Karen Byrd has always loved dolls. Big ones, small ones, she liked to collect them, play with them, create stories for what they might get up to. But she never felt like her dolls really connected to her. They were white with light hair, blue eyes and didn’t correspond to what she saw in the mirror. Even when Barbie came out with an African American doll, Byrd still found herself feeling alienated - the doll’s hair was soft and sleek, nothing like her own curly mop.
For years Byrd chemically straightened her hair, trying to fit in with the image she was being sold by the doll manufacturers. Then she decided enough was enough. She started wearing her hair “natural” and started a Natural hair blog called Natural Hair Beauty where she got involved with the natural hair community.
She was working in a corporate office at the time, and the response she had was varied. “I got a lot of strange looks,” she said. “People didn’t understand what was happening with my hair. I was in a suit and my hair was big!”
Two years ago, she decided to change this.
“I just believe that every little girl no matter what culture should have a doll that looks like them,” she said, “You should be able to find a doll with our hair color, skin color and hair texture.”
In 2011 Byrd started creating custom dolls, adding weaves and “natural” hair textures to a variety of Barbie’s. The process took a while. “I experimented with hair blends and weaves,” she said. “It was just a hobby to start with, Once I’d made a few I posted them on Facebook.” The response from her friends and family was so positive that she started to make custom orders and then she branched out into creating a website specifically to sell the dolls, called Natural Girls United.
When Kerisha Harris,31, a Social Media editor at Fusion (yes, our company), was a little girl she didn’t feel beautiful. “I looked different than everyone around me, and I didn’t have dolls that looked like me,” she said. “There were black dolls, but they had silky, pin straight hair just like my friends – I felt less beautiful because mine was curly and huge. Looking back, it was beautiful but I felt pressure to straighten my hair.” Harris used chemical relaxers to straighten it.
“I went "natural" in 2007, doing what's known as the 'Big Chop',” she said. “ A relaxer damaged my hair so badly, that I chopped it all off and swore off chemical relaxers. Now I love my big, fluffy natural curls.”
A mother to two daughters, aged six and five, Harris is glad that there is more doll diversity. “What they have now is a representation that shows them your hair is beautiful in its natural state,” she said. “They can look at their mom and at dolls and see heads full of natural, curly hair — something I didn't have as a kid
”I do really love what Karen is doing with her dolls as well. I would think of getting them for my kids, but they’re priced a bit high.”
Byrd’s dolls currently retail from around $53.99 to $79.99. These prices are because all dolls are handmade and materials cost money, Byrd hopes that when she expands she can lower the price point. The dolls feature a variety of hair types, from short “locs” to twisted up do’s and long proud multi tonal weaves. Other options include spiral curls, dreadlocks, and french braids and colors can be customized.
Byrd is now doing this full time. She has gone from office worker to self made entrepreneur. “I love my corporate job,” she said. “I was at a great company with lovely people, but this lets me embrace my artistic side. This is the first business I’ve ever run, and it’s a challenge sometimes. I’m learning about how seasonal retail can be, and have to get used to that!”
Harris is happy to see more dolls available, and thinks that the natural hair movement has changed so much now, that doll diversity will soon be a non issue. “For our generation it’s not revolutionary to wear your natural hair,” she said, referencing brands on the market that create diverse dolls, and showing me pictures of her daughter with a doll that looked like her twin. “There's so much more acceptance and appreciation of natural hair than there used to be” she said.
Byrd is supported by friends and family, and hopes to have her own line of dolls manufactured in next year. So far, orders have come in from all around the world, including Germany, Norway, and Australia. She is currently hiring people to help create the dolls so she can respond faster to orders and the future looks bright.. and curly!
How to Wear Natural Hair: Advice
1. Find some support
In every area there are gatherings of natural hair events and you can meet people to talk to about hair and get support from them. If no one is local, there are great web forums you can use.
2. Love yourself
Sesame Street recently ran a “Love Your Hair” episode and Byrd is a fan of their message. “I think children should see from the beginning that no matter what others say, you should love yourself. It’s a good message to instill in kids, that we are all different and we are all loved.”
3. Resist Pressure
“I think millennial women who are told to straighten their hair should stay strong,” she said. “Find women with similar interests and embrace it and not let anyone change how they feel about themselves.”