Confessions of a Barbie Lover

by Heather

Kids, like adults, cycle through their toys. My son phased through dinosaurs, superheros, Star Wars. And though he won’t admit it, he still loves his glow-in-the dark light saber (ah, boys and their swords…) and his bin of Legos. My girls had Little Pony and Polly Pocket obsessions. One flirted with American Girls but it never went anywhere. But the thing my daughters keep cycling back to over and over is Barbie.

I know, I know. I’m a feminist. I should HATE Barbie. I have lots of friends who loathe her waspish waist, her platinum blond cornsilk hair, not to mention her slutty little shoes and micro mini clothes. And I can see why lots of moms might want to banish Barbie and her “Made in Taiwan” booty from their daughters’ toy chests. These friends feel Barbie sends a terrible message to girls: beauty=skinny and big chested, happiness=clothes and Ken. I admit they have a point. She is a freakish Glamazon with her 36-18-33 figure. In recent years Mattel has attempted to make her more of role model by creating “Astronaut Barbie,” “Dr. Barbie,” “Teacher Barbie” and a host of other career themed dolls. They even gave her plastic surgery in 1997, widening her waist to make her more “real.” Even so her very name still conjures images of a blandly attractive yet vacuous woman.

Why, then, do I LOVE Barbie? I still walk down that flamingo pink aisle of Target with a strange combination of desire and reverence. Part of it is nostalgia. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a Barbie. One of our first ones was a hand-me-down from a much older cousin. She had short reddish brown hair, plastic protruding eyelashes, and no smile whatsoever. My older sister and I agreed she looked just like Lucille Ball when Lucy was mad at Ricky for not letting her sing at the Copa Cabana. Since then I’ve had dozens of Barbies and played with them long after it was “cool” to play with dolls. My favorites were the non-traditional Barbies: Christy with her Foxy Brown hair; my Hawaiian Barbie in her sassy hula skirt; and Donny and Marie in their shimmery purple unitards.

I just don’t see Barbie as the anti-Christ in stilettos (that would be Brat Dolls who look just like some prostitutes from Vadivostok I once saw—I know, I’m a hypocrite). Mostly I like Barbie because she could be whatever I projected onto her. My Barbies were Superheros, adventurers, detectives, Olympic athletes. Okay, so I never pretended they were nuclear physicists or Rhodes scholars; that doesn’t mean I didn’t create fun and intelligent imaginary worlds that may or may not have contributed to my current status as a pretty good person (hey, I may not have written the great American novel, but I have read all of Shakespeare thank you very much). And as for Ken, Barbie’s life does not revolve around that 12″ dude with a washboard belly and a plastic coif. Mattel even had them “break up” a few years back. For every Ken doll, we had at least 4 Barbies–and no, never once did we play “Brigham Young Era Barbie” where Barbie, Midge and Skipper were sister wives to polygamist Ken. On the contrary, Ken was an accessory, like her white go-go boots or the little sombrero my aunt brought back from Tijuana.

Growing up Mormon, I always wanted children but didn’t spend a lot of time playing “little mother.” And though you could buy tiny plastic babies, my friends and I never made Barbie the Mom. Was it that she seemed too young (we could have played “Teen Pregnancy Barbie” but that wouldn’t have been fun)? Was it that the Magenta Corvette had no room for a carseat? Certainly I was too ignorant to know that of course Barbie has never had kids because even if she managed to maintain that itty bitty waist, no one’s chest could stay THAT perky post childbearing. Barbie was not about caretaking. She was her own woman, defined neither by men nor children, changing careers like she changed those trampy shoes, free to explore and create her world. Is that really so wrong?

I’ve watched my girls play Barbies, and sometimes wonder if I am encouraging materialism, immodesty, selfishness. But mostly their play makes me happy. This summer Barbie did lots of skydiving from our tree house with plastic supermarket bags as parachutes. The six-year-old has had Barbie catching and training wild mustangs. Currently, the eight-year-old spends hours designing dresses out of baby wipes and rubber bands. Honestly? Some of her designs rock. So while Barbie may not be an ideal role model, as long as she fuels little girls’ imaginations, she’ll always have a place in my heart.

