Great Britain

Four women with disabilities and health conditions praise new ‘inclusive’ Barbie range

MANY girls grew up loving Barbie – but for those who had a disability or condition, it felt isolating to see dolls that looked different to them.

Toy maker Mattel has now made inclusive versions of Barbie, including a doll with no hair, one with skin condition vitiligo, one in a wheelchair and another with a prosthetic limb.

Here, four women with conditions like those depicted by the dolls tell Jenny Francis what they think.

'Wearing my first wig was terrifying'

LOUISE LUCIEN, 40, has suffered from alopecia for 14 years. The software training manager from Beckenham, South East London, says it took her a decade to accept her beauty without hair and loves that Barbie is reflecting a condition that affects so many young girls. She says:

"As a girl, I had long brown hair. I always wore it down and remember having Barbies and brushing their hair, just like my mum used to brush mine. It was in April 2006, when I was 26, that everything changed.

I was in a car and brushed my hand through my hair and felt a big, smooth patch on my scalp. My heart sank. I have two younger sisters who had alopecia from a young age, but I always believed I had avoided it.

I thought it was a phase and that my hair would regrow. But within weeks, big patches were falling out in my hands.

I went to see a doctor a month later, who confirmed I had the condition – and I was devastated. I felt I was struggling over my identity.

A year after my diagnosis, my hair-loss had become so bad that I was unable to cover my bald spots, so I bought my first wig. Leaving my home for the first time while wearing a wig, trying to pretend it was my own hair, was a terrifying experience.

I love yoga and salsa dancing but my wig made my head sweat and was itchy. It was making me more miserable. I ditched the wig, shaved my head completely and decided to face life without hair. I thought people would stare or think I was ill, but instead it opened up conversations about the condition. That’s why Alopecia Barbie is so amazing to me.

I know young sufferers would have found it amazing to see a Barbie without hair like them and if I’d have seen that Barbie on the shelf next to mine, I may not have felt so terrified when I had my diagnosis."

'I wanted to show bullies I was able'

MUM-of-two Rebecca Legon longed for a doll like her as a child. The 38-year-old web designer from Crowborough, East Sussex, grew up with a prosthetic limb and is thrilled her daughter can play with a Barbie “just like Mummy”. She says:

"I was born in 1980 with PFFD – proximal femoral focal deficiency. It’s a rare birth defect, meaning my left leg had no femur bone so my knee was attached to my hip. I wore a straight wooden “peg leg” from the age of two but it was very difficult to walk.

When I was eight I had my left foot amputated so I could have a prosthetic limb that bent at the knee. I was excited to have a new leg, as it would mean I could walk around the playground. But girls in my class called me “plastic leg girl” and teased me.

I felt like the only girl in the world who had a prosthetic limb as I’d never seen anyone else with one. There weren’t any dolls with disabilities. I tried to show the bullies I was more than able, so I played sports at school.

In 2010 I met my children’s father in Manchester, at a social event. In January 2015 my daughter Olive was born and two years later Arthur came along. Being a mum was a whole new experience.

While I loved every second, it made me realise that, while I had come to terms with people staring and there not being much representation of my disability, I was annoyed for them. My daughter loves Barbie but I wanted her to see different disabilities reflected.

It gave me even more drive to show them that disabilities like mine don’t hold you back, so in October 2019 I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money for charity.

My partner and I split up shortly after but still co-parent our children. I always show off my limbs with pride and when I saw the new Barbie I nearly cried. Olive was overwhelmed when she saw it. It’s important to reflect lots of different bodies, especially for 7 those of us with disabilities."

'There's no model in a chair'

SAMANTHA BULLOCK, 40, believes the more that people see disabilities, the better it is for stopping discrimination. The business strategist from Mortlake, South West London, was paralysed after a gun accident aged 14 and says going through puberty in a wheelchair was tough. She says:

"I was born in Brazil and played lots of sports. When I was 14, a family member had a gun on the table in the house. I picked it up and it went off and the bullet shattered the middle of my spine. I was paralysed instantly.

When I came round in hospital, I didn’t really understand what had happened to me and, even when my parents told me that I couldn’t walk, I never imagined they meant forever.

After a month in hospital and months of rehabilitation, I began my life in a wheel-chair. I had never met anyone in a wheelchair before and all the toys I had growing up were dolls with perfect hair and bodies.

I had never seen wheelchair sports, either. It made me determined to be the first to do it all. I learnt to swim again and played volleyball and tennis in a wheelchair. I worked hard at school and went to university to study law.

I became a champion wheel-chair tennis player in 2007 and won a silver medal at the Parapan American Games in the US. In 2007, I met my husband Mark, now 51, and a wheelchair tennis manager. Within a year, we got married in England and I moved to the UK.

I’ve always felt there aren’t any models in wheelchairs and wanted to change that, so I applied to agencies and made it my mission to model.

I’ve modelled at London Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week and Dubai Fashion Week, all in my wheelchair. Wheelchair Barbie should have come decades earlier, but I’m pleased she’s here."

'I never left house without make-up'

TEACHER Joti Gata-Aura, 41, was diagnosed with vitiligo aged 19. The mum of two lives in Greenford, West London, with husband Navin Patel, 41, who runs a production hire business. They have a son Jay*, seven, and daughter Tia*, nine. She says:

"It was more than 20 years ago when I noticed white patches on my right arm. At first I assumed it was just my skin peeling. But when more appeared, I went to the GP.

I’d never seen anyone with it before, so when I was diagnosed with vitiligo and there was no cure, I was devastated. Over the next year it started covering my whole body and when it reached my face I became desperate. I felt like a freak.

My self-esteem dropped and I was hit with depression. I never left the house without make-up. I’d spend three hours a day applying it. I spent £20,000 on make-up and private doctors, but no amount of steroid injections or creams did anything.

When I got pregnant with Tia* in February 2010, I had to stop all treatments – and this began an acceptance for me.

I had Jay* in 2012 and being a mum made me realise I needed to embrace my body. I stopped the make-up and braved short sleeves in public.

Instead of feeling scared, I found a weight had been lifted. I started giving talks to students about the condition and being body confident.

When the model Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, came on to the scene, I was overwhelmed to see such a confident woman increasing awareness.

Vitiligo Barbie is another step forward and I cried when I first saw her. If I had seen these before I was diagnosed I wouldn’t have hidden away or searched for cures.

My daughter plays with dolls and although she’s always seen me embrace my condition, it’s amazing that she can now buy a Barbie with vitiligo."

*These names have been changed.

Sun visits children with life-limiting illnesses at Demelza Hospice