Breaking natural black beauty perceptions

TO appreciate the story behind M’simbi Dolls, you have to understand the struggles of a black woman living in the 21st century and dealing with racial stereotypes carried over decades regarding her natural beauty.
You also have to understand that these struggles begin typically at a young age through the images little black girls are exposed to, suggesting their natural black beauty is not good enough.
The dark skin, kinky hair and flat nose associated with those of African descent were considered less attractive features in preference for fair skin, straight hair and a pointed nose.
If Mainga Moono Banda, a Zambian mother presently based in Abuja, Nigeria, had never taken any of this into consideration before, it all changed one day following a conversation with her six-year-old daughter.
One day after school, Mainga’s only daughter, Lindiwe, posed a question which threw her back: “Mummy, can I change the colour of my skin?”
Surprised, Mainga asked why she would think of something like that. Lindiwe then said she had a white friend who was prettier than her and who she wanted to be like.
This conversation got Mainga concerned and what is more, when she looked at all of Lindiwe’s toys, they were just as she had described her friend.
It was a dialogue that did more than get Mainga thinking and eventually led to the birth of the Zambian toy company, M’simbi Dolls, which features a range of black dolls. “M’simbi” is a Nsenga term which refers to a young lady.
“The concept behind M’simbi Dolls is to teach young black girls through their mothers, to embrace their natural beauty,” Mainga explains.
More specifically, it is the inspiration of a little girl frustrated about why she did not have long, straight hair and fair skin like the white girls in her school.
It is the story of a mother who desperately wanted to show her daughter that black is beautiful and that she did not have to look like her friends of a different race to feel beautiful.
Mainga established M’simbi Dolls last year and together teamed up with her husband, Wilson, to bring the dream of a Zambian toy company to life. Their only daughter, Lindiwe, is also a co-founder of the company.
Because Mainga and Wilson are presently based in Abuja, they needed someone they could work with to run things on the Zambian end, which is how Cheswa Vwalika came on board as a partner.
From the beginning, they set out to challenge unrealistic beauty standards that force many black women to bleach their skin in order to feel beautiful.
“M’simbi Dolls teaches against internalised colourism, which is defined as feeling inferior and not embracing one’s natural features,” Mainga shares. “We teach cultural identity because we believe that no one should feel inferior because of the colour of their skin or texture of their hair.”
Dr Vwalika adds: “Growing up it was Barbie dolls, it was light skin dolls with straight blonde hair and we got used to that, but I think at the back of our minds we knew that dolls could also be black but many times we just couldn’t find them.”
According to Dr Vwalika, not seeing black dolls on the shelves of toy stores unconsciously became accepted.
In the 1970 novel, “The Bluest Eye”, Nobel Prize winning novelist, Toni Morrison, demonstrated the internal conflict faced by black girls regarding their natural beauty through the novel’s main character, Pecola Breedlove, a typical victim of white beauty.
Pecola is an 11-year-old girl from a black family who is abused and made to feel inadequate by her school friends for her skin colour.
From her daily experiences, she concludes that her distinctive features as a black girl do not fit the standards of beauty of the male-dominated ruling class, and that her “ugliness” isolates her at school as well as at home.
Because she attributes her gloomy life to her physical appearance, she wishes for blue eyes, which to her represent an image of the privileges given to the whites. So deep is the imposition of white ideology on the black people that it distorts the heart of Pecola deeply and so, each night without fail, she prays for blue eyes, believing her ugly reality will be made beautiful through them.
Pecola and Lindiwe’s story is not dissimilar to other little black girls living in Zambia.
Last Friday at Lusaka’s Shakespeare College, a primary and secondary school, a group of girls comprising Blacks, Indians and Arabs, sat together over break-time as I presented before them two dolls-one black and the other white.
The girls were from the pre-grade to grade four class and their ages ranged from four to nine.
Curiously, I asked them which of the two dolls they preferred. The number of girls who chose the white doll was 35 while 16 said they liked the black doll.
When I asked a few of them why they had chosen the white doll rather than the black doll, their responses ranged from: “Because she is pretty,” to “Because she has long hair which can easily be combed.”
The unrealistic beauty standard of lengthy, straight hair, fair skin and long legs propagated by mainstream media over the years has been the dominant feature on glossy magazine covers and fashion runways.
Through M’simbi Dolls, Mainga, Lindiwe and the rest of the team want to challenge the wrong perceptions created over the years about black beauty via mainstream media.
After months of discussions via weekly conference calls between Lusaka and Abuja, five characters were finally settled on for the first collection of M’simbi Dolls.
They are: Towela, Mapalo, Kondwani, Limpo and Luyando.
“We also got input from our Facebook page because when we started, we only had one doll then we got people suggesting different things, so we included some of those features,” Dr Vwalika says.
The detail on the dolls went down to the colour of their eyes and the right colour of lipstick. The dolls’ outfits are also made from local chitenge material.
Additionally, each M’simbi doll bears an affirmation tag to encourage girls to speak positively about themselves and to realise their innate potential.
Dr Vwalika points out that affirming black beauty should not be left to mothers alone as fathers too play a role in boosting the confidence of their daughters by speaking positively to them.
Mainga notes that various studies have been conducted worldwide on the heavy market presence of white dolls and the negative impact this can have on children with dark skin.
One such study she refers to was done by psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s via a series of experiments informally called the “doll tests.”
“The study shows clearly the need for black and mixed race children to have images that represent them to promote their self-esteem and confidence,” Mainga explains. “It’s for this reason that through M’simbi Dolls, we want to empower young girls to know that they are enough and can walk confidently in their skin and achieve anything they put their minds to.”
M’simbi Dolls will officially launch at a kids expo taking place at Lusaka’s East Park Mall from May 27 to 28.
Setting up a Zambian toy company is a challenge that both Mainga and Dr Vwalika acknowledge, yet despite this hurdle they were not dissuaded from establishing it in order to sell its vision.
“The biggest challenge has been financing as it is very costly to assemble the dolls,” shares Mainga. “M’simbi Dolls is currently being assembled in Zambia, with different parts of the dolls coming from various sources, including Asia and Africa.”
“As much as possible, we want to make the dolls affordable,” Dr Vwalika says. “Some are saying why don’t you make cheaper dolls for those from the lower income bracket to afford while others are suggesting we go a grade higher to manufacture even talking dolls. So we are listening and going forward, we want to see if we can have a range.”
As the business progresses, the M’simbi Dolls team wants children to be more knowledgeable about Zambian culture and languages through the dolls.
“We want them to know about the Victoria Falls because they want to go to Disneyworld before they can go to the Victoria Falls. So we also want these characters or dolls to embrace something beautiful about Zambia and bring it out,” Dr Vwalika says.
M’simbi Dolls is aiming at not only challenging the wrong perceptions surrounding natural black beauty, but destroying them, and by so doing, encouraging young girls to dream, believe, achieve and inspire as the toy company’s tag words state.