Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, 31, became the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S. at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She won a bronze medal and decided to champion a new sport -- combating xenophobia and Islamophobic injustices. She now stands as one of the most influential voices in sports.
Muhammad, a New Jersey native, embraces her uniqueness and has become a symbol of inspiration and hope. And now, thanks to toymaker Mattel, her messages of self-love, inclusion and equality will be represented by the 2018 Barbie Shero doll. Succeeding Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, the doll was created in Muhammad's likeness and is the first-ever Barbie to wear a hijab.
espnW spoke with Muhammad about her doll, body positivity, and what makes her feel powerful.
espnW: Congratulations on joining Barbie's Sheroes collection! Please tell us about the development of your doll.
Ibtihaj Muhammad: I played with dolls until I was about 15 years old. Barbie has always been a part of my household. I'm one of five kids, and there are four girls in our family. About a year ago now, I sent a message to my agent, and I said, "Wouldn't it be awesome to have my own Barbie doll?" And that was just me speaking to my childhood and always being attached to Barbie growing up. So, to have Mattel approach me to be a part of their Shero campaign is an amazing honor. I feel like I've always embraced being "different" -- in respect to breaking boundaries, being an African-American Muslim woman in the sport of fencing -- I feel blessed to have this partnership.
espnW: What is the significance of not only having your own doll but being the inspiration for the first hijab-wearing Barbie?
IM: It's humbling, and at the same time, I'm thrilled that it will push the boundaries of inclusiveness even further. When my siblings and I were growing up, our parents explained to us that many of the images of beauty we see in media just aren't achievable, because they're likely Photoshopped. But, when we think about those images being white, blonde, really thin, blue-eyed women, that wasn't inclusive of my sisters and me either. So, my parents only purchased brown dolls. I see Barbie continually evolving. Now there are dolls in different sizes and a hijab-wearing doll. It's reflective of the times.
This will show children how to embrace what makes them different and to remind them that they're beautiful and they can be whatever they want. We can help push that narrative through role play, through dolls and through using your imagination.
espnW: Discuss the design, dimensions and styling of your Barbie doll.
IM: Growing up I was always told that my legs were big. I'm not sure if my legs are actually big, but that's what I was told. I think that expands a little bit on what I mentioned earlier. The things that are said to us shape our identities, especially as girls or women, it's [often] how we view ourselves. Through sport, I've been able to learn to appreciate my body in all of its fullness and curviness. When working with Mattel and the construction of my Barbie doll, it was important to me that my doll has an athletic build and toned legs, which I have. Those legs helped me win my medal at the Olympic Games. Also, I wear eyeliner about 90 percent of the time. Even when I go to sleep, I wear eyeliner. It was important that my doll has this perfectly winged liner. I've been asked: "Why eyeliner?" To be honest, I think that there's this misconception that women wear makeup or we dress ourselves to appease other people. And I believe it's the opposite. It's really about you, to feel good about yourself. For me, eyeliner is a shield of armor. I think that when you look good, you feel good, and I want my Barbie doll to reflect that.
I also love my doll's uniform. I like my fencing kit to be pristine. So, to have the hijab on my doll be white or a lighter gray color, I think it looks so good. I'm excited for everyone to see it. I love it. I just love everything that it stands for because it's shattering so many stereotypes. It's pushing so many boundaries. It's inclusive and encompassing so many different types of people in just this one little doll, and I am over the moon excited about it.
espnW: Earlier you mentioned that sports empowered you to develop a positive image of your body. Are there additional ways that you see athletics empowering young women?
IM: I've always been an advocate for girls being involved in sports. When I think of how sports have the ability to bridge communities, whether that be locally or globally, I think it's really powerful. And speaking particularly to girls, it teaches us so much. It teaches us to appreciate ourselves, appreciate our bodies and our strengths.
I think it's easy for us to be placed and confined in spaces where we're taught to treat one another more as opponents than we are as friends or teammates. The great thing about sport is that it teaches us to work together. To appreciate one another's qualities and what each of us can individually bring to the table to create a collective win.
As a sports ambassador for the U.S., I'm always pushing that message to empower our girls through sport because there are so many things stacked against us that teach us not to appreciate ourselves and appreciate one another.
Muhammad's doll will be available for purchase in 2018.