While Barbie's infamous physical proportions typically steal the spotlight when it comes to our feminist rage, she has another, equally problematic trait: her hair. Specifically, how straight it is, despite the various "races" she now comes in. Tired of simply waiting for change, one woman decided to take matters into her own hands. Karen Byrd, the founder, owner, and designing artist of Natural Girls United!, makes dolls with all kinds of hair, fulfilling a seriously important need.
Byrd's work is as personal as it is political. She recalls the early, emotional damage of playing with dolls that didn't look like her: "Their features and hair were completely different," she says. "So, as a child, I had this warped idea that my beauty wasn’t enough. That I was supposed to somehow look like the dolls I played with." While in her adult life, she's seen an increase in "the occasional doll that looks like us," she says they're hard to come by, and sell out quickly. "That's just not okay," she says. "Our daughters and our community should have dolls, books, and images in the media that represent our beauty just as readily as these things are available to non-ethnic cultures."
Not one to remain passive in the face of such obvious inequality, Byrd began designing the kinds of dolls that she would have wanted to play with: stylish dolls with afros, curls, and braids of all types. Her goal? To not just tackle the issue of a lack of representation, but to confront common misconceptions about natural hair. "People think our hair is not clean and that we are automatically unprofessional or uneducated. There are a lot of stereotypes based on ignorance."
But, on the flip side, "There is a large community of people that love ethnic, natural hair. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of something larger that is positive and constantly growing." That community has responded with an enthusiasm that proves the need for Byrd's work. "I get requests, orders, and encouragement from the U.K., parts of Africa, and all over the U.S. There is a need for more ethnic dolls all over the world."