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  1. FoxyJ says:

    I only had one or two Barbies but we had a bunch of My Little Ponies that I played elaborate games with. One time the scenario was that the Barbies had enslaved all the ponies and stuck them in an internment camp. I think it’s funny what kids will do with toys. My five-year-old daughter still doesn’t have any Barbies, but she’ll turn just about anything into a role-playing object. I’ve heard her using crayons to have little conversations with each other. Hilarious.

  2. Linda K says:

    Heather, I’m your #1 fan (but not in the Kathy Bates sort of way). Love the Barbie riff. Did anyone else ever have the problem of her head coming off? One of my sons played with my old (removable-headed) Barbies when he was 10 or so. Without that particular feature it wouldn’t have been half as much fun for him, I’m sure.
    Linda

  3. Caroline says:

    Heather, this was great.

    I’m one of those females who has never had any any affinity towards Barbie. I was never into any type of doll or stuffed animal – artsy things and books were more up my alley. I’ve said in the past that no child of mine would ever have a Barbie – because I’ve never liked them, I figure my kids shouldn’t like them. But I’m sure my resolve would quickly crumble if they started begging. At any rate, it’s great to know that Barbie play can be adventurous and imaginitive in healthy ways.

  4. Denise Kelly says:

    I love the post! I taught myself to french braid hair on my barbies, and in fact, had my first hair cutting (and tattooing) experiences with my barbies. Lessons learned: although your cool kindergarten teacher looks great with short hair, Barbie doesn’t! And, once you draw a picture on your barbies face, it’s there FOREVER!!!

  5. ameliorateme says:

    I’m with you Heather – I feel like a hypocrite for loving them. They were my favorite toy as a kid, my sister and I would play Barbies for hours on end. However, we favored playing with Skipper (Barbie’s teen sister) and Stacy (I think that was her name – Barbie’s little sister, basically a tween with no figure) over the actual adult Barbie.

    My husband’s mom hates Barbies for the very reasons you mentioned and wouldn’t let her girls have them. DH wants to follow the same pattern – I don’t. His sister’s girls have been given Barbies over the years and she sews the clothes on them to alleviate the modesty issue.

  6. hanna tycc says:

    Make and sew on a tiny pair of garments. Be
    sure to make the bottoms in a “petite” size to
    accomodate shorter shorts and skirts.
    Make sure she is the Fresh Vacation Tan
    Barbie. Place her in Barbie’s Chrome Wheeled Suburban pulling Barbie’s New Ski Boat and voila’!,
    you have Draper Utah Barbie!Now available at
    most Costcos, Nail Salons and home jewelry parties!
    Draper Utah

  7. EmilyCC says:

    I think you make an excellent point–I don’t remember my Barbies being mothers or wives (although I did that type of play with other dolls). The Barbie who I paired with Ken had a rather tumultuous relationship with him, if I recall. And, my Barbies were usually either spies or teachers (um, I’m not sure why those were their primary occupations), and they always liked to try on their clothes.

    hannah tycc, sounds like Draper Barbie could also be Arizona Barbie 🙂

  8. gladtobeamom says:

    Hilarious!!! I am not real fond of Barbie but my girls have a few that they have received as gifts and they were so excited to finally have their own Barbie. I didn’t have the heart to take them away. I have noticed how they play with them and most of the time it is pretty innocuous. My only problem now is that they never seem to be dressed and two of them sing the same song over and over which is incredible annoying.

  9. Violet says:

    I grew up in a home where I was not allowed to play with barbies. I could not have them due to my mother’s fear of me getting some eating disorder from playing with them or a distorted body image, huh?!? However, because it was forbidden that is all I wanted to play with at other people’s houses. I lived for playing with barbies. I loved changing their clothes and marrying them off to the same Ken doll.

