My daughter turned 3 on Sunday. She got a Barbie doll for a present.
She’s obsessed. I’m still reeling.
In the interest of full disclosure, we knew what it was, and we let her have it anyway. While she was napping, I carefully opened enough of the package to recognize that bright pink logo that was burned into my psyche decades ago. I paused for a moment as the voices of fellow hippie-progressive-feminist Mamas rang in my ears, warning me of all the dangers hidden in that box alongside the injection-molded-plastic threat to my daughter’s self esteem, body image, and future ability to establish and maintain healthy sexual relationships.
But those warnings were quickly replaced by memories of how much I enjoyed playing with Barbies as a young girl—my sister and I dressed our Barbies, combed their hair, and enjoyed tormenting each other by stealing and hiding each others’ dolls. And then I remembered my own daughter’s first encounter with a Barbie; she was about 14 months old, and there was one in the toy area of the local pediatric Emergency Room. Frieda was hopped up on inhaled steroids after a nasty bout of croup, and she fell in love with that doll with a passion I hadn’t previously seen. How could I deny her such love again? How bad could it be?
You have no idea. I had no idea.
This Barbie is a straight up streetwalker. Or at least she looks like one. I’m surprised she didn’t come with a tiny wad of cash. I was disgusted (but not shocked) by the bizarre proportions of her body, and stunned by how hyper-sexualized she is. I think that’s the hardest part about it for me. I don’t mind the pink and the sprinkles and the rhinestones that have captured my daughter’s imagination, but this Barbie isn’t about glitter and fairy wings. She’s wearing a low-cut halter top and a mini-skirt that is so short and tight that the tiny strip of Velcro barely holding it closed instantly rips open every time my daughter tries to get her to sit. Her hair is a long, tangled hive of peroxide, her makeup would rival Tammy Faye Baker’s any day, and her shoes are a bizarre mix of gladiator sandal and stiletto heel.
I’m horrified. My daughter is in heaven.
She’s not thinking about body-image and self-esteem and cultural norms and implicit messages about the value of women. She’s not worried about pre-marital sex and STDs and eating disorders and addiction and all of the dangers awaiting my daughters in just a few short years—threats that I like to pretend I can keep at bay if only I can keep the damn Barbies out of the house. She sees a pretty doll in shiny clothes. Barbie is her friend, she tells me.
And now Barbie is in our home. And my husband and I have to figure out what to do. Kicking her to the curb doesn’t seem like the answer, primarily because our experience with our feisty daughter (and the rest of humanity, for that matter) tells us that the more verboten Barbie is, the more desirable she becomes. So, instead of hiding Barbie and telling my daughter that she’s taking a really long nap, I’m trying to engage Frieda in an on-going dialogue about body shapes and clothing and sensible footwear. We’ll get to the body image and sexuality stuff soon enough.
We’ve had conversations about how Barbie is skinny and hard, which makes her uncomfortable to snuggle. We’re talking about how hard it must be for Barbie to walk in her high heels, and that she can’t run and play in those shoes. And although Frieda was willing to concede that Barbie might be cold and could use a sweatshirt, she refuses to let go of the slutty halter-top, arguing that it is a lot like a tank-top. My daughter’s obsession with sleeveless shirts predates Barbie’s arrival in our home by several months. She wants to wear a tank top every day (which is getting trickier as winter approaches), and feels an instant kinship with anyone (real or plastic) wearing anything that vaguely resembles a tank top. So, I decided to compromise on this one. Last night I went online and found some inexpensive, hand-made tank-top dresses that are fairly modest—no cleavage showing, the skirts are nice and long, and I suspect Barbie could run and play in comfort, assuming we could find some running shoes that will fit on her poor damaged feet.
I’m starting to feel better about the situation, but I also worry that a Pandora’s Box has been opened in our little home, one that we’ll never be able to fully contain it again. I suppose this is the nature of our children growing up, and of my husband and I growing into parenthood. We’re not raising our daughters in a vacuum, nor would I want to. I try to see these Barbie moments as grist for the mill, fodder for an ongoing dialogue about ourselves, our relationships, our belongings, and our values.
I still wish Barbie didn’t have to look like such a tramp, though.