Yelitsa Jean-Charles said she cried when a relative gave her a black Barbie when she was a little girl. “This isn’t the real Barbie,” she remembers thinking, upset that the doll wasn’t white. “This isn’t the pretty one.”
She didn't truly embrace her beautiful features until she went to college at a predominantly white school, ironically. After heat-damaging her hair and getting advice from a friend, she said she "felt crazy that [she] didn't know [her] own hair texture." Understanding the extent to which black people — hair included -- are misrepresented and underrepresented in mainstream media, Jean-Charles says she realized "how that can impact people [be]cause the toys we play with at a young age influence how we think, act and see ourselves whether we know it or not."
The 21-year-old from Queens, New York now proudly rocks her natural hair. She loves her tresses so much she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a new line of natural-hair dolls she hopes will help empower girls of color.
Jean-Charles, a senior at Rhode Island School of Design, created four characters -- Marinda, Zoe, Gaina and Dara -- with varying shades of brown skin, facial features and hair textures. The dolls will come with a hair care products and a natural hair guidebook, written and designed by Jean-Charles and her team of five other naturalistas, to teach young black girls how to maintain and style their hair -- a skill that will help them learn how to confidently rock their tresses without feeling pressured to change it based on society's beauty standards.
After numerous conversations with black women, watching a few documentaries and administering a survey to black women, Jean-Charles said she realized a lot of black girls who relax and press their hair just don’t know how to take care of their natural hair.
“It’s basically just a lack of knowledge of how [to do your hair] and that’s something we have to bring back,” she told The Huffington Post. “We want to put the knowledge back into our children’s hands without putting the burden on the parents."
With one week left to raise the money, Jean-Charles' Kickstarter campaign is currently less than $6,000 shy of her goal. For now, the only doll available for order through her Kickstarter is Zoe, shown in the image below. For every $5,000 the campaign makes after meeting its initial goal, Jean-Charles intends on turning an additional character into a doll. She also plans on creating dolls of other racial backgrounds down the line.
Though Jean-Charles is just beginning her business journey, she told HuffPost that one of the most rewarding things about this project so far has been showing a young black girl her Healthy Roots characters and hearing her say, “It looks like me!"
Black dolls with natural hair already exist, but Jean-Charles explained that her line of dolls will go deeper than just painting a doll brown.
"It’s about more than just having a brown doll," Jean-Charles said. "It’s about the relationship that girl is building with that doll."
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