    Now as a mother with two daughters, I can appreciate my mother trying to protect me, but I do buy them for my daughter. I couldn’t wait until she was old enough (I think part of me was just still excited to something that had been forbidden. Funny I know.) and she loves playing with them. She also loves the barbie movies. I think my favorite is the dancing princess one because she plays chess with the father (something that requires some smarts) and uses a sword to help save her family. She doesn’t just play a damsel in distress.

  10. Violet says:

    I think I should explain part of my comment. Yes I get that barbie’s porportions are really off, but I don’t think for me that it led to a distorted body image or an eating disorder. I knew barbie was not real and that she didn’t look like other women I knew. Nor do I think by keeping your children from playing with them you are protecting them from eating disorders and such. Helping to develop a healthy self-esteem would be more productive imo.

  11. Heather says:

    Violet, glad to hear there are other fans of the Barbie movies (Princess & the Pauper is our fav). The music is topnotch, Barbie does the rescuing and even my son can get sucked in. His favorite is a DVD of Barbie Nutcracker we inherited from friends who lived in the Philippines so it was all subtitled. Even the English version had English subtitles with the WORST and funniest translations. One line reads, “Hurt me with the magic tampon.” I still giggle at that one.

  12. Jessawhy says:

    Heather, welcome! We’re so glad to have you as a permablogger.
    (hooray!)
    What a great post. We need more Barbie posts, if you ask me.
    I must have the most terrible memory, but I don’t remember playing with them very much. I probably did, but I just can’t remember it.
    I do think they are fun and when I walk down the pink isle at the toy store, I have a longing to have a girl (I mean, three sons? what kind of joke is that?).
    Encouraging imagination is an important job, for boys or girls, one that I don’t think about enough.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  13. Christi says:

    I agree–Bratz dolls do seem to make Barbies look pretty tame. Their wild clothes and pouty facial expressions remind me of the “mean girl” cliques from school days. At least Barbie is friendly.

  14. Roger says:

    It may seem strange for me to be posting here, so let me explain. I had two older sisters and two younger and we were all a year or less apart. My sisters played incessantly with Barbies and begged me over and over to play Ken (for their 100th wedding!) I didn’t enjoy playing Ken much, but my sisters seemed to love it. I laughed at several of the posts and still remember the orgy basket of forever-naked Barbies and Kens!

    I understand the attraction of adult dolls, that children want to imagine being grown up. I just think it’s high time for Barbie to be more naturally proportioned. Would it be any less fun to dress her up or have adventures (or weddings)with her? No one likes her proportions, so I wonder why this hasn’t happened.

  15. Kiri Close says:

    We should design a fat Barbie, a goth Barbie, a lesbian Barbie, a bi/tri–racial Barbie, a divorced Barbie, a serious artist Barbie, etc.–and make them so that each could expand/destroy every iota of limiting stereotypes.

  16. jennifer says:

    Hi, my 4 y.o. daughter would love a Barbie, but I can’t bring myself to get her any. I am very interested in alternative Barbies–dolls that are about Barbie’s size, but who appear NORMAL. Do you guys know of anything like this? (BTW, my 7 y.o. son is interested in “boy-dolls, like Barbie. But *not* Barbie. Someone I can dress up. But *not* Barbie.” So, leads on the above would be nice, too.

  17. Azucar says:

    I loved Barbies, loved them!

    Then again, our Barbies had really sordid lives. They were high-powered women who walked all over Ken.

    Looking back, I think it’s hilarious how our Barbies were practically in soap operas for all the scandals going down in the Dream House. I have nothing but fond memories for my Barbies–they were able to have careers, kids, dress to kill, fight over Ken, and generally control the world.

  18. Kiri Close says:

    I also think it’s time to design a short Barbie with columns for thighs that have the appearance of cellulite manufactured into her legs, a large nose, & big kinky hair. She should also wear a pin that promotes her ambitions like, “See You In My Oval Office 2012”.

  19. Marilyn Bickmore says:

    Happy to know we didn’t ruin your life by
    indulging your childhood passion for Barbies.
    love, Mom

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