When Mukami Kinoti Kimotho's 4-year-old daughter, Zara, had an identity-crisis because she wanted bone-straight hair like her friends, Kimotho knew there was something wrong. Kimotho was raising her daughter to be bold, resilient, and fierce, but Zara still needed something more to see that there were many ways to be beautiful, many ways to be successful, and even more ways to be a girl or woman. So, she got to work.
Born in Kenya, Kimotho now resides in the United States with her husband and children. Hers has been a life of big dreams and entrepreneurship (she owns and designs a line of shoes), and her latest endeavor is no different: Royelles, a line of dolls that come in a variety of skintones ranging from lighter brown skin, to complexions that are deep and dark and gorgeous. The dolls are 3-D Printed and hand-painted, and are designed to be sturdy enough to play with for an entire childhood and pass on to the generations that follow.
But to Kimotho, her daughter Zara, and the hundreds of women Kimotho spoke to during their creation, Royelle dolls are not just dolls. They’re a way to counter widespread self-esteem and worthiness issues for little girls by giving them a physical tool to create their own rich, inner lives and to build confidence as they go into a world that can be hostile to their fragile sense of self. Through the Kickstarter, backers of this project can actually buy dolls for families who don’t have the resources to buy them themselves.
Ahead, I speak with Kimothos about her dreams of getting Royelles into the hands of every child who needs one, why dolls specifically are so important, and tk.
ACF: So why did you decide to make dolls, rather than another type of toy or self-esteem tool?
MKK: The reality is that I played with the dolls that my generation played with, which were primarily Barbie. My impression was that this is what pretty looked like. People want a lot more for their younger girls in terms of a holistic and truly immersive play experience that doesn’t just represents all the dimensions that we want to celebrate in our girls, but also, very truly represents what an empowered girl is.
We're calling it the Royelles Revolution. What I mean by that, honestly, is that I need all our girls, certainly our brown and black girls, but all our girls, to realize that those things about them that make them different can be tools to be the best version of yourself. It could be something about an ability or a disability. It could be something about an attitude that you have about life. Whatever it is that differentiates them from the pack, that is in fact their super power. That is where the opportunity lies with them to truly make that special and unique mark on the world.
I think there is a major gap in the context of my experience those years ago playing with a Barbie, and what I want and desire my daughter’s experience to be in playing with dolls. The way Barbie was depicted back then was very much about her physicality. Ultimately she was playing up her femininity and her physicality as a means of cutting a place in the world that was meaningful.
I don't want Zara to dwell on that. In fact, that has been so detrimental to her as it relates to how she views herself. I actually went to social media to get a sense of how other women situated all over the world were dealing with these challenges I was dealing with. I wanted to know if it was just Zara, or were they only present within communities of color, and it blew me away. It quite literally blew me away to discover that this was an issue for all women and all girls.
ACF: When you first started working on this, you did a formal survey, too. Did you find sadness in the confirmation that it wasn’t just an issue with your daughter? Or did you find relief?
MKK: Actually, I was heartbroken by some of the responses I got back from that survey. I heard from almost 400 women. The only similarity amongst these women was that they had a girl child in their life. A daughter, a niece, a neighbor, just a girl that they had some sort of influence over, and she was aged between three and 12. You won't believe the kinds of things they said. These are up to 12 year-old girls, starving themselves because they don't feel like they fit into the crowd, or their friends. One woman said, "She's saving up her allowance for plastic surgery. She hates her nose, she can't stand the tone of her skin, and she wants to have some sort of treatment that will lighten her skin," or even worse, "I'm worried that she'll try to hurt herself again."
And then to think about the experience that I had with Zara who was barely four when she started to question her own self-worth and self-value, and then to consider how I feel, how I've felt about myself as a woman, we're so hard on ourselves. Part of that survey was also to understand beyond what kept them up at night about their girls or the girls in their lives. It was also to understand how they felt in the context of themselves and things such as beauty, and that is what did it. That's when I realized this is truly an issue across the board.
ACF: Can you tell me how you made the choice to fund this project through Kickstarter?
MKK:. The vision is huge and the idea of being able to put Royelle avatars--a word she chose to represent that these were works of art even more than they are toys--in the hands of a million girls regardless of their socioeconomic status is almost daunting. I thought very hard about how we would accomplish that, and I realized that there's this huge community of individuals that want to be a part of a movement that is about empowering our girls to live authentically and celebrate those unique qualities and characteristics about themselves. Kickstarter allows you to do that.
I honestly believe that if our people, and I don't just mean women of color, but if anyone out there that cares about empowering and inspiring girls and truly helping them recognize that they are enough just the way they are and that we see them and we celebrate them and that we honor them, if they would know what we're doing, I'm confident that they would be supportive, especially understanding that a dollar, five dollars, 10 dollars, is all we need by thousands of people to exceed our goal.
ACF: What if the Kickstarter doesn't get funded? I know it sucks to even think that that might happen, but if it doesn't, is there a plan B?
MKK: It will get done. This is very important, not just for Zara, not just for our girls of color, but for all our girls. This is my life's mission. It's interesting because I feel like every single thing that I've been through in my life has led me to this moment. I'm determined to take a position for our girls to let them know just how incredible they are and how powerful they are, and just show them what it really means when they are seen, when they are heard, when they are valued. I'm choosing to take a stand and I'm trusting, I'm hoping, and I'm working hard to rally every other person out there that cares about our girls to do the same.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.