Shades of Beauty

by Yelitsa Jean-Charles RISD '16
September 4, 2015

Yelitsa is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow and a children's illustrator from the Rhode Island School of Design. She is the founder of Healthy Roots, a toy company that designs dolls to celebrate the beauty of diversity and combat internalized racism and colorism. The Healthy Roots Kickstarter is currently live and they would love your support in promoting diversity in children’s toys.

I’ve never had a doll that looks like me.

Growing up, I never looked up to women that resembled anything related to blackness. Curly hair, brown skin, wide noses or thick lips. So no. I would not be playing with that brown barbie. She’s not the “real” one, she’s not the pretty one.

These were my thoughts growing up as a first generation Haitian-American in NYC. My school had been diverse, but I was often teased and mocked for my cornrows and full lips. These comments didn’t just come from my classmates, but they also came from my home. My mother is very fair skinned and my father is very dark skinned. That left me somewhere in the middle of the melanin limbo.

I remember how happy I was to go to Florida for vacation. When I returned my family didn’t ask me what I did, or about Disney World or anything about my trip. The first thing they did was turn to my mother and ask her “why did you let her get so dark?”. This is the reality for so many young girls of color, particularly black girls.

No one should feel less than because of the color of their skin or the kink of their curl. That is why I started Healthy Roots.

Healthy Roots is a toy company that creates dolls and storybooks that teach natural hair care in order to combat internalized racism and colorism. Because of these social issues, many girls resort to using dangerous chemicals like perms and bleaching creams to change their natural appearance in order to be “beautiful”.

I started the #LoveMyRoots campaign to understand the experience of young girls and get the perspectives of their mothers. Some of their stories made me think more about the impact that hair has in people’s perception of themselves and their beauty. One of our models had brought her sister, but she would not be participating. She was wearing a beautiful headscarf. I had no idea that under that headscarf she was hiding her story. When she was three, she began to lose all her hair. She developed alopecia, which is sudden hair loss. Her mother told me that all throughout elementary school, she had no problem going to school with her head uncovered, but at the start of middle school, that’s when she became sensitive to people’s eyes on her.

Eyes questioning, mouths asking, mocking and teasing.

So she found a new way to be beautiful. Headwraps gave her a new confidence.

As the girls get older, the weight of society bares down on them. Our younger models dance in front of the camera, beaming, while the older models have to be convinced they are worthy of being photographed. They have to be convinced that they are beautiful.

I will do whatever I have to do to convince them. There is no question whether or not you are beautiful. Beauty can not be measured by strands of hair or hours in the sun. We should be allowed to define beauty for ourselves. We know when we feel beautiful and that’s what matters. That’s what #ILoveMyRoots means to me.

So if you want to wear a headwrap, that’s fine by me.

Follow Yelitsa's work at www.facebook.com/healthyrootsdolls and on Twitter @RootsDolls, or send an email to healthyrootsdolls@gmail.com.