What Black Barbie Means to Black Women and Girls
On July 21, the highly anticipated Barbie movie will be released—invoking many girlhood memories. But what does Barbie mean to a Black woman who was once “the Black girl”?
I was first introduced to “Janet,” as well as others from the Barbie world, as a young girl in the ’90s. My girlhood involved friendships with individuals whose backgrounds, beliefs and customs differed from mine. Therefore, my mother ensured the dolls I played with reflected the world I grew up in; representation’s power is transformative.
Society underestimates Black Barbie’s image of Black girlhood. From Christie to Janet, Cara, Stacie and Nikki, Black Barbie is a doll who embodies #BlackGirlMagic at its finest.
Mattel’s goal in 1968, when they first created Christie, centered on diversity and addressing the Equal Rights Movement. Yet, she symbolized more than just a Black perspective on American life.
Black Barbie’s image allowed Black girls to imagine beyond their wildest dreams, embrace the power of being a girl, and find comfort in defining their femininity. Above all, it allowed them to escape society’s destructive narrative of Black girlhood.
At an early age, Black girls’ childhood innocence is stripped away. A study from Georgetown Law found Black girls, starting at age 5, experience adultification bias, where adults believe they need less protection and nurturing compared to their white peers. Stripping childhood innocence leads to low self-esteem.
Discovering self-identity and building self-esteem are fundamental pillars of early childhood development. It’s hard for Black girls to accomplish this in a society that values Eurocentric views.
The infamous “doll test” conducted by Black psychologists Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark wanted to understand race’s impact on Black children’s self-esteem. Their study revealed that participants attributed positive characteristics to White dolls over Black dolls, indicating a negative sense of self-worth.
Knowing this, the surge of Black girl representation became of utter importance to improving the self-worth of Black girls across America.
Holding the Brandy as Cinderella doll, based on the 1997 film, in my 5-year-old hands helped me see myself beyond society’s narrative. The doll opened my imagination to envisioning Black girls like me as worthy of being the center of attention in fantasy stories. This tradition continues for this generation with Halle as Ariel in the live animated movie, The Little Mermaid.
Over the years, Black Barbie has evolved from representing fantasy roles to honoring Black women and girls from various professions and accomplishments. From Hidden Figures‘ Katherine Johnson to Olympian gymnast Gabby Douglas, Black Barbie attempts to present imagery of Black girls beyond what society is used to seeing represented.
As a pediatrician, I understand the power of racial representation on Black girls’ self-esteem. “The development of a positive racial self-identity has been found to be a protective factor against internalizing racism,” according to the Journal of Pediatrics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in 2019, realized the importance of addressing racism as essential to providing holistic health care for children and adolescents. “The social environment in which children are raised shapes child and adolescent development, and pediatricians are poised to prevent and respond to environmental circumstances that undermine child health,” according to the AAP.
As a Black pediatrician, I understand my role in helping to address the representation image of Black girls as I serve and advocate for their healthcare needs.
As a medical student, I shared the story of my natural hair journey and the struggles Black women face with choosing to wear their natural hair during medical school interviews. Authoring this article started me on a journey to empower others to embrace their natural hair within medicine and medical education.
As I imagined myself as more than my hair, I became inspired to advocate against natural hair discrimination in the medical workplace. This experience has since shaped my character as a physician, stemming from having a positive relationship with my Black Barbie.
The politics around embracing natural hair in the medical profession, world, and workplace, led me to author and advocate for the passing of the CROWN Act, which aims to “dismantle structural racism in medicine by recognizing that intolerance of natural hairstyles and cultural headwear is a form of racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination,” and was later adopted by the American Medical Association in 2022.
So again, what does Black Barbie mean to the Black woman who was once the Black girl?
She reminds me that representation does not always come in the form of a person; sometimes, it’s a doll that allows you to embrace your creativity, dreams and imagination far beyond what society believes you are capable of … all in pink stiletto heels.
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