Barbie Now and Then

Another Consideration of Barbie and Body Image

Posted May 14, 2014

I was adopted specifically because I was a girl. While my father took a general and loving interest in me, I was my mother’s province, to dress up, play with her curls, buy the dolls and tea sets for, to talk to.

And I was pretty girly-girl, at least in temperament and interests. My brother’s beloved football, baseball and basketball were mystifying and stupid, as far as I could see. While I was supremely comfortable in water, I never learned to water ski, a family obsession. I didn’t go hunting with my dad and brothers, which even my mother did before I was born. I had a swing set and sandbox that I spent a lot of time in, but I made sand cakes rather than castles.

I liked to be read to. I liked talking to my mother. I liked to eat. I liked playing with my dolls well enough, but I really liked lining up all the spools of thread in my mother’s sewing machine. I was their director and they were my colorful choir. My favorite thing to do with my doll furniture was to use the high chair as a substitute drive-through bank, where I could drop envelopes for deposit the way my mother did. I loved it when she let me try on her high heels and hats. Very rarely, we would pour over her jewelry box together. I remember getting into a lot of trouble when I got hold of her red nail polish and went to town on the bathroom, myself and a nubby jumper I associate with these memories.

When I was with my friends, we tended, as I remember, to play house. I was always the baby. I hated it but I liked my friends who were slightly older than I. At my cousins’ house, we took turns on the bouncy rocking horse or pedaling the player-piano or trailing along the ditch.

My father taught me how to use the Magnavox, and I loved listening to Hawaiian music or looking at the glamorous album covers. I liked listening to my own records, fairy stories and children’s songs and the introduction to the orchestra. I was fond of Romper Room, Ding-Dong School, the Lennon Sisters, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, Topo Gigio, the Mouseketeers. My mother helped me write fan letters to Miss Nancy and she wrote back on Romper Room stationery.

I look at these pre-school pursuits and I see a child who was essentially social in her activities, mimicking my mother, pretending families or social groups. Children and parents were more united, in ways. Topo Gigio was on the Ed Sullivan Show and Shari Lewis was featured on evening cabaret shows like Red Skelton. The Lennon Sisters were on the Lawrence Welk Show. I was allowed to stay up and watch The Flinstones, which aired in prime time.

For Christmas in 1963, I received my first Barbie.

She was the second-generation model, with a bubble hair-do rather than the nifty pony-tail I was used to my older cousins having. Barbie was expensive and I got two outfits for her to use in the first year of my ownership: a ballet set with leotard, tights, tutu and pointe shoes, and a nurse outfit, with a cap and scarlet-lined cape. The ballet was a nod toward my mother’s sensibilities, the nurse towards my father, who was still a G.P. at the time.

I loved her immediately. The only exception I took was that she had flexed feet rather than pointed feet. If she was going to be a ballerina, I wanted her en pointe rather than demi-pointe.

I don’t remember what I played with my limited mix-and-match wardrobe. My cousins, four girls ranging from 12 – 5, had an enormous collection and I must have begun hanging out with my Barbie and the cousin closest in age, using their clothes.

The next year I got a Ken and a Midge and somewhere in there I got the Dream House, a cardboard suitcase that unbuckled and opened into a large swingin’ girl’s studio apartment.

One of the puppies ate Ken.

In second grade, I weighed 115 pounds.

I do not blame Barbie for my weight gain or body image loathing and regret. I’d been gaining that weight, and went on gaining weight, all on my own. As I collected more of Barbie’s extended friends, family and clothes, Barbie was something of a refuge for what I sensed was going wrong and was helpless to fix. With brothers who were much older, a mother going back to work, and not living near the friends I went to parochial school with, I was increasingly lonely. Food was company but so were Barbie, Midge, Skipper and the others.

I want to defend Barbie from all the flack she’s caught in the last two decades. I had no desire to be her but I liked the worlds I created on the floor of my closet or sprawling across my cousins’ basement. Midge became Ken; when there was a romance going on, she was the boy. If I’d had my druthers, there would have been a Barbie me and Midge me, a world where the two dolls didn’t mingle. I felt sorry for Midge, who had better hair but freckles and would always be Barbie’s sidekick. If there were two worlds, Midge would be glamorous and pretty in one, Barbie in the other.

I had epic sagas with my Barbie dolls, dramas that would rival Dallas. I intently studied the catalogues that came with each new ensemble, dreaming of what I would ask for the next birthday or when I saved enough allowance.

And they were ensembles, beautifully made. Barbie had matching hats, gloves, bags and the appropriate possessions like record players and LPs, tiny curlers, bowls of actual yarn, the oh-so-necessary Bakelite telephone.

I recently read that Mattel defended her tiny waist because it bulked up considerably when she was snapped or zipped into her clothing, which in those days were made of cotton, wool, tweed, lamé, tulle, silk and satin. Often, she wore underwear and a slip beneath those clothes.

I was reminded of the difference between Barbie Then and Barbie Now when a friend sent me the Barbie Trainin’ Taffy set, through which Barbie, clad in thready polyester, potty-trains a plastic, possibly golden retriever. In 1965, Taffy would have had the fur to confirm her breed.

Why would Barbie have warped my body image? I didn’t want those annoying tits or any of the scratchy hair-dos that came after her ponytail. Those were the years that Jackie Kennedy was changing the way my mother dressed and decorated. My television icons were Samantha Stevens, Marlo Thomas and, by the end of my Barbie years, Susan Partridge. Barbie’s extended cohort included a completely pre-pubescent Skipper, the child Tuti, and Francie, Barbie’s 16-year-old cousin.

Ah. Francie. Now there I run into some problems.

She had the boyish teen figure I was beginning to covet in those years of Twiggy lunch boxes (can you image a Kate Moss lunch box in a fourth grader’s hands?) and Laurie Partridge. (I never wanted a full-breasted figure; I wanted a firm, androgynous one.) Francie had gentle shoulder-length hair whereas mine was a matted bush no one could control. I don’t remember that Francie had a male friend: she was on the verge, waiting for the first boyfriend, the first kiss. I kind of was too. And I knew she’d beat me to it.

Barbie already had. She was Samantha and Jackie. Francie was Twiggy and Michelle Phillips and Laurie Partridge.

Comparisons were made. I lost by them but I loved my Francie doll (naturally I had two, given that my family calls me Francie. Just as naturally, another puppy destroyed the back-up.) She would get to do those things I was glimmering, through undiagnosed pre-adolescent depression, the first glimmers would be beyond me.

Collectively, Barbie and her pals taught me a lot about how to read and, eventually, how to write. They had adventures and traumas and freedom and faith in themselves when I didn’t – but I think they taught me a little about those things that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else.

And they had the most beautiful clothes. I think it was making Barbies cheap and the clothes cheaper that may be at the root of all this body image trouble. She has become disposable, flimsy, trashy, promiscuously collected without variance in iteration.

If I had a daughter and had to choose, I’d pick an impossible body type over being expendable and cheap any time.