In November, United States Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the U.S., was immortalized as a Barbie. The doll was revealed by Muhammad herself at the Glamour Woman of the Year Summit. The doll is part of Barbie’s ongoing “Shero” collection, which honors women who break through glass ceilings and inspire girls around the world.
The Shero collection already has some heavy hitters in its collection–dolls representing director Ava DuVernay, U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, plus size model Ashley Graham, and Misty Copeland have highlighted Barbie’s renewed focus on uplifting and inspiring girls to reach for their dreams. Muhammad’s doll follows in those footsteps.
“Through playing with Barbie, I was able to imagine and dream about who I could become,” said Ibtihaj Muhammad to Barbie.com. “I love that my relationship with Barbie has come full circle, and now I have my own doll wearing a hijab that the next generation of girls can use to play out their own dreams.”
“Barbie is celebrating Ibtihaj not only for her accolades as an Olympian, but for embracing what makes her stand out,” said Sejal Shah Miller, Vice President of Global Marketing for Barbie. “Ibtihaj is an inspiration to countless girls who never saw themselves represented, and by honoring her story, we hope this doll reminds them that they can be and do anything.”
Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive also said how Muhammad has defied stereotypes to become a history-making Olympian.
“Ibtihaj Muhammad has challenged every stereotype—which to me is the definition of a modern American woman,” she said. “Last year, she was the first athlete from the U.S to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, and today we are thrilled to celebrate Ibtihaj as the first hijab-wearing Barbie. She will play a tremendous role in ensuring that girls of the future see themselves represented fully and beautifully in our culture.”
That role isn’t lost on host of Al Jazeera English‘s Emmy-nominated news talk show The Stream, Malika M. Bilal, who wrote on The Undefeated what the meaning of Muhammad in Barbie form means to black Muslim women and girls, including herself and her niece.
“Her announcement comes at a time in which the erasure of African-American Muslims seems particularly pronounced. A time in which a major black women’s lifestyle magazine released a list of ‘100 Woke Women’ and yet couldn’t seem to find one woke African-American Muslim woman to include among them,” she wrote, adding that the erasure “reinforces the idea that Muslim equals Arab, South Asian, immigrant, anyone other than an athletic, Olympic medal-winning black woman from New Jersey — one with a modest clothing line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers and now a Barbie in her likeness.”
“The introduction of this doll lends support to the reality that a black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim,” she wrote. ” A notion driven home by statistics that estimate a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans brought to this country were Muslim.”
“It’s not just young girls who are representation-starved. Grown women like myself, and the many who’ve retweeted, reposted and reblogged the Barbie announcement, are just as excited, not just for the next generation of girls but also for ourselves,” she wrote. “…[W]hen the Ibtihaj Muhammad Shero Barbie goes on sale in 2018, I’ll be ordering one to add to my niece’s collection. But I’m not ashamed to admit that another one just might find a home in my house as well.”
Are you going to order yourself an Ibtihaj Barbie? Talk about it in the comments!
Francesca Andre has a message for everyone with her short film, Charcoal. The main theme of her film is about colorism and its damaging effects on the black diaspora. Her two main characters go through a journey of self-acceptance and self-awareness, and that journey is something Andre hopes is replicated in her viewers.
I’ve had the chance to speak with Andre recently about her film (which you can learn more about in a previous article and the trailer below) as well as her opinions on how colorism affects us. I also asked about the Dove ad that sparked controversy, and how we can heal as a people from our societal wounds. Andre offers clear insight into her own journey towards healing and how we can continue the process of healing in our own lives. Here are highlights from that conversation.
Charcoal can be seen at the Yonkers Film Festival Nov. 3-8.
The inspiration for Charcoal:
Colorism is something that has impacted my life at a very young age. It’s very common in Haiti—it’s not white people versus black people, it’s really lighter skin versus darker skin. At a very young age, I was made aware of that. When I was probably five years old, I received a dark-skinned doll. When I took it home, people started making fun of the doll, saying the doll is ugly. My mother being brown-skinned, my grandmother being lighter-skinned, and my grandfather and my father being darker skinned men, people just made comparisons to the skintones.
Colorism and the lasting effects of racism in the black diaspora:
We’re still dealing with the consequences [of racism] as a people when it comes to economic empowerment, how we are being perceived and anything else—colorism sits right in there. It’s still affecting us, we’re still dealing with it, it’s not a thing of the past. We’re still healing from it. Those of us who are aware and are making a conscious decision to talk about it. You can’t really talk about racism or the advancement of us as a people and not talk about colorism.
