A rumored new black Barbie is contributing conversation about black female beauty. The representation of black female beauty has always been up for debate. Thus, the existence of this doll did not surface these discussions but perhaps served as a reminder of our trauma around how or if the black community will accept itself as it is.
A picture of the new Barbie was posted on a social media site and shared with me by a dear friend. The following text accompanied the picture:
“This new black Barbie doll is apparently causing a stir among black folks. On one side of the argument, some say that it’s not representative of what “real black beauty” is; and on the other side, some argue that it’s reflective of how several black women celebs carry themselves. What do you say?”
Long before this doll was birthed, the black community had Hollywood/entertainment images that sparked the debate for many years. Celebrities like Vanessa Williams, Lynne Whitfield, Pam Grier, Janet Jackson, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, and many others have often been heralded as beauty ideals. In the same tradition, individuals Halle Berry and Beyonce are often celebrated as black beauty. For quite some time black was beautiful if it was of a certain shade and that is still communicated on some level. We would be remiss to ignore the fact that this shadism in regards to what is/is not beautiful remains among Black Americans.
The Barbie doll not only adds to the conversations of beauty for the black community, her presentation raises questions about what it means to be beautiful, black and female in this moment. Does black beauty now encompass wearing blonde (or other colors) hair? Should it include one being covered in expensive jewelry, excess cleavage and expensive designer bags (notice she has two, one was not enough)? If one chooses or is not able to access the resources to mimic this image of “beauty” are they automatically not considered in the line up for today’s black beautiful woman? Also, one should take a close look at the facial expression of the doll-is it attitude, sassy, or one of focus and determination? Is something as subtle as her pouty/pronounced lips somehow linked to a stereotype of the black woman’s attitude?
While the doll brings presents other questions, she reminds us of our continued debates about what constitutes “real” black beauty. This doll or black Barbie only depicts the numerous conversations/debates that have been taking place for eons. The definitions or discussions of the ideal of beautiful for black women have included factors such as:
Body image: A “sista” has a certain shape, especially in regards to having a certain type of derriere. However, what happens when you don’t fall into that body ideal? Then you might get the occasional “Girl, we need to feed you!” While curves and voluptuousity are praised and highly complimented, there are still body image constraints. For instance, for years, the ideal curvy black woman is encouraged to mirror the video vixen or more aptly the shape of a coca cola bottle with a small waist, huge hips and sizable breasts.
Hair: The discussion of black hair is highly contested. If a black woman straightens her hair, accusations may fly about assimilation into the pervasive Euro-culture alongside doubts about the love that she has for herself. If one goes natural, there is a debate about what is “really natural” or faux-trail if chemicals are involved. Sure, as a black woman I can celebrate the fact that there seems to be more allowance of the different types of hair that is seen as beautiful in black America. Afros are making a fierce come back, it does not matter if one wishes to become unbeweavable, dread, twist, sister-lock, or straighten. However, when I was in high school in the late 90s, not having straightened hair earned you ostracization. At some point wearing fake hair earned you nicknames like horse-head with many other jeers that followed. I recall a former classmate who was viciously attacked by the other students for her non-conformity with her un-straightened hair. Yet, if we were all attending high school now, her bushy un-straightened hair would be the thing!
Skin color: If you are too light, some factions of the community will complain that one is not black enough to represent “real” black beauty. On the other end of this spectrum of not being black enough being too dark is also a point of contention. Does anyone recall the responses to the Sudanese model Alec Wek? She received more hate mail from the black community and the chief complain was that she was too dark. There is further proof of this issue of shadism within the community that has been recently exposed in documentaries like Dark Girls. As a teen, I witnessed this first hand during a summer program in which the kids said to one of the girls, “You look like Patra (a female reggae artist of the 90’s), she is very pretty. You are pretty for a dark girl.” She took it as a compliment while I observed not truly understanding what happened until many years later.
Thus, the right combination of hair, body image and shade would possibly have one recognized as a black beauty. While there is a range of what is beautiful in the black community it is imprisoned by certain beauty standards. A layer of complexity is added to the ideology of black beauty with what is further represented in music, movies and other areas of entertainment.
Based on my observation, no matter what is accepted in terms of black beauty, some things will be rejected or shunned. Will we be able to truly define or agree to what so-called “real” black beauty is? I don’t think we ever will. Eventually we have to surmount this argument over beauty in the black community to address trauma and historical baggage over our lack of acceptance.