I loved my Barbie dolls when I was a kid, but the only one I can remember, my favorite one, was Hawaiian Barbie. That's because she resembled me — racially ambiguous, though slightly Asian, with dark, thick, wavy hair that became less unruly as it got dirtier. Her name was like mine, too, ethnic-sounding but easy enough for white people to pronounce and remember: Kira. The rest of my Barbies were black and brown. I identified with them even though my skin was much lighter (I'm black, Indian, and white, and I consider myself a woman of color, despite my friends' insistence throughout my childhood that I have "white-girl hair"). I never much thought about Barbie's straight hair, maybe because it was more or less like mine.
But a lot of little black girls who play with Barbies can't identify with naturally straight hair. Sure, we come in different shades and textures, but a black child likely doesn't look at "Barbie Style Grace Doll" with her fine, flowing hair and think to herself, She looks like me, and she's beautiful. Adding a single Coachella braid to the front or back doesn't count. When she sees "Barbie Glam Shower!" — a doll-sized bathroom set — does she wonder where Barbie misplaced her plastic shower cap or satin bonnet?
Nearly 75 years since the Doll Test, which showed that children associate negative qualities with black dolls, the world's top toy maker still hasn't gotten black Barbies right. That's why Karen Byrd, a natural-hair enthusiast living in Oakland, California, decided to fix them herself. In 2011, Karen created Natural Girls United, a one-woman business that gives makeovers to black Barbies by replacing their straight hair with natural styles. Auburn dreads, charcoal twists, a honey-blonde 'fro — Karen makes them all. What follows is a conversation with Karen about her path from the corporate sector to starting a small business dedicated to creating authentic images of black beauty for young black girls.
MH: I'm curious about your transition to running Natural Girls United full time. Where were you working before, and what was the most challenging aspect of taking the leap to doing your own thing?
KB: Before I started working on dolls, I worked in a corporate job doing human-resource and executive-assistant work for a large corporation. I started working on dolls as a hobby because it was something I always wanted to do. Once my corporate job ended due to a layoff, I had enough customer interest to keep doing it as I looked for a new job. But the amount of customers that requested dolls kept growing to the point where I was able to do it full time. The biggest challenge depends on the time of the year. January through September, sales are not as busy because it's not the holiday season. So it takes a lot of careful budgeting to get through the first two-thirds of the year. But once the holiday season starts, it is a challenge to be able to keep up with the orders, because I am still currently my only employee.
MH: I love your Naturally Beautiful Hair Blog. Did you start it before Natural Girls United, and how has it helped or inspired your business?
KB: I had my blog for a good six years before I started working on dolls. It has been a great inspiration. I started my blog with the goal of sharing my passion for natural hair. It has definitely grown to writing about artists, singers, community, fashion, and more. I am hoping to appeal to a larger audience by expanding to a lifestyle blog that still focuses on natural hair.