I wasn't allowed to have a Barbie as a kid. My Mom told me that my Dad thought they were too sexy for little girls to play with. It wasn't a big deal because I never really wanted one. I was more of a stuffed animal kind of girl. My friend Katie had mountains of them, but the thing that was really special about Barbie was getting to play with them with Katie. For my own doll collection, I liked My Little Pony better.
That I wasn't allowed to have a barbie says a lot about where my life was headed. Girls who have parents that are anti-barbie tend to belong to a special class. If you grew up in a barbie free house, more than likely your parents were both well educated, and your mom worked. Your house was probably gun free as well. You were read to a lot and read a lot. You were a little odd in school. You probably became a punk who spent time on student council. Yes, you know who I mean. Smart, weird, outsider kids. The kind of kid who goes to art school.
Barbie is not very popular in art School. I've seen women with eating disorders rant about what a bad role model she is. I read weird depressing poems about barbies with melted feet from fire sales in what passed for an English class. I saw a Chicken wire and paper mache' barbie scaled up to human size to show how unrealistic she was. In art school, Barbie was an object to be reviled, an evil pop culture icon made by little girls in the Philippines who couldn't afford one for themselves, a symbol of an unrealistic body image forced on young girls here, a magnifier all things socially, culturally and economically wrong with America. Looking back, I wonder if the anti Barbie bias had anything to do with our proximity to Mattel's smaller arch rival, Hasbro, who recruited on campus.
My world after graduation was not kind to barbie either. I lived with my then boyfriend in Ithaca, New York. They hated barbie there, too. In Ithaca, parents were liberal and idealistic, children played with non gender specified, educational, sweatshop free, organic toys. The same people never noticed that the "handmade in America" store where I worked didn't pay a living wage or offer me affordable health care.
I didn't find a lot of friends of barbie in her home state of California either. Artists in general, particularly female ones, tend to not like Barbie. Perhaps its just part of the cannon at this point. Burning Man had something called "Barbie Death Camp," how original, I saw it, it was even more lame than it sounds.
I'm pretty sure that most of my adult life I've never heard one kind word about Barbie, I began to feel sorry for her. What had she done wrong, really? She couldn't help the way she looked, or where she came from, and she couldn't speak for herself. Of course she has weird proportions, I thought, she's only a doll, its not like raggedy ann looks like a real little girl, either.
I was nearly thirty before Barbie became relevant to my life. All my life I had been taught that Barbie, was a horrible, superficial sexist toy, but I had no experience with her personally, so I tried to keep an open mind. Until I worked with inner city kids. If this were an essay I had been assigned to read in college, this is the part where I would talk about how wrong it was for little African American girls with kinky hair to have Barbie as a role model, but this is my life, a real life where things are not black and white. They're pink.
The little girls I worked with don't have ideal lives to say the least. They grew up in a world where shootings are as familiar as Snow Days were to me. These little girls don't really trust outsiders, but for some reason, they trusted me. One of the things that opened them up to me was my long, blond hair. It was a BIG deal. From the beginning the girls I taught asked me if they could touch it, they begged me to let them comb it, they pleaded with me to let them braid it. They would pull back my hair back to show their friends and exclaim with wonder, "see, it's real!" When they were very, very, good and we had time, I did let them "do" my hair, much to the shock and horror of my co workers, who thought I was crazy to trust the little girls with my long hair. My long, blond, hair, Barbie hair. Even with my "realistic proportions" I looked like someone they already knew, someone they trusted, someone they admired, someone with long blond hair and blue eyes. After being told my whole life how terrible Barbie was, I was Barbie. That's how I stopped worrying and learned to love the doll.
One year for Christmas, my in laws gave me a barbie that they found on clearance for $4 at Big Lots as a gag gift. It's one of those new barbies where her proportions are more "realistic" unlike the top heavy barbies my friends had when I was a kid, shes about a b cup and has wide hips, and dare I say it, a big butt. It's calld "Street Styles Barbie" and has streaks of darker blond hair. She is wearing a miniskirt, chunky platform heels and a striped belly shirt. I have the same outfit, but my shoes are black. It really looks eerily like me.
Now I wonder how being told my whole life that a blue eyed, blond haired, doll that looked a lot like me was wrong had affected me. It seemed backwards of all the barbie criticism. Had I inadvertently developed a poor self image from all the well meaning people trying to save me? What else do I have in common with her? Maybe the people who scale her up to 6 feet are wrong, maybe she's only 5'3" and the heels help her feel confident, and reach the top shelf. Maybe she has the great body from riding her bike instead of taking the car. Maybe she looks that way because she realized she needed to take better care of her body since she's a role model. People say she's too thin, people say her boobs are too big. Maybe she works out because it helps her deal with the stress in her life. Maybe she got the boobs from her dad's mom, who used to take her shopping all the time when she was little. Maybe she got the blond hair from her other grandmother. Did she become a model after her mom sent her to modeling school because she thought she had low self esteem and bad posture? Maybe she always feels just a little out of place, a little misunderstood because of the way she looks, or how she talks, or how she moves. Maybe she doesn't feel graceful with those stiff legs and arms. Why has she had so many careers? She has a lot of clothes, and she loves to shop, maybe she finds them on clearance like I do. Maybe she goes shopping to clear her head, not buying much, walking around looking at pretty things, thinking about how they are made, getting ideas for something creative later on. Maybe she has a lot of clothes she made herself. Maybe she has so many clothes because that's how she expresses herself, or maybe she cant decide what to wear because after all that criticism she's uncomfortable with her body. Maybe people underestimate her. Maybe she's just as self conscious as the rest of us.
Barbie has good reason to concerned, she's getting older. Newer, younger, hipper dolls are on the scene now. After all her changing with the times, she can't keep up anymore. Some big headed, weird looking, ethnically ambiguous dolls called "Bratz" are taking her place. Barbie is becoming kitsch. Kitsch isn't a bad thing really, but its not what little girls want. I wonder if in 10 years someone at RISD will build a life size "bratz" doll, proclaiming no woman could stand up with a head that big. The first little girls who thought I was barbie are older now. I still get compared to her, but the last girls who did it thought it was funny. Blond Hair and blue eyes aren't cool anymore, they are goofy. Now it's all about hip hop and spinners and platinum. But that too will pass. When you are little time goes by so slowly, but watching from the other side it goes by so fast. There will always be little girls and there will always be dolls, and they will always outgrow them one day. Someone is always going to feel weird and good intentions will always have unintended consequences. What is beautiful to one person will be always be odd to someone else. And as we grow up, we realize that things aren't black and white, and they aren't even shades of gray, nothing is ever as simple as it seems and nothing is ever as bad as it seems. No one is ever exactly who they seem because they are always growing and always changing. No one is ever a completely new person either, but we can change our clothes and change our hair and try new things we grow and hopefully keep getting better. When we grow up, we don't need the dolls because we can do all the things we once imagined the dolls could do. So why not be idealized? Why not have fun? Why not play? Love the doll, be the doll. Not the inanimate object, but who she was in your imagination.