A guilty pleasure of mine has always been playing online dressup games. This embarrassing pastime was a large part of my later formative years and went on into my teens. In fact, I still do it sometimes when I get bored. Few people know about this habit of mine, because as I said, it's embarrassing. These games are targeted for little girls, after all.
It is for this reason that when I noticed something peculiar about the games, it was even more disturbing. The dress up games that I had been playing since I was a little girl myself are undoubtedly and utterly biased towards slim, Caucasian women.
I know that many of you are probably sighing right now, thinking I expect the companies to try too hard to be PC, or thinking that I am being oversensitive about it, but I'm not sure you understand the extent of the bias I'm talking about.
In all of the years that I have played these games, it has been a very rare thing for me to see a skin color option (on many of them you can change the complexion) darker than a caramel-type color. When there was something targeted toward darker girls, that particular game was frequently labeled as something overgeneralized, such as "African Girl" or "Mexican Girl." Now not only are we excluding real African and Mexican girls from what is considered to be normal, but we are also saying that they should all fit roughly within the criteria we have set for them.
I am not being picky or oversensitive. I know that to many, this doesn't seem like a big deal. But think of it this way. When did I start playing these games? During my formative years. This is when it's normal for other young girls to play these, too, and girls this age are the target audience. The characters in the games are designed to be role models and ideals for the girls playing. And to the girls, the characters are normal. They accept them because that is what is presented to them.
Now imagine this. As of 2013, 17% of U.S. citizens were Hispanic. 12.3% were black. 5% were Asian, and 2.4% were multi-racial. That means that roughly 37% of this country's population does not fit within the criteria set by these dress up games, and that is only including U.S. citizens. That does not take into account people who may be here undocumented, nor does it consider the multitude of countries who idolize white culture, and American culture in particular.
Girls about the right age for online dress up games are also about the age where they are just learning about who they are. They are just beginning to understand societal standards and where they fit in with that. They are looking around at everybody and everything else, and then they are looking at themselves, and they are deciding what they think of themselves.
How damaging must it be for a little girl to look at the drawings of girls they idolize, girls they dressed up themselves, and think, "But if she's normal.... Then I must not be."? How would it ruin a girl's self-esteem to find that not a single one of the girls these websites present as beautiful looks anything like her?
I myself am white, so I can not speak about the effect that this has had on my personal perception of my race, but let me tell you about some girls that I hold very dear to my heart. Last year, I spent the summer in the Dominican Republic. While there, I stayed with a host family, a typical family of middle-class Dominicans, with a lot of attitude, a lot of love, and a complicated family tree. I had two sisters there: a ten-year-old girl and a thirteen-year-old girl. Both are black and both are astoundingly beautiful. While I am in love with Dominican culture, I do have some major issues with it, and here is a huge one: many Dominicans try very hard to be more like Americans.
The vast majority of the population in the Dominican Republic is dark-skinned, and yet there is a huge stigma against people who are darker. They are stereotyped as ugly, and Haitian (another social stigma that I don't have much time to get into. Let's just say that the DR and Haiti are not best buddies, they have some bad history between them, and there is a lot of racism against Haitians in the DR). Lighter Dominicans, who are often direct descendants of the Spanish who settled there so long ago, are usually upper class, and infinitely more respected.
It's also true that a huge portion of the media in the DR comes directly from the good ol' U.S. of A. This means that the TV shows and movies they're watching, the music they're listening to (yes, even though it's in English and most of them only speak Spanish), and even the clothes and toys they're buying all scream, "'Murica!" Like in many developing countries, there is a common misconception that Americans are all rich, all live in nice houses, all have plenty of opportunity and perfectly happy lives. And if this were true... Who wouldn't want to be more like Americans?
Because of this, though, both of my younger sisters in the DR, gorgeous though they are (and I believe know themselves to be, based on the number of selfies they take), try hard to be more like white girls. They can't change their skin, and there is only so much they can do to hide their black girl hair other than straightening, and their wide nostrils aren't going anywhere. But they immerse themselves in American culture as much as they can. They know waaaay more American pop music than I do, and they watch more American TV shows. They dress more like the stereotype of an American teenage girl, too. They sing songs in English even though they have no idea what they're saying, and the older one insists on spelling her name with two S's (something that is never used in Spanish) rather than the C that is supposed to be there.
This bothers me, because I know these girls, and they are stunning. Not only are they both beautiful to look at, but their attitudes and customs are very Dominican, whether they like it or not, and they're wonderful. These girls are both such delights, and the fact that they would change themselves saddens me.
Now you may have noticed, I also mentioned that these websites promote slimness. For those of you unfamiliar with online dressup games, they are basically the computerized, 2D equivalents of Barbie dolls. There is no representation for people who are not unusually slim. This I can speak about from personal experience. Even back when I was 7 or 8 and just starting these games, I believed myself to be fat. Looking back and seeing pictures of myself at that time, I know I wasn't, but that was what I thought.
As I got older, it didn't help that not a single one of the girls everyone thought was pretty, whether it was celebrities or Disney stars or Barbie dolls or dress up game characters, looked anything like me. I wanted to give one of the dress up game girls a makeover so she would look like me, but even though I could give her facial features similar to mine and coloring exactly right, I could never make her look like me, because my body type is not represented.
As preteen and teenage years started happening, it was almost as though I had resigned myself to being fatter and less delicate than all the other girls. I did not control my diet and I did not bother to exercise. Over time, I did become overweight, to the point that my doctor was very concerned, not only about my weight, but the lab test results showing that I was at increased risk for cholesterol, blood pressure and heart problems, as well as diabetes. It was not until about halfway through my sophomore year of high school that I gained self-esteem and confidence in my body, and I began to exercise and eat much better, and I lost roughly 30 pounds. 30 pounds doesn't sound like a ton, but it was enough to bring me to a healthy weight, and bring my lab test results back down to normal, healthy numbers. In just a few months I went from being an at-risk kid to being a normal, healthy kid, and that felt incredible.
I am still not skinny. I still have a healthy layer of fat on my tummy, wide hips, a big butt, and boobs that are neither shaped perfectly nor any particular size (they're just kind of normal). I still have a round face, smiley, chubby cheeks, and thunder thighs. But I am healthy and I like myself this way. I think to myself how sad it used to make me that I could never find any girls in these games who looked like me, and I think now about how that may have, even subconsciously, affected my self-image at such a young age, and it disgusts me.
To be clear, I am not an angry feminist (though I am a peaceful feminist). I am not obsessed with political correctness. I do not believe that anyone should be forced into any one particular view of other cultures, races, genders, or body types, because I know that everyone has their preferences, and that is how it will always be. On the other hand, I do believe that we should teach our daughters to love themselves the way they are, regardless of their skin color, their body type, their tastes, or anything else about them. Because I believe it is the ones who love themselves who truly learn how to love others, and I believe it is those who can truly love others who will have the strength, courage and confidence to change the world for the better.