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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Roots of Oppression

I took my daughter to the doll hair salon at American Girl Place recently. We brought along Kanani, the 2011 American Girl doll of the year. Kanani received a much-needed salon and spa treatment consisting of hair detangling and styling, body washing, body tightening (her stuffing was showing!) and ear piercing.  We also obtained a mani-pedi kit for her. The whole notion of a store that exists to sell dolls, matching clothes for the dolls and their human owners and salon services for the dolls seems to some like a true example of conspicuous consumption and over-indulgence. I can truly see that point of view. But, as I watched a store full of girls and women (along with, I am pleased to say, some boys and men) of all races and ethnicities enjoy the fantasy world of dolls, I could only be delighted from an entertainment perspective.  I also had a great deal of admiration for the marketing skill that created a commercial world wherein there are almost no parity products and little need to conduct much conventional advertising because of significant consumer choice “stickiness” and strong word-of-mouth advertising.

I could, of course, be critical of the notion of a doll beauty salon, given the way in which beauty culture can and does sometimes operate as an oppressive regulatory regime for women. This is perhaps especially true for black women, who, according to some scholars, spend anywhere from two to three times as much on beauty products and services as other demographic groups. Black women and other women of color sometimes face particular pressures to conform to mainstream standards of beauty.  Such standards often function as disciplinary forces in the service of racial, gender and sexual identity hierarchies. The (nappy) roots of beauty standard oppression are firmly entrenched in opinions and attitudes that, while shaped by the broader society, are frequently mediated and reproduced by women themselves. Witness some of the online chatter about Olympic gold metal winner Gabrielle Douglas’ hair and how it somehow did not meet some people’s ideals of beauty. It was disheartening to see that some people didn’t get it that beauty cannot possibly be about conforming to a set of hairstyling norms.

What I find empowering about the notion of a doll beauty salon is the way in which it literally and figuratively diminishes certain aspects of beauty culture, reducing them to miniature proportions. The dolly gets her hair done and goes back into the case and onto the shelf, one of the smaller pleasures of an owner who does algebra, writes music or works out on the uneven parallel bars in larger parts of her life.