Following the collection from stylist Shiona Turini to celebrate this year’s Black History Month, Andrea Andres looks at other efforts by Barbie to celebrate diversity and inclusivity through play.
When I was scrolling through Instagram, I was shocked to be greeted with photos of a set of diverse Barbies, including slim Barbie, thick Barbie, and a Barbie in a wheelchair. These dolls were sporting different hair colours, hairstyles from brunette afro to sleek black hair. These beautiful Barbies were dressed by stylist, “Queen & Slim” costume designer Shiona Turini and were wearing striking ruby red outfits, soft sherberts, classic blacks, and neutral bodysuits. Part of a digital campaign to celebrate Black History Month.
Speaking to Essence, Turini wanted young girls and women “to be able to see themselves in this iconic brand. [she] was excited to partner with a platform to celebrate diversity and further reflect Barbie as an icon through the lens of black culture. She [Barbie] was technically our first fashion muse and to be able to see ourselves so beautifully represented within this brand, I just think it’s a special thing.”
These Barbies were a far cry from the blue-eyed, skinny, blonde, white Barbie that advocated weight loss and conformity. Mattel may have been very late to diversifying their toys, but they have taken large strides in their strive for inclusivity, in recent years.
Mattel may have been very late to diversifying their toys, but they have taken large strides in their strive for inclusivity, in recent years.
Young children are spoiled for choice with the Barbie Fashionistas collection. Released in 2016, the collection boasts 176 dolls with 9 body types, 35 skin tones, and 94 hairstyles. They also offer Barbies with wheelchairs, no hair, and vitiligo. President and chief executive of the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, Stella Pavlides, praised the doll saying that, “I think this is the best thing that could happen for children . . . It shows children that if they can make a doll that looks like them, then they’re okay.”
A Barbie with a removable prosthetic limb is also part of the set. Mattel collaborated with Jordan Reeves, a 13-year-old disability activist who was born without a left forearm, to inspire the doll. Reeves had suggested that the prosthetic limb be removable and according to Kim Culmone, the Senior Vice President of Mattel, it’s one of their, “big ahas.” She stated that it is, “not necessarily something we would have realized how important it would be to someone living with this experience”. Another collaboration celebrating disability inclusion is that of Barbie teaming with Irish sisters and entrepreneurs, Izzy Wheels. There have been 4 designs from UK-based designers and artists that were released to pay homage to Barbie’s 60th anniversary. The designs are available for any manual wheelchair, and a barbie-scale edition for their wheelchair-using doll.
Representation in toys is an issue that has been highlighted over the past few years. #ToyLikeMe was a campaign launched in April 2015 by journalist Rebecca Atkinson after noticing a lack of disability representation in toys. The campaign advocated for the positive incidental inclusion of disability in toys. “Positive representation matters” the website states. “If we leave disability out of the toy box what does that teach kids in real life? That it’s OK to exclude?”
Whether it’s having a disability, different hair texture or skin colour, children being able to see themselves and celebrated in the toys they play with tells them that they matter, that they’re good as they are.
Whether it’s having a disability, different hair texture or skin colour, children being able to see themselves and celebrated in the toys they play with tells them that they matter, that they’re acceptable as they are. Anything that children consume and play with does subtly shape their view of the world. If you don’t see yourself reflected in the mediums you interact with, it’s like having windows, but no mirrors. Representation in toys also helps with boosting children’s self-esteem, and decreases a sense of isolation, especially for those with disabilities. This type of diversity benefits all children. It can help them develop compassion and an open-mind to those that aren’t like them. According to research by Goldsmiths academic, Dr. Sian Jones, children playing with toys and characters that have disabilities for just three minutes helps them develop a more positive attitude towards other children with disabilities. Speaking to BBC, she stated that: “It seems to work very well in terms of getting them to think about engaging with disabled children and getting over any issues or perceived problems about playing with them.”
It is so fantastic to see such a diverse line up of Barbies. When I was begging to buy a Barbie doll, I only had white, blonde Barbie in different outfits to choose from. There were no petite, black-haired, tan, brown-eyed Barbie that looked like me to play with. It’s about time that Mattel released a doll line that reflects the label-free, and inclusive culture that we are trying to evoke.