By Tarah-Lynn Saint-Elien
In 2001, a seven-year-old Yelitsa Jean-Charles could barely contain her excitement to open her gifts Christmas Day. Like most girls, she adored dolls and was anticipating the new ones she would add to her collection. But when she was handed her doll that year, she bursted into tears.
The doll was black.
A black Barbie, in particular. To her, it wasn’t “the real Barbie.” It wasn’t “the pretty one.”
“I cried when I received a black doll as a child because of how I had been socialized to view beauty, as influenced by media and our society,” Jean-Charles said.
Jean-Charles’ experience with the black Barbie doll made a mark on her life and influenced her to make a positive change in the lives of girls to come. She created Healthy Roots Dolls to help other little girls learn to love their curls and see themselves in their dolls. The first doll of the collection is Zoe, whose hair is made of a fiber meant to feel like human hair. With each purchase of a Zoe doll, P&G will offer free products from their My Black is Beautiful hair care line, as well as a kids shirt.
“[The] Healthy Roots Dolls name comes from wanting to instill strong cultural roots and identity in children through our dolls, as well as, teaching them to love their hair so they can have healthy roots,” she said.
“Healthy Roots Dolls is a toy company that creates products that empowers your girls to love themselves just the way they are. Our first doll Zoe is designed with a unique fiber full of curl power that allows her hair to be washed and styled just like real hair! She’s all about teaching girls to love their curls.”
The Healthy Roots Dolls process from envisioning to execution, begins with first listening to consumers and [bringing] pencil to paper. Jean-Charles then sketches a concept, sculpts it by hand, and lastly, works with talented doll designers and factories to make the final product a reality.
Although some progress has been made in terms of diverse representations in beauty and media, there’s still a ways to go when it comes to black women.
The perception young Jean-Charles once had goes way beyond an identity crisis. “The doll tests” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s demonstrate the psychological effects of segregation on black children.
In the study, children between the ages of three and seven were presented four identical dolls that had different complexions. When asked which color doll they preferred, most chose the white doll, even attributing positive traits to it. The Clarks concluded that not only did “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” damage self-esteem among black kids, it also formed a feeling of inferiority among them.
Jean-Charles struggled with her hair and identity until she attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she saw other black women embracing their natural hair. She embraced her head of curls after asking herself why she didn’t know how to style her natural hair.
“It was so much fun to learn how to style my hair and test different concoctions on my tresses to find what moisturized my hair best,” Jean-Charles said. “Doing box braids and other protective styles is like a monthly therapy session where it’s just me, my hair and Netflix.”
Today, Jean-Charles has been featured by large publications such as Essence and Tedx and has raised nearly $500,000 in total for her company.
Jean-Charles credits her success to consistently applying herself and making sure she had the skills necessary to achieve the results she wanted.
Her advice for young Haitians looking to pursue their dreams in creative industries?
“Don’t say no before you can say yes. Even when your parents are pushing you to go to nursing school.”
Working with businesses in Haiti to produce products and contribute to the Haiitan economy is one of Jean-Charles’ goals over the next few years.
“I would love to make culturally-relevant outfits for our dolls to teach children about the different people that make up the African diaspora,” she said. “I would also love to come back to my parents native country and sell dolls in Haiti as well.”