautiful. And no one wants to relive decades of young girls getting relaxers long before they should.
"I'm emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is, " said Debbie Behan Garrett, author of "Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collection and Experiencing the Passion." "When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to understand that there's nothing wrong with being black. If black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that's all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, 'What is wrong with me?'"
Still, today, many black dolls are darker skin versions of their white counterparts, raising questions about how it was that the black doll even came about.
In 1910 early civil rights activists Marcus Garvey and R.H. Boyd pushed back against black Americana stereotypes that dominated the black doll market. The two began importing elegant, black porcelain dolls from Europe until their company, the National Negro Doll Company, closed in 1915. In 1945, when vinyl and hard plastic dolls became cheap and easy to make, mass-production made creating differences between the dolls an expensive undertaking. Creating a different mold for African American features seemed an unnecessary cost, so the dolls were simply painted darker.
"You couldn't look at the doll and classify it as a true representation of a black person," says Garrett. "Because it was just a brown counterpart of the white doll."
Then, there was the Sara Lee doll, created by a white woman named Sara Lee Creech, who took 500 photos of black children so that she could get the facial features of her doll right. Ideal Toy Company sold her doll from 1951 to 1953, though now they are nearly impossible to find.
Over the years, Mattel tested out different black Barbie pals including cousin Francie (1966), friend Christie (1968) and TV-show inspired Julia (1969). But none of the dolls sold well and it would take another decade before Mattel released an official Barbie with black skin (1979).
In the 90s, more effort was put into creating a more realistic black doll including the Big Beautiful Dolls, the first full-figured fashion dolls created in 1999, Byron Lars' African American Barbies for the Barbie Collector Series, sold between 1997 and 2010, Salome Yilma's EthniDolls which are made in the image of historical black women leaders, and Stacey McBride-Irby's So In Style Mattel dolls launched in 2009, which featured black dolls with straight hair.
But, despite additional efforts, finding realistic looking black dolls is still a challenge, especially when it comes to their hair. It's likely that Byrd's waitlist is only going to continue to grow, especially as the holiday season approaches, and even more likely that her business is going to be a booming success and change the way a few young girls grow up feeling about their naturally curly hair.