I played with Barbie dolls until I was 15. Mostly, I made my sis wait to begin the actual play between the dolls while I arranged Barbie’s beach house, an old Hawaiian Tropic display stand my grandmother rescued from the dumpster at the Ben Franklin store where she worked.
I also dressed up as a pirate, wrote and directed my own two person plays in our woodland fort and burned words into wood with a magnifying glass. I studied my own blood under my mini microscope. I rode bikes, volunteered, wrote poetry. I painted. Barbie was one part of my life, and her silky smooth hair, ample bosom, and excellent wardrobe held little emotional sway over the woman I was to become (except that I still love to organize and decorate my home!)
What mattered to me were the real life Barbies. An honors student with a strict moral code, I was considered eccentric by some and uninteresting by the teenage males from whom I longed to receive attention. Flatchested, with glasses and braces, I was one of the last in my peer group to develop. I remember nearly missing the bus after spending entire mornings in the bathroom trying to tease my bangs, ratting and spraying them into a poor approximation of the popular hairstyles of the time. I fried my delicate fine locks with a disappointing perm. I tried to produce K-mart versions of designer jean and mall purchased outfits with little success. Looking back, I feel so sad for that little girl, so longing to find a door into the world of the beautiful people, a door to admiration, attention, and (in my naïve romantic heart, I believed) love.
Plastic Barbie was not my nemesis. It was the real life girls I saw around me every day that left me feeling inadequate and childish in comparison. It was the walking, talking, breathing beauties that bedazzled and befuddled me, and from what I could tell, the men around them. So when my friend Julie asks me, as a trusted friend, my take on Barbies and what I plan to teach my 18 month old daughter about them, I have to answer this:
Yes, Barbie represents an unattainable standard of beauty that even the best looking women cannot approach. Her unreasonable dimensions, plastic parts, and cornsilk hair are so obviously unachievable, as a woman, I never thought to try. She is not real, any more than a Cabbage Patch Kid, or a Kewpie doll. Any sexuality is implied by the context given to her big boobs and skimpy clothes, ploys women in the real world use to attract male attention. And to counteract her flimsy exterior, Barbie has gotten serious. She can be found representing every profession from movie star, musician, to doctor, veterinarian, scientist. She now is doubly intimidating; she has beauty and brains to boot!
We have turned Barbie’s features into a cultural phenomenon; we made her sexy by applying our standards of beauty to her and have made her into more than a doll with a PR revolution. She is part of the cultural conversation about who we want our daughters to become. But the real conversation should be about how we teach our girls to look inside themselves to discover their beauty, their unique gifts. Barbie dolls are no bigger than the messages we adults attribute to them and model in the real world. If we believe large breasts and expensive clothing are important, our children will learn these values. So the question becomes: what messages are we the parents sending to our girls about how to find value inside.
The fact of the matter is we continue to vie against all the Victoria Secret ads, alcohol commercials, popular kids shows, female pop artists who equate obvious sexuality with beauty. During the time periods where our kids pull away from us, they become increasingly vulnerable to all the external messages telling them who they need to be in order to be valued. We parents are a small force to counteract the streams of media that tell our girls what they need to be to have money, fame, success, love, worthiness, and we are set up for failure. It is up to us to help our children understand and critically evaluate these messages before they get to the age where they stop listening!
A very strong, thoughtful parent, much like my friend Julie, can help his/her kids to live in the world without internalizing the values of the world by starting early and carefully balancing parental censorship with continued, intentional education about what makes a woman beautiful. Nurturing our children’s natural gifts can give them something to feel confident about when they second-guess their value. Maybe then, the external supports that our children look to when they feel less than beautiful, will help shore up a positive self view that goes deeper than big breasts or the gratification of male attention. If that means a household ban on Barbie, that is each parent’s decision to make. Barbie will be allowed in my house, but so will science, math, sports, literature, a love of learning, and frank conversations to impart a value system my child can lean on. I hope to talk to my daughter when she is young about examples of true and deep beauty. The real women (and men!) in a child’s life can model and counteract the expectations that we gals are no more than the societal reflection of our beauty. We are interesting, caring, educated, talented, athletic, strong, uniquely stylish, revolutionaries. We can stand proudly next to the Barbies of the world without trying to become them.
I hope when my daughter sees women who are better dressed, immaculately groomed, those who are naturally stunning, or witnesses attention being paid to these women on the basis of those factors, she can feel confident and secure in herself, rather than envious and inferior. I hope I will instill in her a broader definition of beauty, provide enough consistent love and attention that she does not need to look outside herself or those who truly love her to feel valued. Then, perhaps, the real and plastic Barbies can coexist alongside the rest of us in peace.