Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Brown Barbies Are Beautiful


We all know that taking a child with you to the store for what is supposed to be a “quick trip” never turns out that way. Such was the case after church the other day, when I told my daughter, K, that I was going to return something at Target, and that I wasn’t buying anything. Thing is, K still had birthday money burning a hole in her purse, so, at her insistence, I trotted to the back of the store (why are toys always in the back?) with my heels on to oblige her.

She went to her favorite aisle—the Barbie aisle. When she saw this “Barbie Fashionista,” she immediately had to have it.

Barbie Fashionista

“Well, what about these other dolls right here?” I said, pointing to a group of So In Style (S.I.S.) dolls which, like Barbie, are made by Mattel. “They are just like Barbies, but they are mommies with their little girls, just like you and me,” I said, pointing to the duo pack of dolls—one big, one a pint-sized version of what I thought was supposed to be her mom. (In actuality, they are girls who mentor young girls, but I didn’t get that when I first saw these doll combinations.)

But no, K was insistent on getting the Paris Hilton-looking doll. Then I pointed out that the SIS dolls looked like us because they were brown (she is literal with her colors, and calls most White people “peach”). She said, “I don’t like brown dolls.”

[Record-ripping screeeeech here]

I said, “You’re brown. How do you not like brown dolls?”

No answer.

Then I showed her how each of the SIS dolls did fun stuff with (who I thought to be) their daughters. One pair were cheerleaders. Another pair plays instruments. She selected the artsy pair, Trichelle and Janessa—and it was the package that had the most little pieces in it (painting brushes, a backpack, a sketchpad, and on and on). Oh joy. That means I get to dissemble it and find each of these little pieces in my carpet forevermore. (And why in the name of the sweet heavens above do they always put those white taggy things on the dolls hair? Arrrrgh!)

But all the little pieces are the least of my worries. What in the world was up with my daughter's insistence that she doesn't like brown dolls? This isn't how I'm raising her. It's not how I think. Indeed, I recently attended the Proctor & Gamble sponsored My Black is Beautiful, an event which offers a day of pampering (manis, pedis, facials, and makeovers) while promoting and giving away samples of health and beauty products like Crest, Pantene and Cover Girl to Black women. The My Black is Beautiful movement is above empowering and embracing our beauty in all shades. During the event, I decided to be a part of the model call, and one of the things we were asked to do was finish this statement: “My Black is ________ ," like they do on the interludes of their show on BET. My response was “unbreakable,” because as a single mother I have overcome so many things over the course of my daughter’s life in trying to remain independent and resilient, and setting a good example for her, even while shielding her from negativity. So how ironic was it for me to hear K’s clear distaste for “brown dolls” in preference to blonde-haired Barbies? She has Black baby dolls, including the Black Bratz dolls and the like. In fact, one of her top-requested items for her birthday last month was “a brown man doll” (although she also wanted a Ken, too). So I just didn't—and still don't—understand her proclamation about the brown dolls and her insistence on getting the white one.

Here am I, in the midst of finishing my motivational manuscript about empowering girls and enhancing their self-esteem, and my own daughter, at the tender age of seven, doesn't want to get with the program. Should I be worried? The SIS dolls came in different shades, and although they don’t sport natural hair like I just recently started doing, I've yet to overcome beauty stereotypes for my own child. My book will be dedicated to her, but I wonder, have I messed up already? Am I not doing enough to show her that her Brown is beautiful, too?

I don’t know how deep this is for her, but I’m going to work extra hard to get to the bottom of it—to show her why she should fall deeply, totally in love with exactly who she is. Who we are.

How do you show your children that their brown is beautiful?

* * * * * * *

About our MyBrownBaby contributor: Daree Allen is a technical writer and motivational speaker. She is currently writing a self-help book for teen girls. You can reach her at her website, D.elivering A. R.ich, E.mpowering E.xperience  and her personal development blog, Daree's Insights

If you would like to be a featured contributor on MyBrownBaby, email your essays/ideas/blog posts/rants/musings to Denene at denenemillner at gmail dot com.

