Published on December 10th, 2013 | by Aya de Leon


AYA DE LEON’s Homemade Weaponry in the Battle Against Barbie

I’ve never been much of a holiday gift-giver.  In my 20s, someone told me that the holiday shopping season is what keeps the US economy going. After that, I started telling people.  “I don’t give gifts.  Just doing my part to bring down capitalism.”

Over the years, I toned down my position, and mostly ignored the holidays. Now in my 40s, and as the parent of a four-year-old, I feel bombarded by the holiday images that I had learned to block out.  Suddenly, I see them through the eyes of the young and impressionable.  My daughter wants to celebrate Christmas.  She has questions about Santa Claus.  We’re a Black/East Indian/Caribbean/Latino/Muslim/Yoruba/Jewish family.  Santa isn’t in our traditions; we’re not having a Christmas tree. We do a light mix of solstice, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day. But this year, due to preschooler demand, we may need to throw Xmas into the mix.
Plus there’s the increasing encroachment of the toys.  Some of them are fabulous, like this year’s Goldieblox. There are also various outdoor toys I consider getting my daughter, like scooters or bikes–often overpriced, but at least the toys themselves are not harmful, and don’t reinforce sexism.

Despite my best attempts, my daughter is a girly-girl. She would faint from joy if I got her a makeup kit and high heels for the holidays. Not gonna happen. She also has started talking about Barbie. I tell her she can have all the Barbies she wants when she’s eighteen. She will also be allowed to wear high heels then. In related news, she has informed me how much she likes Belle from Beauty and the Beast. How did she even hear about that? We don’t let her watch Disney. I re-gift the stuff that we get. They don’t have those books at her preschool. Once I even scrubbed a Cinderella image off a pair of sunglasses someone gave her a year ago. She liked the “pretty princess” on the glasses. “It’s a sticker,” I lied. “It won’t stay on for very long.” The next day I got a tissue and some alcohol and rubbed the princess off. Underneath, the glasses were pretty cute.

“But why can’t I have a Barbie doll?” my daughter asks. I can’t tell her the truth: “Well, honey, Barbie got her start as a German WWII sex doll and we don’t play with Nazi porn in our house.” So I settle for an activity-based explanation. “Barbie’s feet are permanently pointed for high heels so she can’t do anything. She can’t run. She can’t play soccer or basketball. All she does is stand around. I want you to have dolls that can do things.”
I stay vigilant in protecting my girl from harmful images and toys, but they’re out there—an army of blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls marching towards her with an arsenal of media images, beauty products, cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders.  I take every precaution I can fathom, but I hear their tiny Barbie feet marching outside sometimes.  I worry.


So many of us African heritage parents are haunted by those studies in the forties of black children, quoted for decades in literature and captured on video. Which is the pretty doll?  The smart doll? The good doll?  The loveable doll?  Time and again the children picked the white doll.

I’ve been vigilant I don’t allow her to have white dolls. Dora the Explorer is the lightest we get in our house. Her books are heavily weighted toward stories of African heritage girls. I have even written a children’s book of photographs of kids, adults and families with natural hair called Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity. My daughter would wear her hair out every day if I would let her. I don’t have time to comb the tangles out every night. On the days I do let her wear it out, she goes for the old school Michael Jackson fro. “Puffier mom! Make it puffier!” The Puffy book celebrates the perspective of the preschooler who is dazzled by hair that looks like a dandelion, a lollipop, a tree in bloom. I’ve been hustling to have the book out for the holidays, and somehow, as a working artist mom, I managed it. It’s available for pre-order on my website. But you can write all the positive African American hair books you want, but you can’t singlehandedly balance out the male domination and white supremacy that is whispering in your children’s ears from other parts of society.


Still, parents can fight back by creating the words and images we want our children to see. The Puffy book began as a personal book of photos I made online for our family. People said they wanted copies, so I developed the self-published project. It’s ironic – for the first time, as a momtrepreneur, I encouraged people to buy something on Black Friday. Although I called it #BlackHairFriday. So, I guess I still have a subversive holiday agenda, but this time it includes a gift-giving scenario. But that’s one of the things I’ve learned as a mother. While I can’t change everything about the world (at least not in time for the holidays) I can change my daughter’s experience of the world. As long as I stay vigilant with the Barbie army, stealthy with the princesses, and steady in creating alternative images, I’m hoping that will be enough.

Puffy is available for pre-order at  There’s even a personalization option where you can send in your own photo!

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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing at U.C. Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her adult novels, her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series (which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about a young Black woman FBI agent who infiltrates an African American political organization fighting for climate justice and Black Lives (out now), and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY about women in hip hop, police violence and the climate crisis (out now). In October 2021, Aya published a young adult thriller about a pair of undocumented Dominican teen girls who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal called THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Given the climate emergency, this novel was too politically urgent for traditional publishing, so it was serialized in in six installments on Orion Magazine, and is available free of charge. In October 2022, her next young adult novel comes out from Candlewick Books, UNDERCOVER LATINA—about a 14-year-old spy who passes for white to stop a white nationalist terrorist—the first in a Black/Latina spy girl series. In spring 2022, Aya is producing a free online conference called Black Literature vs. The Climate Emergency at UC Berkeley African American Studies. Aya is also working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at

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