My mom wouldn't let me buy white Barbie dolls and it always pissed me off. I had too many Christie's to count. The rule was bent when it came to Princess and I had one of each (plus some doubles of Mulan and Pocahontas in their various iterations because they were my childhood favorites), but if I put a regular Barbie in the cart, my mom would coax me into to swapping her for the black version. It was a major source of contention for us, when we went Toys R Us, I'd always stubbornly insist that "Christie wanted different friends" who weren't Teresa or Raquelle and that she specifically wanted to be friends with Barbie, still my mom never relented. Eventually, the rule was abolished, because I got a MyScene Barbie set for Christmas one year.
Being older, I understand what my mom was trying to do, while it frustrated me so much as child. She wanted me to grow up feeling represented. She wanted me to look at all my Barbies who were teachers and artists and astronauts and fashion designers and see that I, too, could do those things because those opportunities were not limited to Blonde Hair and Blue Eyes. Representation matters. My mom was an avid Barbie player, she's told me countless stories of the hours she spent braiding their hair, how she took special care to hide them from her little brother, how excited she was to get a Cher Dressing Room Playset and had her dolls pose in the plastic mirror, but most of her Barbies were white because it was too difficult to find a Christie. My mom even worked for Mattel at a store when she was eighteen, her section was, you guessed it: Barbie. Just recently, with this whole #DollsEvolve thing, I was on the phone with my mother and she mentioned how she wished she'd had those dolls for herself, for me, for my little sister who just turn 16 and has moved on from dolls. Because representation matters.
That representation matters in everything. With the #OscarsSoWhite, calling for diversity of all ethnicities. With the kinds of people portrayed on TV. With Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell calling for diversity in the kind of models that walk the runway. It. Matters.
I understand now that my mom bought me black barbies because she wanted me to know that I was beautiful, just like when I'd ask for copy of Teen Vogue, she buy that and Essence. This black history month (and every month, but especially now), I'm thinking a lot on the women who have pioneered spaces in Fashion and have given the opportunity to even do something as simple as this blog. It goes without saying that Fashion, as a whole, is awash with Eurocentric beauty standards. There is a startling lack of representation for any other race, any other shade, any other body, that isn't porcelain, thin, and blonde. Beauty like mine is exoticized. Faces like mine are othered. It's why, when in 1973, Oscar De La Renta decided to cast Billie Blair it was innovative and shocking.
|Billie Blair for Oscar De La Renta|
Designers like Yves Saint Laurent, he saw women of color for their beauty and regality, and he famous cast without discrimination: if you fit his clothes, if you looked nice, you walked his runway. Regardless of color. And even with all those strides, if you take a look as at a (Yves) Saint Laurent show in the recent years, you'll be hard pressed to find more than two black women (if any).
I thank Donyale Luna for being the first black face on any Vogue in 1966 and Beverly Johnson for appearing on American Vogue in 1974. Without the barrier breaking of Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison, the first Black super models, there'd be no Naomi Campbell, no Veronica Webb, no Alek Wek. There would be no Iman, for who I am named after--because my mom was a fan of hers and she loved the name, which means FAITH. Their faces paved the way for Tyra Banks to be the first black model to be on the cover of a Victoria's Secret Catalog, GQ, and Sports Illustrated---in nineteen ninety seven. Black women have been modeling fixtures in those institutions for less years than I have been in existence! And, only last year was a black model, Maria Borges, "allowed" to wear her natural hair for a VS show. It's a moment that mimics one of my favorite moments in Fashion History: when Alek Wek ripped off her blonde wig at Betsey Johnson show in 1996. Black is beautiful, without Eurocentrism.
Like all the black barbies of my childhood, I know that it'd be hard to imagine myself as someone who could access the world of fashion. I needed those dolls, like I need the movie Mahogany (in which Diana Ross becomes a Fashion Designer), like I need to see Imaan Hamman or Anais Mali or Ajak Deng or Aya Jones. These faces matter, these struggles matter. But, we still have a long way to go: only two years ago with Cindy Bruna the third black woman to be featured in a campaign for Prada and Rihanna in 2015 being the first black face for Dior.
That's Black Herstory in the making.
|Bethann Hardison, My Mom, and Naomi Campbell|