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  1. I know exactly what you mean! My beautiful brown baby (she's 7 too) has leaned toward the blonde Barbies and baby dolls for however long she's played with dolls. Like you, my response was record screeching with a reactive response of, "Why?!" Her silence and perplexed look let me know that she wasn't thinking of the deeper implications of her choice (as I was). She just thought the doll was prettier than the brown one and when she said that my heart broke. How could she not see her gorgeous chocolate skin and bountiful curly locks as pretty?

    I think we all know the answer. The message that white = good and black = bad is pervasive in our culture. All the way down to the idea that a zebra is white with black stripes (I say, black with white stripes). I know that all sounds petty to some, but for those of us who experience our children saying things that negate their own color, it's a BIG deal.

    What I've done: I let her buy the blonde dolls because I'm also about inclusivity and appreciating our differences. But I've been more about the unconscious ways I contribute to her negative perception of being Black. For instance, I used to buy Arbonne cosmetics and while I love many of their products I noticed that their ads have very few women of color, if any at all. So I switched it IMAN (looks better on me anyway) and she noticed.

  2. How we define beauty for our kids, especially for our girls is such a tricky thing. So many women are transforming the universal ideal of beauty to include multiple body shapes, skin tones and colors, ages, hair textures and styles, etc.; but after generations of being fed beauty standards that exclude the things we try to embrace today, there's still a lot of progress to be made.

    I don't know if there's a simple answer to any of the questions you posed. Children most certainly learn from us so to begin with embracing our own God-given beauty is essential and it seems like you're definitely already doing that. For what it's worth, I'm sure your daughter sees you, her mother, as more beautiful and wonderful than any doll she can find in a store :).

    At the end of the day, based on the things you are doing to instill a positive self-image for yourself and for your daughter, I wouldn't worry too much about her choice for a doll...just keep reminding her everyday how beautiful and wonderful she is exactly as she was made. Her hair that grows from her head is as beautiful as God intended it to be and her skin is, as we often tell our kids, a beautiful, beautiful brown. I'm certain that she's embracing her loveliness already :).

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. My 3-year-old, who is white, prefers the "chocolate-colored" babies. I don't know why she chose that term, but because she said it with love, I chose not to lecture her about it.

    I don't pretend to have ever walked a day in a black mother's shoes, but it is possible that this was just about which doll looked prettier that day. In any event, what I love about reading Denene's website and her guest writers and commenters is that it reminds me that having an ongoing discussion about these topics- difference, inclusion, beauty- is the most important thing we can do for our girls. I am grateful for the viewpoints I read on here so I can start to try to share them with my daughter.

  4. As moms, we try so hard to instill positive self-esteem in our girls, and then they say something like, "I don't like brown dolls," and we think we've failed. You have NOT failed! Just keep showing her healthy, positive images; keep giving her books with brown characters, keep taking her to movies with brown actors (hard, I know); just keep on keepin' on.

  5. I have three daughters. The oldest is 16 and the youngest is 8. With my oldest, my aunt and grandmother would only buy dolls and babies that looked like us. With my 8 year old I let her pick. She likes to pick out dolls from all the ethnic groups. To her they all are beautiful and different. All my girls know that black is beautiful though. When I explained to them how special it was to have a black princess (Tiania from Princess and the frog) they were just as excited as me.

  6. I have been there too. My daughter gave me the same answer last year, she was 4 at the time. It bothered me and I let it worry me for a while. But I decided not to make a big deal of it. I have only purchased brown dolls for her and have even persuaded her from a white doll purchase to a brown doll once or twice. But I don't get a good feeling from doing that because I haven't let her make her own choice. We have dolls of many different shades at home. Some have been gifts. Sometimes she is all about the lighter colored dolls and other times she is all about the dark ones.

