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I Wish Barbie Had Gotten Her ‘Curvy’ New Body in the 1990s

Musings on the impact of growing up playing with a thin black Barbie.

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Barbie via YouTube screenshot

If Barbie of the 1990s had been a brown-skinned thick chick with natural hair, my life might be different.

Well, not completely different. But I’d venture to guess that the way I perceived myself, as an adolescent, teen and even young adult—particularly my body image—wouldn’t be the same. Perhaps I would have been more forgiving of myself. Forgiving. Yes, that’s the word.

To me, Barbie was gorgeous.

My Barbies were the black version of the wafer-thin iconic doll: unrealistically skinny in the waist with a Barbie-beat face. I. Loved. Her. She was my toy of choice, and as a child I amassed quite a few black and brown renditions of the doll—shoutout to my Native American Barbie. (Mom had to rep for our “Cherokee” relatives, because all black people have Native American in them, right? Right.)

My parents were aware of gender roles and archaic notions of femininity. And Barbie to some extent perpetuated negative stereotypes about women—particularly that women were intellectually incapable of the rigors of academia. Believe it or not, a talking Barbie once said, “Math class is tough.” Come again, Barbie?! So they steered me away from the provincial, limiting Barbie B.S. narrative. That wasn’t going down. After all, I was to be the first African-American female president of the United States.

Still, there was something about Barbie.

Barbie helped fuel my imagination. My Barbie was my homegirl. She rode shotgun in my life-size Barbie Corvette. I took her to school. We went on “double dates.” I was her doctor when she was sick. And her attorney when she faced the threat of going to “jail.” But the problem was, aside from being black, Barbie looked nothing like me.

I was an overweight child fond of an unkempt puffy ponytail—somewhere between a dookie braid and the classic Rudy Huxtable snatchback. But Barbie was Barbie—she was perfect. Physically, I aspired to look just like her. Shoot, for a while I thought that I did actually look like her. Not so much. The childhood naivete faded. When I was an adolescent, the world—television, my peers and at times my family—reminded me that I wasn’t a life-size Barbie. I was overweight. Not curvy or thick. Chunky. Plump. Fluffy. But at least my mother thought I was cute.  

The reality is that I wanted to reach the ideal subconsciously set by the looming images of Barbie, and later in life Tyra, Nia, Brandy, Aaliyah, Chilli (or fill-in-the-blank black celeb or performer of the mid- to late 1990s). They were fly. And so was I, damn it. But my then-body type wasn’t affirmed. I needed that affirmation, through positive images and representation, especially in my formative years.

Very seldom were larger women the object of affection or the leading lady. Khadijah of Living Single was dope, but she was a rarity. More often the big girls played the sidekick. Let’s be real—no one wanted to play Kim from Moesha (or, God forbid, her mother, Nikki) on the playground. I certainly didn’t.

Fast-forward to 2016. Mattel releases a new class of Barbie dolls—they are “curvy” (the “curvy” doll is just that—by no stretch of the imagination overweight), “petite,” “tall” and "original." The doll will come in seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. Oh, yes, Barbie can also be edgy, with blue hair, a ’fro-hawk or a bob. Not to mention that in late 2015, the company released an Ava DuVernay Barbie. Say what?! The Barbie team has certainly made strides; still, there is work to be done on the representation front.

But these are strides, no doubt.

Today, in theory, anyone who can afford it can own a curvy black Barbie. This is major. Mattel mentioned Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian West, among others, as inspiration, and an indication of the United States’ changing notion of beauty. While these women have curves, I would argue that they are not curvy in the way the term is often used as a euphemism for being overweight. I digress.

Black. Curvy. Barbie. Maybe this doll will pre-emptively ward off years of yo-yo dieting, striving for an unrealistic ideal and even self-doubt in little girls as they transition to women. Maybe not. But at least a swath of girls will know that their homegirl, Barbie, is a brown-skinned thick chick with natural hair, too.

Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.