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Why Is It So Hard To Find A Doll That Looks Like My Daughter?

I was hoping Australia's lack of cultural awareness with children's toys had long been resolved since I was a girl. Boy, was I wrong.

My daughter, Leila, turns one this weekend and has a growing interest in dolls.

We've made many trips to the usual toy pit stops: Kmart, Target, MYER, as well as independent toy stores, and it's way too hard finding one that resembles her beautiful brown face.

Dolls have a powerful effect on kids, and Australian retailers continue to miss the mark when it comes to affordable options for culturally diverse children.

One recent visit to a Sydney Target store with Leila -- whose heritage is African-American, Lebanese and Greek Cypriot -- proved fruitless, with numerous rows of shelves offering only one doll of colour.

Even more disappointing, the dolls are from international brands like Disney and Barbie that champion diversity.

Disney princesses on display at a Target store in inner west Sydney. Image: Supplied.
Black Barbie (far left) amid rows of her white peers. Image: Supplied.

As is often the case, the white Disney "princesses" here are readily available while their diverse (and equally popular) peers can be extremely hard to find.

A quick look at Target Australia's online selection shows roughly 15 out of 76 dolls (20 percent) are not white. On Kmart's Australian site, only one out of 27 dolls (four percent) appears culturally diverse.

Both Target and Kmart were contacted for this piece, but would not give an official response. MYER declined to comment.

A snapshot of Kmart's online selection for baby dolls. Image: Kmart Australia.

If you take a deeper digital dive, early childhood education resource catalogues serve up a much wider range of culturally diverse dolls.

But while beautifully handmade, these dolls can sell for steep prices and lack the ease of access and commercial appeal offered by bigger brands.

This traditional Indigenous doll retails for $75.95. Image: Bellbird Educational.

Playtime with dolls isn't simply a physical activity. According to the UK-based Open University, it involves cognitive, imaginative, creative, emotional and social aspects, and is important to a child's development and learning.

The issue of representation isn't limited to dolls. Local children's clothing lines also appear to be near-sighted when it comes to inclusiveness.

After I saw popular kids brand Rock Your Baby's new Disney princess collaboration featured Snow White, Belle and Ariel only, I reached out on Facebook to one of their retailers, Annie and Islabean.

Pressed on why dresses with similar heroines like Princess Jasmine, Tiana, Mulan and Moana weren't on-sale, Annie and Islabean's director, Kate Mapperson, told me Rock Your Baby "hope to be able to share the stories of even more Disney characters in the future".

Mapperson shared a statement from the brand that read in part: "This is certainly an issue that we take into consideration and do our best to ensure that Rock Your Baby as a company reflects diversity and inclusiveness."

My interaction with retailer Annie and Islabean's director, Karen Mapperson, regarding Rock Your Baby's limited Disney princess apparel. Image: Facebook.

And I'm not the only one with this grievance. Several mum friends of mine from different backgrounds have had similarly infuriating experiences:

"There's not enough diversity represented in dolls in Australia. So much so my four and six-year-old Eurasian kids were so quick to say they notice dolls don't look like them when I asked. Playing with dolls is all about make believe and role playing, which is so important in their early learning." -- Maureen Triana Acosta (son and daughter are of Filipino, German and Hungarian heritage).

"I looked for a baby boy for my son as a first birthday present. They had dark brown babies with tight, dark curly hair. They had other babies with lighter brown skin, non-curly hair and smaller noses and lips. They [also] only had girls, not boys. I ended up with no doll for his birthday. The specificity just isn't there." -- Sydnye Allen (son is of African-American and Azerbaijani heritage).

"My daughter started telling me she wanted white skin like a princess and hated her 'dirty' coloured skin. I kept telling her she was beautiful. When I was at Kmart, I found the only dark brown-skinned doll -- and she loved it. Called it her 'daddy doll', because her father also has beautiful brown skin." -- Antoinette Lattouf (daughters are of Lebanese heritage).

READ MORE: Is Australia's Multiculturalism Going Through A Mid-Life Crisis?

The 2016 Census revealed Australia is becoming much more diverse -- in language, country of birth, Indigenous status, and religion.

Nearly half (49 percent) of Australians had either been born overseas or one or both parents had been born overseas.

With my husband Duane and our real-life doll Leila on her christening day. Image: Supplied.

Over 300 separately identified languages are spoken nationwide with Mandarin, Arabic, Vietnamese and Cantonese most popular after English.

There has been a decline in people who speak English as their main language at home and a rapid increase (39 percent) in the number of same-sex couples.

There has also been a rapid growth (18.8 percent) in those who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

This rich cultural tapestry must see themselves in Australia's media, on store shelves, and included in our integrated society where everyone is represented.

And let's not forget the almighty dollar, as retail outlets would most likely profit from serving their entire customer base.

It should be a no-brainer. Retailers and manufacturers would no doubt make more money from potential customers -- if they weren't so darn colour blind.

Earlier this year, Barbie upped the ante on being inclusive by debuting a limited number of dolls with a disability as part of their 60th anniversary celebrations.

Thirteen-year-old disabled rights advocate Jordan Reeves worked with Mattel on the new dolls, which are unfortunately yet to be sold in Australia.

My hope is Australia gets behind the beauty of diverse dolls before Leila is old enough to start feeling underrepresented, as many of us have felt for too long.

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au.