    I think the shock of hearing that my daughter did not prefer the black doll was alarming, because as a black woman, I am proud of my color. But I realized she has a long life to live, and that my feelings about her doll choice do not mean that she will not embrace her color and beauty as she grows up.

    Still, I keep it in the back of my mind and make sure that she sees me making choices to show that I love my color.

  7. Our two year old (brown baby) recently said Daddy's a 'black man' and I replied 'yes, and Mummy's a black lady and you're a black girl'. She replied 'i'm not a black girl!'..and seemed to be VERY assertive about it. She even said 'I don't want to be a black girl'. She is TWO YEARS OLD. Granted, she is at the age where she contradicts herself, changes her mind at the drop of the hat and definitely cannot understand the deeper meanings behind her comments. But they did make me more aware of the image I am portraying for her of black women and that her Dad is of black men. She too prefers 'white' dolls and on a certain occasion, I actually refused to buy the white hair styling doll and bought the black one instead. I am sure it wouldn't be completely damaging for her to have had her chosen one, but I am hoping that by preening and prepping a 'black styling head' she will not feel the need to have blonde hair - as I did as a child! All I have to do now is give the doll an afro weave and we're away! : ) At least that way, if nothing else, she can have fun styling AFRO hair - like her own.

    To Denene. I think, from all that I have read thus far, you're doing an AMAZING job. You are a real inspiration to young mums like myself, raising brownbabies through the lense of a black woman. It truly is a challenging experience and one that will be so rewarding when one day, we look at our confident, strong, loving and compassionate children and think wow - I did that!

    You keep doing what you're doing and please keep sharing these experiences with us.


  8. Sister,

    Start as you mean to go on. My now 23 year old daughter only ever had black dolls, really hard to find in London in the 1980's. But, I was insistent that she recognised that Black is beautiful, and praise be to God, she had grown up loving her blackness, and proud of her beauty. Persist.

    You're doing a good job.

    Sis. D

  9. Thank you ladies--all of you--for your encouragement on my article. I am glad to see that as long as I keep pointing her in the right direction, her self-esteem won't be compromised. Blessings to you.

  10. One person (a parent) up against the influence of a whole society (television, movies, print media, advertisements) that still affirms a more European beauty standard will always have a challenge. However, as others have said, it shouldn't stop you from continuing your efforts and leading by example. The best way to show a child that Black is beautiful is to continue to live the life a beautiful, honorable Black woman.

    As an educator teaching in predominantly African-American and Latino communities, with increasing numbers of children from Middle East and Africa, I'm am acutely aware of how everything I do as a Black person before them every day, will influence their perception of "blackness" for the rest of their lives. I remember one time a parent cut her child's hair very short, no perm, and she was so embarrassed that she came to school with a scarf on her head every day for fear of being teased for her natural hair. Although I wore my hair straightened at the time, I decided to do a special "show-and-tell" about my acting career, and brought in one of my old headshots - where I had a short natural. The students were shocked, both by the fact that I ever "rocked" that style, and that I was bold enough to show myself with hair that short and "nappy." But when I explained to them that this picture got me more auditions, plays, and commercial work than I'd ever had before, their views began to change. The girl stopped wearing that scarf, by the way.

  11. It is a dilemma for sure. I want to ONLY buy my daughter brown dolls and while she has many, she also has white dolls because she wanted them as well. I try not to get crazy about it, but it's hard. Recently she wanted a shirt in the Boden catalog that had a girl on it...the girl was white with brown hair. There were two other shirts like that had an Asian-looking girl (straight black hair) and one had a black-looking girl (a purple afro). I tried desperately to steer her to the black girl and as a last resort, the Asian girl, but she wanted what she wanted. I finally let her have the shirt with the white girl on it, but I am not happy about it at all! I think she chose that particular shirt because she liked the color, but still it irks me.


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