Dolls and Self Image

Dolls and Self Image
Girls have always played with dolls in every country around the world. Boys have too — but we don’t usually call them dolls. They’re soldiers like G.I. Joe or fierce alien creatures with ugly visages and an array of weapons to wage war against their opponents.

During the l930’s, the most popular doll in the United States was the Shirley Temple doll, modeled on the biggest screen star of the Depression years with blond curly hair and blue eyes. There was also the cuddly baby doll who came with a bottle and the realistic extra of wetting her diaper. Certain expensive versions could cry “Mama” when tipped over. All these dolls had pink complexions. There were few comparable dolls with dark skins other than the stuffed cloth ‘Mammy’ dolls wearing red bandannas on their heads, flounced skirts and aprons.

With the Civil Rights Movement in the l950’s and l960’s came an awareness in the business interests of the country of marketing to the needs of the black population. This included a surge in beauty products for skin and hair. It also reached into the realm of dolls that looked like the girls who would be playing with them. Today, the stores and the Internet carry hundreds of black dolls — dark complexioned baby dolls, svelte dusky Barbies, the famous Madame Alexander series- African American version, and collectors’ dolls costing hundreds of dollars. There is a 33 inch tall Australian Aboriginal doll named ‘Gracie’ who sells for $2,700.

A new doll was introduced to the world in November 2003 — Fulla , an Islamic version of Barbie in size and proportion, aimed at the millions of girls in the Middle Eastern market. Fulla peers out with large dark almond shaped eyes from her black head covering, the hijab, and wears a black abaya that covers her entire body. There’s an alternate Fulla wearing a white hijab and a long buttoned up coat. Fulla has what her creator — NewBoy Design Studio based in Syria — calls “Muslim values”. Fulla, smiling sweetly from her shiny pink box, has spawned an entire industry of must- have Fulla accessories. These range from a variety of outfits for her, a clothing line for girls, back packs, bicycles, cereal , chewing gum — all in the ubiquitous ‘Fulla pink’. She costs in Damascus about $16 where the average per capita income for a family may reach $100 a month.

In a toy store in Damascus, the clerk commented to a reporter, “If you’ve got a TV in the house, it’s Fulla all the time. The parents complain about the expense. But Fulla gives girls a more Islamic character to emulate and parents want that.” Fawaz Abidin, the Fulla brand manager for New Boy, has stressed, “This isn’t just about putting the hijab on a Barbie doll. You have to create a character that parents and children will want to relate to. Our advertising is full of positive messages about Fulla’s character. She’s honest, loving and caring, and she respects her father and mother.” The marketing campaign has apparently been a huge success. Fulla and her related product lines fly from the stores.

The growing conservative movement in the Muslim countries has brought an increase in the number of women wearing the hijab. Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women’s rights leader, has said, “If this doll had come out 10 years ago, I don’t think it would have been very popular. Fulla is part of this great cultural shift.” A fifteen year-old girl, Fatima Ghayeh, told a reporter, “My friends and I loved Barbie more than anything. But maybe it’s good that girls have Fulla now. If the girls put scarves on their dolls when they’re young, it might make it easier when their time comes. Sometimes it is difficult for girls to put on the hijab. They feel it is the end of childhood.”

The significance of dolls to children’s self image and self esteem was at the heart of the famous “Doll Experiment” conducted by Dr. Kenneth B. Clark and his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark during the l940’s in the United States. Their experiment became the first time that social science research was introduced into a Supreme Court Case — Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. (l954). The unanimous decision of the court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren was that segregated schools were inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The doctrine of “separate but equal” was struck down and desegregation became the law of the land.

The Doll Experiment was of simple design — what scientists call “elegant”. The Clarks met with groups of school age children in communities across the country over a period of years.
Their aim was “to try to understand how black children saw themselves”. They used two brown dolls and two white dolls, identical except for their skin color. The dolls were purchased for 50 cents apiece at Woolworth’s on 125th Street in Harlem — one of the few places in New York where brown dolls were sold at that time. They also asked children to color line drawings of children with the color that most closely matched their own skin color.

In his testimony before the Supreme Court, Kenneth Clark described one of the meetings with black elementary school children : “I presented the dolls to them and I asked them the following questions in the following order: ‘Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,’ ‘Show me the doll that is a “nice” doll’, ‘Show me the doll that looks “bad”, and then the following questions also: ‘Give me the doll that looks like a white child.’ ‘Give me the doll that looks like a colored child.’ and ‘Give me the doll that looks like you.’ I wanted to get the child’s free expression of opinions and feelings before I had him identified with one of these two dolls. I found that of the children between the ages of six and nine whom I tested, 16 in number, that ten of the children chose the white doll as their preference, the doll they liked best. Ten also considered the white doll as a “nice” doll. …Eleven of these 16 children chose the brown doll as the doll that looked “bad”. This is consistent with previous results which we have obtained testing over 300 children. …The Negro child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group.”

Dr. Clark also reported that in many groups, some black children when asked which doll looked most like them responded that the white doll looked most like them. Other children refused to answer and others cried. When children chose the brown doll and said it was “nice”, he talked with them individually and learned that they had a positive role model. The Clarks also found that black children in their line drawings usually used lighter colors to fill in the forms.

Clark’s testimony before the Supreme Court had a powerful effect upon the nine Justices. In his decision, Warren acknowledged the research findings and called Kenneth Clark one of the “modern authorities” on which the Brown decision was based. The Doll Experiment had reached to the very heart of what Warren wrote: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority which affects the motivation of a child to learn.
We have come a long way from the days when African American and Hispanic parents couldn’t find dolls for their little girls to play with that looked like them. Self image is built in a child from the earliest years. For girls, playing with dolls is part of that process. By the age of three, psychologists tell us that children see themselves as a ‘good me’ or a ‘bad me’. Of course, many ingredients go into this mix in an individual child’s maturation. But, one important ingredient is the identification with positive role models — in dolls as well as in people.

4 thoughts on “Dolls and Self Image

  1. As usual, you again presented a fascinating blog about the significance of dolls in the lives of young girls all over the world. I learned something new — that there was a connection between Clarke’s research and his testimony before the Supreme Court in the Brown v Board of Education landmark case. This blog deserves greater exposure because of the relevance of your topic in today’s world. You never cease to amaze me with the timeliness of your writings and the in depth research you do. Thank you again and again.

  2. A very interesting article – I enjoyed reading about the research. I remember playing with my dolls and assigning names and personalities to them. I was lucky to grow up in the diversity of New York City. I had a collection of Madame Alexander dolls from different countries and remember choosing the ones I thought were exotic and different. I especially remember the doll from India in a turquoise silk sari with gold trim. I wonder how these dolls influenced me? Maybe they helped me be accepting and inclusive.

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