Here in America, [the Dove colorism ad] was a mainstream brand that everyone can see, but you have some smaller brands, when you go to Caribbean markets that are selling [similar] products. You have women making skin-bleaching lotion and selling it to other women. I guess for some people here, it’s not as blatant as it is in other cultures—if you go to CVS, you probably won’t be able to find it, right? But it’s happening. It never went away, at least from my experience; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always known about these products.
Even thinking about “good” hair,the hair is not closer to our hair texture. It’s something closer to European hair texture. But when you look at our hair and the versatility of our hair, to me it’s like, really good hair! It took me a long time to reprogram myself, my thoughts, and redefine what “good” hair was for me to access [my hair] and accept it, love it, and embrace it…I don’t have any problems with it now.
On how to heal from colorism:
I do feel like we need to start having conversations, and an important part of that is the healing part of that. I think you will see that you’ll find more women going natural more than ever. Here’s what’s fascinating: how so many black women did not know their hair period because they just haven’t been dealing with their hair…they did not know how to take care of their hair; it’s been processed. When they find out what products work on our hair and what they can do to make their hair do this and that. Again, it’s knowledge and healing and more women are stepping out. It’s not a strange thing now to see a black woman with natural hair in the workplace. There was a time when this wasn’t a thing. Now, more people are going natural, embracing it and being unapologetic about it. I feel like we’re going forward. Even with skintones, too—[online campaigns and phrases like] “My melanin’s poppin’,” #BlackGirlMagic—we are healing collectively. I hope the men are using those terms as well; I hope the men are healing because they are also victims of colorism. I hope that we as a people stop the vicious cycle.
…First of all, I think [the first step to healing is] knowing what colorism is. Many people don’t even know what colorism means. It really starts the conversation. It’s hard to change beliefs, but one way we can do that as a people is to talk—ask [about it] and dialogue. Increase representation [in the media] to make women more confident in who they are and how they look. As an artist and storyteller, the way I [change] people is including it and showing it, talking about it and not pushing it away…Whenever I see a girl with natural hair, I tell them “I love your hair” or “I love your twists”; I make it my job to remind them because all the messages they are receiving are the opposite.
How Charcoal can start viewers’ journeys toward self-acceptance:
I think there’s a universal aspect to it. I hope people feel inspired and hopeful. I hope people find some sort of healing or be the beginning of that journey. We all can relate to pain, and the characters go through that, but we can see how they overcome that.♦
This interview has been edited and condensed.
When Chabelly Pacheco – a Dominican-American who moved to Long Island when she was five years old – walks into her favorite Dominican salon on Brooklyn’s Graham Avenue, it’s more like entering a home than a business.
The salon is filled with smoke, hair spray and women of all ages. Everyone in the room greets her: The hairdressers kiss her on both cheeks, while the other customers say hello. Daughters sit alongside their mothers with curlers in their hair, feet dangling from their chairs.
For first-generation Dominican women like Pacheco, these salons can serve as a place to bond with fellow Dominicans.
“I don’t really feel connected to my culture,” said Yoeli Collado, a friend of Pacheco’s who moved to Long Island from the Dominican Republic when she was three years old. “When I speak Spanish, I feel powerful… But other than that I don’t have much I can connect to. So going to a Dominican salon is part of my culture. For me, it’s one of the only ways I can identify.”
Other diasporas have a wide range of cultural public spaces. There are Chinese community centers and Indian music venues, Russian tea rooms and Ghanaian restaurants.
For Dominicans, the salon plays an outsized cultural role.
Fascinated by these spaces – and as a scholar studying women’s issues – I wanted to see how salons and Dominican beauty regimens influence female Dominican-American identity.
I found that although Dominican-American women I interviewed spoke warmly of the salons they frequent, Dominican hair culture is far from glamorous. In many ways, it’s a pricey, burdensome ritual steeped in a colonial beauty standards – a contradiction that young Dominican women are grappling with today.
‘The hair carries the woman’
As in many cultures, Dominican female beauty standards can be burdensome. Though most Dominicans tend to have curly, textured hair, the culture favors long, straight hair. Curly, frizzy or kinky hair is called “pelo malo,” which translates to “bad hair,” and many women feel pressured to treat it.
“I hear my mom say it all the time,” Pacheco said. “‘The hair carries the woman’ – that’s the mantra in my family. If your hair is fine, you’re fine.”
Despite the lively atmosphere of the salon, it’s not all fun. It can be costly, painful and time-consuming.
Sociologist Ginetta Candelario has found that Dominican women visit salons far more frequently than any other female population in the U.S., spending up to 30 percent of their salaries on beauty regimens.
