People often talk about how Black kids lack representation in media, but there’s another pressing issue for young children: toys. For many little Black girls, it can be difficult to find dolls that look like them.
Navigating a world that doesn’t represent Black girls can negatively impact how they see themselves. That’s something that’s always been at the front of Yelista Jean-Charles’ mind. She’s the founder of Healthy Roots, a toy company creating dolls and storybooks.
Healthy Roots is on a mission to “positive self-perception of the richly diverse, varying shades of complexion and natural hair textures among girls of color”, according to its website. Or, as Jean-Charles describes it: Healthy Roots empowers children to love themselves the way that they are.
The inspiration for Healthy Roots came from Jean-Charles’ own experiences as a child. Growing up, she didn’t see a lot of representation of women that looked like her in terms of what’s defined as beautiful in society.
“I never had a doll that looked like me and I’m sure a lot of women of color can relate to that,” Jean-Charles shared.
When someone in her family did give her a Black doll, she would cry — not because she thought it was ugly, but because it wasn’t the blue-eyed, blonde Barbie doll shown to her on commercials. It wasn’t the doll you were supposed to have.
Healthy Roots’ first doll is Zoe. Unlike most dolls on the market, Zoe has naturally curly hair. According to her bio, Zoe learned to love her hair after she did a big chop with her mom.
“Together they learned step by step, how to love every single one of her curls,” Zoe’s bio reads. “Now she’s here to help your daughter learn to love hers. She is a beautiful black doll with naturally curly hair. Her hair is just like her hair!”
The idea is that kids can get to know natural hair with Zoe. For a lot of kids, a big part of playing with dolls involves dressing them up and doing their hair. Now, Black kids have the opportunity to have a doll whose hair matches theirs — from sporting box braids to Bantu knots and more.
The hope is that by giving kids an opportunity to practice with Zoe, they’ll not only love their own hair, but know exactly how to take care of it. To help them with that part of the journey, Healthy Roots is launching a book on natural hair care this summer.
Healthy Roots has also launched a natural hair start kit described as “from Zoe to young girls”. Jean-Charles explained that people loved the focus on natural hair, but many still didn’t know which products to use with their kids.
Jean-Charles credits college with giving her the opportunity to begin unpacking her childhood experiences. During that time, she began to recognize the role that media and content plays in self esteem and how people see themselves. .
“Throughout the time I was studying illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, I started to create more work that centered my identity and talking about beauty,” Jean-Charles said, adding that examining colorism and texturism played an important role.
For one class, Jean-Charles was tasked with redesigning Rapunzel, the fairy tale character with ridiculously long hair. Jean-Charle said she took the opportunity to turn Rapunzel into a “little Black girl with kinky curly hair and beautiful brown skin to show other little brown girls we can be princesses.”
When it came to launching Healthy Roots, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that Jean-Charles had to put in. Because it’s a physical product startup, Jean-Charles described the process as really “capital intense”.
“It takes a lot of upfront costs to just start production designing, then going to mass production, and testing to approving sample materials to make sure they meet the standards and regulation of the industry,” Jean-Charles said. “It’s much more intense than a lot of people think. But, it’s also fun.”
The company also has plans to continue expanding. By 2020, Healthy Roots plans to launch a subscription model. There’s also a huge partnership launch coming in August of this year and although Jean-Charles said she couldn’t elaborate too much she says people should sign up for their mailing list to stay updated.
And if you’re interested in purchasing a Zoe doll for any child in your life, act fast. The stock is limited, so be sure to catch Zoe before the end of the year.