After I’d had my daughter, in 1990, I started worrying about the effect of Barbie dolls on the self-esteem of little girls. Society worried right along with me. There were lots of books and talk show episodes based on the idea that having Barbie dolls caused little girls to feel physically inadequate in comparison and that that feeling would pollute their entire adult lives.
My sister and I had Barbie dolls when we were little; in fact, I got her hand-me-down Barbie. My sister didn’t have much to worry about in comparison – she was blond, thin, not all that tall, and she had her boobs enhanced. I was 8 years younger, and I did figure she looked more like Barbie after the boob job. She also had her nose fixed, and I wondered if that had something to do with idealizing Barbie’s looks.
I was never going to look like Barbie, being of olive complexion, brunette hair, and pear-shaped. Society, glamour magazines, hair magazines, and fashion designers continued to design for Barbie women, which was frustrating for me. So, I tended to lean towards the “no Barbies for healthier girls” camp, naturally.
We managed to keep Barbie out of my daughter’s life for six years or so. Then, at a large birthday party for her seventh birthday, someone gave her a Barbie. We could not be ungracious and run it through the garbage disposal then and there, and my daughter seemed intrigued by it. It was different from her baby dolls, her Polly Pockets, her stuffed animals, and dollhouse family. Plus, there were clothes! And little plastic shoes! And she could monkey with her hair! It was a very entertaining toy for her.
I worried. I worried that she was comparing herself to Barbie. I worried that she was becoming obsessed with tacky, hooker clothes and shoes that looked great but murdered feet. I worried that her idea of what a woman should be was becoming focused on external appearance and clothing. There were more talk shows on the evils of Barbie, including one on a woman who had spent some unspeakable amount of money on plastic surgery trying to remake herself into a living Barbie doll (and failing miserably). I chose not to intrude and to wait until some obvious sign of mental harm or warped thinking arose from my daughter playing with her Barbie.
One winter weekend, my daughter had a sleepover. She and 6 of her closest friends from second grade squealed and played and ate popcorn and watched Disney movies in the basement. They would scamper up and down the stairs wanting soda pop or to peek in at my sons and squeal with feigned surprise or faux fright, and they wanted to ask me questions or merely say things to me, as little girls do. They also had all brought their Barbies and clothes and were having a huge Barbie Fashion Show, which consisted of trading clothing from one Barbie to another and seeing what clothes they’d like to wheedle out of their parents at the next holiday or birthday.
I was sitting at the dining room table, reading or knitting or some motherly thing, and all the girls trooped up and presented themselves to me at once, their little pajama clad persons as cute as a Care Bears movie, hair tousled, and lots of little background snickers going on. They each had a Barbie in their hands, and my daughter was at the forefront of the crowd. She looked at the others, getting nods of agreement over something, and then opened her mouth to speak.
I thought to myself, “This is it. This is the big moment, and I’m going to have to make a remark that the mothers of ALL of these girls will find appropriate and non-objectionable. Holy crap, what am I going to say?” I smiled gently and waited with trepidation.
My daughter said, “Mom, why does Barbie’s head come off easier than Ken’s?” and, as one, each and every little girl yanked off her Barbie’s head and held the headless, over-dressed bodies towards me, with little Barbie heads dangling from their other hands. This was not the question I was anticipating, but it was much, much better.
I gave them a wry grin, took a deep breath, and spontaneously answered, “I think Barbies’ heads are made of softer plastic than Kens’ heads are, and the neck connection is a little different, too. Let’s look. Did anyone bring a Ken?” So, we reassembled Barbie and squished her head, then we yanked off Ken’s head and squished it and passed it around. We looked at their protruding plastic neck mounts and squished those, too. We pulled off Barbie heads a few more times, and the consensus among us was that the softer Barbie head and narrower neck mount made her head come off easier. Which, by the way, was what they had been doing downstairs during the fashion show in order to make changing clothes easier.
Seven little girls gave me some valuable reminders that night – that children don’t see things the same way adults do, that they are resilient, adaptable, and focused on what is important in their lives from their perspectives, that they are more curious about the universe and how it works than most adults give them credit for, and that sometimes a toy really is just a toy. My daughter is not now, nor has she ever been, emotionally damaged by having a Barbie doll. Teen magazines, TV, and peer pressure are much bigger influences than plastic dolls with easily removable heads and loud clothing, and Moms are the biggest influence of all.
Probably in part because I listened to her concerns about the Barbies without promoting my own adult concerns and answered the question she asked, not the question I wanted to answer, she trusts me now as someone who will listen. We talk about peer pressure, about things she sees in magazines and on TV. Now that she’s older and more aware of the larger world, I wait until she asks before I hold forth about the evils of appearance-worship and other topics of that ilk. We have a pretty darned good relationship for a mother and her teenaged daughter.
And, on some level, I think I have Barbie to thank for that. Just a little.