Many Dominican kids don’t have any say over how to style their hair; their parents force them to get it straightened. This was evident in Pacheco’s salon, where young girls tugged at the tight curlers in their hair, complaining that the dryers were burning their scalps.
“You’re taught from a young age that your hair has to be straight to be pretty, to get a job, to get a boyfriend, to be called pretty by your mother,” Pacheco told me.
It all stems from a strict hair culture in the Dominican Republic, where young women can actually be sent home from school or work if their hair isn’t worn in the “preferred way.” Women with untreated, natural hair can even be barred from some public and private spaces.
Though discrimination against curly hair isn’t as pronounced in New York, many Dominican-American women told me that they nevertheless feel the same sort of pressure.
No such thing as black
The Dominican tradition of straight hair has it roots in colonial rule under Spain; it eventually became a way to imitate the higher classes and to separate themselves from their Haitian neighbors, who once occupied their country and championed the négritude movement, which was started by black writers to defend and celebrate a black cultural identity.
Dominicans believe that Haitians are “black,” while Dominicans – even those who clearly descend from African heritage – fall into other nonblack categories.
The process of differentiation is referred to as “blanqueamiento,” which translates to “whitening,” and hair straightening is simply one of many ways Dominicans try to distinguish themselves from Haitians. In fact, even though the Dominican Republic ranks fifth in countries outside of Africa that have the largest black populations, many black Dominicans don’t consider themselves black.
“[Blackness] is a taboo in the DR,” Stephanie Lorenzo, a 25-year-old Dominican-American from the Bronx, explained. “You don’t want to be black.”
According to Yesilernis Peña, a researcher at the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo who studies race in the Latin Caribbean, there are six established racial categories in the Dominican Republic, and they tend to correlate with one’s economic class: white, mixed race, olive, Indian, dark and black.
Meanwhile, a light-skinned elite has consolidated most of the political power, while many of the country’s black people – who make up the majority of the population – live in extreme poverty. So straightening one’s hair can be seen as an attempt to climb the social ladder – or at least imitate those with money and power.
“When people relax their hair or bleach it, they do it because they want to be closer to the people who hold the power,” Dominican salon owner Carolina Contreras told the magazine Remezcla in 2015.
‘But I like it straight’
Given the fraught history of hair, it’s clear that Dominican salons, with the beauty regimens they perpetuate, are complex, contradictory places.
Pacheco – who grew up in America and loves spending time at the salon – is aware that she’s also tacitly succumbing to beauty norms steeped in racism.
“Obviously it’s a construct, and it puts pressure on women and sometimes I feel conflicted about getting my hair straightened,” she said. “That deeply rooted colonial oppression is still there. But then I’m like, ‘I like it straight.’”
In sociologist Ginetta Candelario’s study “Hair-Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity Production,” she wonders if beauty can be a source of empowerment, even if it means using time and resources, while suppressing one’s “blackness.”
Through her extensive research in Dominican salons in New York, Candelario did find that women can, in fact, empower themselves through these beauty norms. By physically altering their appearance, they could get better jobs and use their beauty as “symbolic and economic capital.”
But she points out that in order for this beauty regimen to exist in the first place, it requires “ugliness to reside somewhere, and that somewhere is in other women, usually women defined as black.”
Reimagining beauty, reinventing space
In 2014, Carolina Contreras opened up Miss Rizos, a natural hair salon located in the colonial city center of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital.
The 29-year-old Dominican-American wanted her salon to champion “pajón love” (Afro love), and to reimagine what a Dominican salon and a Dominican beauty regimen might look like. The salon, which caters to Dominican-Americans, encourages women to wear their Afro-textured hair with pride.
It was at Contreras’s salon where Stephanie Lorenzo decided to do “the big chop” in 2015: She cut off her chemically altered hair, leaving her with a small Afro.
“Around the same time, I was becoming more in touch with my African roots as an American woman,” she said. “[Cutting my hair] was part of acknowledging that we are also black.”
Back in Brooklyn, Chabelly Pacheco’s hairdresser said that during her 30 years working in salons in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and New York, she’s noticed more women asking for natural hair treatments. In fact, many older Dominican women are now starting to change the way they see their own hair. Carolina Contreras’ mother told me that she decided to go natural to be closer to the way God imagined her.
Contreras, however, is quick to note that the natural hair movement isn’t meant to shame women who do choose to straighten their hair. Instead, it’s simply about making textured hair accepted, appreciated and celebrated.
Perhaps by embracing all different kinds of hair, salons – which bring Dominican women closer to their culture and to each other – can also bring Dominican women closer to their natural selves.