Gaisa L., Class of 2023

I watched as the ballerina with the beautiful pink dress danced across the television screen. The basement was dimly lit, the only light shining was that of Barbie and the Nutcracker. Seeing her brought a detrimental influence on my 4 year old mind. 

“Grandma,” I said, “I’m going to look like Barbie one day,” I told her. 

“Are you now?” she replied. 

I glance back at the screen as if to confirm my next words, “Yes, I’ll even dye my skin white to look like hers.” 

As a little girl, I had no idea the influence my words had. I failed to understand why I couldn’t “dye” my skin to be white. Barbie was my role model. I wanted to become her. Pretty, blonde, blue-eyed, and white. In contrast with my brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair, I felt an internal competition with myself to strive to look just like her. 

I was born in Presque Isle, Maine. As a little girl, I had struggled with my racial identity. In the predominantly white area I was in, I had become very insecure about my hair. The sizzling sound of my mom straightening her hair is still engraved in my mind, and the smell of burnt hair was something that I had become accustomed to. She never embraced her natural hair when I was young, which was impressionable on me growing up.

 In 5th grade, I was given my first deleterious weapon: the straightener. Frying my hair opened up the opportunity for me to be more accepted by the white audience. And it worked.

“It’s not frizzy anymore” 

“I like you with straight hair better.” 

I was in love with the white validation I was receiving. I was no longer told to “Just brush it” to tame my hair. I was beguiled by the flat iron. It became my daily addiction for years on end. The image of Barbie haunted my subconscious mind, influencing how I perceived myself. Middle school became a time of feeding into my internalized racism. Brittle, damaged hair became something I heavily desired, and instead of enjoying my summers sunbathing as my white friends did, I preferred to stay in the shade so I would still have the privilege of having “lighter skin.” 

The damage that Barbie had done to my psyche as a child had long-lasting effects on me throughout my adolescent years. I clung to the romanticized life of Barbies knowing it was unrealistic and unattainable, however, it provided me with a form of comfort. As I began to become more educated, I noticed that I was not the only one whose mind had been altered by the plastic, 11-inch doll. “The doll test” first conducted in the 1940s was designed to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American children.

A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned more positive characteristics to it while disregarding the doll that resembled them. This test has been recreated several times, most with similar results from the 1940s. Seeing that children still are influenced by what society presents as “the right life” I became very angry. Angry that I wasted days in the hot summer staying out of the sun just so that I wouldn’t get darker, and angry that I ever wanted to dye my skin white, just so I could feel like I was special and belonged. 

Moving forward in my life, I realized that white validation wasn’t everything. Not only did I heal the damage that was done to my hair, but I also started to begin healing the damaged, little girl inside of me. Becoming Barbie had pervaded my mind at such a young age, but now I am letting go of the grasp of this delusion that held me hostage for so long. I now set my inner child free, and finally embrace my own identity, not Barbie’s.