We are just like you
‘We are just like you’.
The Mel and Steff tagline says it all.
Our philosophy at Mel and Steff is to create little people that resemble children from all walks of life, spanning across the globe, across a multitude of ethnicities. Lovingly handmade, each little doll encompasses features that not only represents, but celebrates the beauty of diversity.
To understand the origins of our dolls, let me take you back some years…
While on holidays, a little girl’s parents walk into a shop in the UK looking for a doll to take back home to their daughter. They were specifically in search of a doll that looked like their child. Dark brown skin, beautiful big eyes and wild black hair, that goes down to there. Much to their dismay, no such doll could be found. The closest they could source was a pale-skinned doll with bright blue eyes.
Upon receiving the doll, our little girl looks up with her big sad eyes and enquires ‘Ammi, why doesn’t this doll look like me?’
Many years later, when she first started her toy venture, our little girl decided that no longer will children wonder why dolls were not made like them. No longer would children feel the need to conform to what society is telling them is ‘beautiful’. No longer will children feel inferior as a result of society refusing to acknowledge their outward characteristics as being worthy of representation. Our little girl’s vision was to live in an era where every child can walk into a store and can point to a toy and exclaim with glee ‘HEY! The toy looks like me!’
35 years ago, that little girl sat down and meticulously created her first doll. One that was just like her. She is our founder, Ayanthi Gooneratne. And Mel and Steff was born.
Colourism and is struggles
We wish we could tell you that this story is just about a little girl who didn’t receive a doll that looked like her, but the history of our dolls are far more deep rooted than that. A much more serious origin that, still to this day, plagues the world around us.
The C word…. Colourism.
Racism’s lesser known, yet just as impactful, cousin.
Colourism – In a society obsessed with fair skin, Colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group”. – Oxford Dictionary. Originating from British rule, and in some cases slavery, sadly, this phenomenon is still overtly prevalent across a majority of Asia, Africa and America, and a little more subtly so in Western society.
Our little girl, Ayanthi, much like many children in this world, was raised in a colourist society, where the main concern of mothers of children playing in the sun was this fear of ‘getting dark’. The main concern of mothers whose sons were of marriageable age were whether or not his suitors were ‘fair skinned’. The main concerns of mothers who had newborns were home remedies to make/maintain their babies’ ‘fair’ complexion. Colourist societies continue to disregard the real-life implications that this has on women and children all over the world.
It was a society that idealised ‘fair’ heroines on screen and villainised darker skinned actors. It was a society which propagated the success of bleach facial creams to whiten ones skin, and the apparent success that ultimately resulted from doing so. It was a society that still do this day have never quite got over colonialism, a society disturbingly obsessed with the concept that somehow lighter skin still equates to more power.
Well, it’s time that we well and truly got OVER it.
Outwardly, Ayanthi and her elder sister were exactly the same. Their face structure was the same, their stature was the same. Same big brown eyes and the same long dark hair. But growing up, the community saw one big difference. ‘You sister is so pretty, she is so fair. How come you didn’t get her complexion’ they would say to her.
Lucky for us, our little girl did not let them break her stride. She had a solid support system around her, who encouraged her to become a sportswoman, despite the stigma associated with girls out in the sun. Also luckily, Ayanthi understood very early on that most girls were not as fortunate as she was and could not do as she did. Colourism truly impacted their daily existence. The constant perpetuation that fair skin is superior had left them feeling truly defeated.
In a world where fashion and beauty giants globally were endorsing unrealistic, and often times unattainable standards of beauty, Ayanthi was determined to ensure that her dolls were created to educate the impressionable at an age where they hadn’t yet been overly exposed to the cynicisms of modern day media. Her mission was to prove to children that no matter what tone of skin they might have, it is truly appreciated. That Mell and Steff dolls are ‘just like you’, so BE YOU. Be unapologetically and un-compromisingly YOU.
And so Mel and Steff created dolls of every skin tone. All drawn from the same template, each set in a template sporting the same hairdos and the same outfits. A mini YOU to teach kids to celebrate who they are and where they have come from. We WILL embrace who we are, and we WILL NOT apologise and we certainly will not compromise.
Ayanthi’s philosophy stems further when incorporating her vision for the empowerment of mothers. “Mothers are mothers, and children are our priority”. The rampant sales of the darker skin dolls illustrated to her darker skinned ladies at the production facility that their children are beautiful and they no longer need to fall victim to this ‘fair skin is superior’ fallacy. They were encouraged to break free of the metaphorical shackles (in some societies the pun rings quite true) that an oppressive colourist society has weighed down on them for so long. Through working at Mel and Steff, they were truly able to celebrate not just their children’s beauty, but their own. Boost of morale and self-confidence has created a happy and healthy workforce at Mel and Steff, and our staff have great pride in their creations, knowing how many children across the world their dolls are celebrating.
Our black dolls:
Sadly, our society still forgets that there is a colour darker than brown. Even in Sri Lanka, there are people who have skin that is very close to the colour black. Some of our Mel and Steff ladies have close-to-black skin, and have children who have close-to-black skin. In a bid to capture every skin tone, Ayanthi created her famous black dolls. These dolls were initially created to show her girls that the colour black must be rejoiced! That their skin colour will no longer be excluded. That Mel and Steff will not be subjected to the oppression of a colourist society.
Black is beautiful.
And OH is it beautiful. Unsurprisingly, our black dolls are our second-highest selling product. And our ladies making these dolls have come to realise their beauty. They take pride in making dolls just like THEM, just like they take pride in making dolls just like YOU.
Our black dolls are often mistaken for Gollies. Here at Mel and Steff, we do not create Gollies, Mammies, horror, fantasy or any other form of dolls.
We simply create little children FOR little children, from a single template, customised according to the ethnicity of the doll.
All of our dolls have taglines that sing the following:
We are just like you…
We are fair skinned like you, we are warm skinned like you,
Our faces are hand embroidered to look just like you do.
Our hair is blonde, brown, red or black,
Straight or curly or all the way down to our back.
Up in a ponytail, or a high twisted bun,
Or braided, or bunched, creating my hairstyle will be so much fun!
I’m a Mel & Steff Doll, and I look like… guess who?
That’s right, you guessed it, we look just like you!
We are about a new era. An era where children are able to deflect all forms of racism and colourism by teaching them to be unapologetically and un-compromisingly ‘YOU”.
This is the Mel and Steff legacy that we hope will long outlive our name.