Black Girls, Barbie and Body Image

When I was a young mother and my daughter a toddler, I remember viewing a PBS special about negative self image in Black children. In the highlighted study, researchers gave girls the choice of a White and a Black doll, and asked them different questions about the dolls attributes. The special showed film footage of little Black girls preferring the White doll over the Black one and ascribing all of the positive attributes to the White doll, while viewing the Black doll as lesser. When the little Black girl said that the Black doll was dirty, and not as pretty, I was completely undone! That program changed my life permanently as a mother.

From that point on, I was hell bent on working on my daughter’s self image. I tossed out all fashion magazines from my house (I am a magazine junkie) and only bought and kept in view magazines that had Black women on the cover. (Back then, that was not very easy to accomplish!) I severely cut network T.V. viewing, because I began to notice (among many other things) that in doll commercials, the White doll was always featured front and center. If they showed the Black version of the doll at all, she was always in the background as if an after thought. So I limited my kid’s exposure to television because the messages perpetuating the idea of Black-as-lesser were pervasive. Those messages are still there, just more subtle!

When my daughter came home from pre-school with an art-class representation of our family made out of felt, I was dismayed to see that we all had White faces. I asked my daughter why she made us all White and she said there was no brown or tan felt. White was the closest choice. As a result of that incident, I took a whole box of multi-cultural materials to my kids’ schools—black dolls, books with Black and other people of color as the central characters, multi-cultural skin tone crayon sets, brown and black felt—because my kids were in schools where they were the only persons-of-color in their classes. In my daughter’s case, she was the only one in the entire school!

Barbie dolls have been a difficult issue for me. My daughters have inherited and received lots of Barbie’s over the years. I have always been conflicted about Barbie, which is why I never actually purchased any Barbie dolls myself for them. The crazy thing is–I played with Barbie when I was little. I looovvved my Barbie dolls. But I know that I internalized the ideal-body, white-is-better messages that the Barbie perpetuates. With regard to her crazy, curvy shape, I don’t think I wanted to “be” her–I remember the difficult time I had getting those little garments over Barbie’s huge breasts. And how the strapless dresses would always slip down and expose her. But I did love that tiny waist! And I remember feeling that Francie and Christie, Barbie’s Black friends, were fine… But they were not Barbie, even though they were just chocolate-covered versions of her. I had a Christie doll. But when I was taking on the doll alter-ego, I almost always choose the White Barbie. I remembered these things about my child-self and worried that my girls would be similarly brainwashed.

I do not mean to over-simplify this issue. Why Black girls prefer White Barbie is complicated. One could argue that Christie, with her White features and her dark brown skin, is no more representative of many Black girls than the White Barbie. I certainly looked more like Malibu Barbie, with that “tan”, than Christie or Francie. Also, when you want your alter-ego to be the boss, or the leader, or the top dog, it’s clear you’re going to choose Barbie and not one of her friends. When you seek to be a side-kick, you might choose Christie, or even the Brown haired White girl doll. But Barbie was clearly the “It” girl and every girl wants to be that!

Well, Stacey McBride-Irby, Black mother and 12-year Barbie designer veteran, decided it was time for little Black girls to have their own “It Girl” dolls. Stacey had a meaningful childhood experience with Barbie, too. So much so that she was inspired by Barbie to be a designer. Stacey has a young daughter. And she, too, is cognizant of the issues with our girls and their self-images. This is what motivated her to create the So In Style line of Barbies. With this line, Stacy’s desire was to make Barbie a positive, image enhancing experience for her daughter and all of the little Black girls like her. So In Style dolls are designed to look like Black women and girls— curlier hair, broader noses, fuller lips and more pronounced cheekbones. They also have a variety of skin tones. The dolls come with little sisters because Stacey wanted to encourage and perpetuate family and community values, like mentoring and giving back. The line also stresses the importance of education and career aspirations.

Since we are still combating negative stereotyping in media in general, and even in our own programming, in particular (think BET), it’s heartening to know that folks like Stacey are out there fighting the good fight on behalf of our children. It’s meaningful when mainstream companies are taking steps to bolster our girls. Barbie is a brand that has a long history and a faithful following. It’s significant that So In Style is connected with the Barbie tradition. Many may have some objection to the fact that the So In Style dolls have retained the extreme, unrealistic body type so characteristic of Barbies. And this is a more than legitimate complaint. Maybe the next generation of So In Style dolls will address this issue. Still every step toward positive self-realization for our daughters is a good step, as far as I am concerned!!
Thank you, Stacey. Thank you, Mattel!

Perhaps So In Style is part of a body image revolution happening everywhere, See’s These Bodies Are Beautiful at Every Size.



  1. I love that they are doing that!

    I, too, have a real problem with the media and fashion/beauty magazines, et. al. I want to shield my daughters from all of this. This idea that there is any one kind of beautiful, a “best” way to look. I hate it, it bothers me so much. It isn't just ethnicity, though I know this is a huge issue, as your many examples illustrate. But body type/sizse, hair color and style, breast size . . . It's all there, and it's all about making money.

    But I've realized as my daughters get older (the oldest is only 6) that there's no way I can shield them from this stuff, so I just have to teach what I know to be right. And also show them how the media purposefully tries to distort their views so they can be aware of when they are being decieved or bought.

    Good for you for writing about this stuff! It is wonderful!

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