People have been critiquing Barbie for as long as I can remember. She’s too skinny, her boobs are too big, she wears too much makeup. Her look is too homogenous: her body type and facial expressions are always the same, black Barbie is just white Barbie with dark skin, et cetera. She teaches girls to care only about appearance. Her body shape is impossible to achieve. She causes eating disorders.
Lay the hell off my Barbie dolls. I love Barbie. I love the clothing, I love the legacy and I love how Barbie and her friends have morphed with each passing decade. I don’t see Barbie dolls as anything more than a vehicle for a child’s creative expression. I’m not even hung up on Bratz dolls, either, although personally I don’t find their sassy expressions aesthetically pleasing. But if my daughter wants to play with Bratz, I won’t say no.
I don’t think a doll itself can have that much of a negative influence on a child.
When we were kids, my sister and I used Barbies as unique characters in elaborate storylines, often inspired by my mom’s favorite soap opera, All My Children. Our Barbies had illegitimate children, miraculously survived natural disasters and pursued various romantic relationships. We incorporated elements from sitcoms, as well—for instance, there was a demolition derby in some show we caught on Nick At Nite, and we were captivated. We closed my sister’s bedroom door, turned on a couple of lamps for dramatic lighting, loaded our Barbie cars up with participants and clanged our vehicles around until they were all scuffed up. In retrospect, I think it was a healthy way for us to get out some of the aggression that little girls are encouraged to suppress. There was something so visceral and fulfilling about beating up our durable (they were hard plastic, guys, this stuff was serious) toy cars in a controlled environment.
Picking out a Barbie, for me, was like auditioning a range of actors for a lead role. I would take my time debating over which new doll to choose, while my mom, due to boredom and her passion for tidiness, rearranged and straightened the boxes on the shelves. We liked Barbies that didn’t look like us. My favorite was from the Dolls of the World collection, a Mexican Barbie I named Anita.
We used my mother’s vintage dolls to play the older characters in our games, because their faces were more somber. We had headless dolls who would appear as zombies or members of the “Naked Club,” a quirky subculture that occasionally tried to convert the clothed characters. We had teenaged dolls, tweens and babies, but our play usually centered on each of our main female characters.
This kind of imaginative play helped me develop my creative writing skills, and it bonded me intensely with my sister. It’s difficult enough to develop a consistent storyline on one’s own, but to fuse that storyline with that of another child is a rigorous creative process. We had disagreements, of course. We had fights. But we had some of the best times, too.
In my experience, a toy is what a child makes of it. My toddler thinks my bottle of contact solution is a musical instrument. She thinks her baby bathtub is a boat. I had friends who played with stuffed animals as if they were living pets. I had others who personified them, made them talk and sing. I had yet another friend who made all of her stuffed animals have sex, and when she tried to make my stuffed animals play this way I was extremely uncomfortable. Everyone plays differently depending on what they’re exposed to in real life.
I plan to show my daughter what it means to be a strong, complex woman through my actions. She’ll see that I enjoy wearing makeup and doing my hair, but that I have no problem sweating up a storm at the rock climbing gym. She’ll see how rich my life is because I read books, play piano and work hard at my writing career. When she looks at her mother and sees a complete person—not a shallow stereotype of a girl—a doll, even a fashion doll, will hopefully have little impact on her idea of femininity.