Why My Future Daughter May Not Play with the Queens of Africa Dolls

by Moiyattu Banya

Recently major news sources reported that Nigerian entrepreneur Taofick Okoya's Queens of Africa Dolls, which have been in the market for eight years, have outsold Barbie® in Nigeria. There was an overwhelmingly positive response from many people on social media, but I was torn. I questioned whether I would get my future daughters such a doll, and unfortunately couldn’t come up with a firm “yes.”

For many reasons, I feel as if the dolls sell a stereotypical, one-dimensional image of what Nigerian and other African women should be like. For me, it goes beyond just skin color and dress; African women are diverse and there are still many other images of us that should be represented.

On one hand, it’s necessary that we celebrate the Queens of Africa Dolls’ achievement. Because Barbie has represented the “standard” for so long, many Nigerian/African girls and women have been acculturated to believe they should fit into that look. Okoya started his business because he wanted more dolls that looked like his daughter. The dolls wear African fabrics and are meant to represent some of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria. They come in various shades, with different clothing and hair styles—some even have their hair braided. But still, the dolls’ body types and Eurocentric facial features resemble Mattel’s Barbie dolls.

So my question is: What truly sets these dolls apart? How much impact will this doll have on little black girls beyond just skin color and clothing?

I think about how the dolls’ body types might influence the body image and self-esteem of little girls. We continue to see this idea that women must fit into one narrow definition of attractiveness, whether it be via music videos, TV, or little girls’ toys. This image is harmful to Nigerian women. What about the Nigerian girls who aren’t skinny, or don’t have long legs, or long braided hair? In Africa, voluptuousness is much more celebrated than the ideal of thinness upheld in Western countries; this is also true for various other communities of color, whether in the United States or across the Diaspora. However, the dolls don’t reflect this at all.

The problem that the Queens of Africa Dolls are trying to remedy has been traded in for another. Yes, they do a better job at reflecting the ethnic diversity of Nigerian girls and women, but they still present a narrow definition of beauty and how women should be.

In her book, Feminism is for Everybody, feminist writer and scholar bell hooks explores the implications of media and pop culture representation of women’s bodies and its impact, specifically as it relates to the fashion industry. “Nowadays, in a fashion world, especially on the consumer side… all females no matter their age are being socialized either consciously or unconsciously to have anxiety about their body, to see flesh as problematic,” hooks writes. One can actually state that the impact of girls having this doll is that they internalize this idea of beauty being tall, thin, and with Eurocentric features. Thus, they may develop a false sense of who they are or have to be, thereby causing confusion and anxiety as they grow up.

We have to fight this, no matter how challenging it may be. As bell hooks states:
… [I]f we abandon the struggle to eliminate sexist defined notions of beauty altogether, we risk undermining all the marvelous feminist interventions which allowed us to embrace our bodies and ourselves and love them. Although all females are more aware of the pitfalls and dangers of embracing sexist notions of female beauty, we are not doing enough to eliminate those dangers—to create alternatives…
The key to ensuring that girls feel confident about themselves and their self-image is thinking outside the box. We need to create more diverse representations of African women and African beauty for young girls. We need to create alternatives, as bell hooks states. We must look beyond just creating dolls with different skin tones and styles of dress. But we must also develop dolls that showcase a variety of body shapes, sizes, skin colors, hair textures, and ethnic features if we really want to create positive images of African womanhood for our girls.

Until this happens, my future daughter will look to real life women for examples of African beauty and womanhood. Or better yet, I’ll encourage her to simply look at herself in the mirror.

Photo: Queens of Africa Doll line

Moiyattu Banya is a native to Sierra Leone, feminist, writer, and digital mover and shaker. She currently teaches women’s studies courses at Temple University in the United States and also serves as an international consultant with social enterprises in West Africa. Moiyattu is founder of Women Change Africa, and she is also part of the African Women’s Development Fund’s (AWDF) Community of African Women Writers. Follow her on Twitter @WcaWorld.

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