I remember my first Barbie doll like it was yesterday. The iconic doll made her debut in 1959 but mine must have come about 1963, and I spent countless hours dressing her, fixing her hair, hanging out with her friends, Ken and Midge, and dreaming of the possibilities.
It never occurred to me that she looked nothing like me—no doll ever had—or that I couldn’t wear those cute little shoes and have a waistline like hers. I had no expectations of seeing myself in her reflection. I just loved her, and truth be told, I still do, so today when I saw this headline, “Mattel introduces first Barbie with Down syndrome,” I stopped to read the rest of the story.
Mattel calls its collaboration with the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) “representation.” I call it pure joy. To discover that they also have dolls with vitiligo, a skin condition I’ve had throughout my life, prompted this reflection.
First, more about the *Down Syndrome doll. According to the Associated Press article, she was made with the blessings of, and in consultation with, the NDSS to ensure that the “doll accurately represents a person with Down Syndrome.” The doll’s beautiful clothes and accessories offer an opportunity to educate and understand while offering hours of fun.
According to Mattel’s Barbie website, the “blue and yellow on the doll’s dress, accompanied by butterflies, represent symbols and colors associated with Down Syndrome awareness. And the three chevrons on the Barbie’s necklace represent how people with Down Syndrome have three copies of their 21st chromosome.” The doll is wearing “ankle foot orthotics, which some children with Down Syndrome use.”
Seeing Mattel’s sensitivity, intentionality, and attention to detail made my day.
Gradually over the years the blonde, blue-eyed, abnormally proportioned Barbies of my childhood were replaced by gorgeous, internationally diverse dolls, wearing exquisite outfits from some of the world’s most celebrated designers. Barbie’s career options, now everything from astronaut to zoologist, are endless so having a doll that looks like some of God’s most precious ones is important, and worthy of note and celebration.
My prayer is that Barbie, who joined Ken in his vitiligo journey, can do the same thing for this auto-immune disease. Defined as the loss of skin color in patches, vitiligo and I’ve had a life-long relationship. I got my first blotches in obvious and inconspicuous places around 10, my parents took me to a dermatologist, and it went into remission for about 45 years. One May morning I noticed a light spot on the end of my nose, and by July 4, my face and hands were totally involved.
Vitiligo is a great conversation starter with children and strangers. No matter how parents try to shush children, they always want to know “what happened to your hands?” I cover my eyes and nose with make-up, if I choose, but I discovered after multiple creams and futile efforts to cover my hands with gloves and make-up, that I can offer a simple explanation and keep it moving.
So long as I stay out of direct sunlight, vitiligo doesn’t hurt, it won’t kill me, and the fact that Ken and Barbie have it somehow makes it pretty cool. In my humble opinion, Mattel has done a great job with its diversity-inclusivity Fashionista line which also includes Ken with a prosthetic leg and Barbie with a hearing aid. Representation—Mattel’s word for doing a good and right thing, matters. Thanks Barbie, I can’t wait to see who’s next.
*In the U.S. Down Syndrome occurs about 1 in 700 births, and vitiligo, strikes about 1 in 200,000 annually.
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