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Ibtihaj Muhammad talks diversity, body image and, of course, Barbie

The Olympian says she is honored and humbled to be part of Mattel’s Shero doll line

When Ibtihaj Muhammad hit the scene at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, she immediately caught the attention of women everywhere. As the first Muslim-American woman to sport a hijab while competing for the United States, she was an instant hero. She went on to earn the bronze medal as part of Team USA.

Now the 31-year-old Olympian has her very own Barbie. Muhammad joins women such as Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, Selma director Ava DuVernay and dancer Misty Copeland in the Mattel Inc.’s Shero line, which honors women who break boundaries. Mattel Inc., the maker of Barbie, says the doll will be available online next fall.

“I’m excited and honored and humbled. I really look up to the women that have been part of the Shero program previous to me, and I think this is a wonderful list of women to join,” Muhammad told The Undefeated. “Barbie’s been a really big part of my life as a kid, so to now have my very own Barbie, I don’t know, it’s almost like an indescribable feeling. A lot of excitement.”

Muhammad agrees that Mattel’s efforts toward diversity are indicative of today’s times.

“I think, as a company, Mattel has decided to make a decision to be inclusive and to celebrate diversity,” she said. “So to have dolls of various sizes and different skin tones, and now to even have a doll that clearly wears hijabs and is modeled after an American Olympian, I think is revolutionary. I hope that other brands, especially in the toy industry, follow. It’s important for children to see themselves represented in the toys that they play with.”

The new doll bears a striking resemblance to Muhammad, who says the likeness is uncanny.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

“I wasn’t expecting the doll to look exactly like me,” she said. “I think that Mattel’s really nailed it, all the way down to the eyeliner, which was really important to me that the doll had, because I love a good winged liner.

“I guess Mattel is moving forward and changing this traditional way that Barbie has been made in the past. They have dolls now in different sizes. My Barbie doll isn’t tall and, like, really leggy. My doll has these more toned, athletic legs, which are more reflective to the body type of myself and other athletes. I hope that this creates a more positive image, especially in terms of the body image for young girls who play with the doll.”

The most important aspect in the Shero line of dolls for Muhammad is that young girls understand the message behind it.

“What we want to encourage little girls to believe is that they can be anything and anyone that they want,” she said. “One of the great things about doll play is that children are able to imagine themselves in any role, doing anything, being anyone and achieving whatever they want.”

Muhammad said the hardest part of her overall journey is the obstacles that she’s faced as an African-American, and as a Muslim female athlete, growing up and developing in the sport of fencing.

“A lot of them do have to do with being discriminated against,” she said. “I wanted to embrace those difficulties in my journey, especially like they’re notches in the belt, and it’s helped me achieve and get to where I am as an athlete. I would say that one of the most instrumental things in helping me achieve the success I have as an athlete is learning to believe in myself. That’s also part of the messaging that I would like to extend to little girls who purchase a Barbie from this Shero line, is that everything that they need is already inside. We’re all going to be faced with obstacles in our life, and it’s how we approach and how we handle these things that makes us, and that dictates our future and makes us who we are.”

The doll also is donning a dress from Muhammad’s clothing line, Louella, named after her grandmother.

“I was given, in addition to my doll made in my athletic apparel, I also had a second doll made in an evening dress, and they modeled it after a dress that I wore to The ESPYS.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.