In 1978, or maybe it was ’79, I became the proud owner of a real Barbie doll. My Pretty Changes Barbie wore a fabulous, yellow satin jumpsuit and included accessories that allowed me to change her look. I could change her hair as well; she came with wigs. She was my prized possession. I was 3 or 4 and had no concept of body image, but I knew Barbie was a woman, not a girl like me.
Three years later I received Fashion Jeans Barbie for Christmas. Along with her jeans she wore amazing pink cowgirl boots and a fuzzy pink top. I would brush her hair for hours. She and Pretty Changes Barbie were friends. I didn’t have a Ken doll so they would hang out with a stuffed Dennis the Menace doll I had that was about the same height. They all were also friends with my stuffed animals. They slept next to my bed at night and I used to imagine they came to life while I was asleep — but that they were careful to lay back down exactly how I left them so I wouldn’t know about their nocturnal adventures.
Day to Night Ken joined our family a few years later, followed by Pink and Pretty Barbie. By then Pretty Changes Barbie had lost her head, which was OK because I’d lost her wigs. Fashion Jeans Barbie was starting to look haggard herself, so Pink and Pretty became my go-to Barbie.
Like the Pretty Changes Barbie I’d received five years earlier, Pink and Pretty came with an array of clothing pieces so I could change her look. Her hair was more silky than my older Barbies and was a lovely honey blonde, which I preferred to my older dolls platinum locks. I was in 4th grade now and we watched Days of Our Lives and Santa Barbara in the summer. My Barbies would go on soap-opera-style adventures and get kidnapped by villains. Pink and Pretty Barbie reminded me of Kelly Capwell on Santa Barbara so she was now my favorite TV character.
I started to wish my hair was blonde like hers instead of the boring medium brown my hair had settled on. I was becoming more aware of how I looked. I didn’t expect to look like Barbie, but I was already judging myself as “chubby”. My Barbie and Kelly Capwell were Beauty. I was not.
Two years later I may have been too old to play with Barbies, but I put one on my Christmas list anyway. I wanted Diva from Barbie and the Rockers. She had wild red hair and bold eye shadow. She wore an oversized blazer and was totally awesome. I loved how different she was. She didn’t look like me but I didn’t need her too. I just needed her to not be the perfect blonde doll that I’d lost interest in.
My sister got the Rocker Barbie that same Christmas. We played with them some but mostly we swapped their clothes. I liked pairing the white leather-like mini skirt that came with Barbie with the over-sized neon green T-shirt that came with Diva. I thought she looked cool like that. It was around this time that I thought more about looking “cool” myself. It was also around this time that I lost interest in Barbies for good.
I never had a Barbie Dream House or a Barbie Dream Van or any of those cool (i.e. expensive) add-ons. It was easy to put my Barbies in a case, and the case in my closet and let them sit untouched. I never thought about the dolls much but I did think about Barbie.
As I entered high school and then college, “Barbie” became an insult. A Barbie was plastic with fake hair and an unrealistic figure. Barbie was perfect. Perfect was fake. Fake, but still beautiful.
I identified my blonde, perfect peers as something other than me. Something better than me. Something more desirable than me. I did not want to be that, but I did not know what I wanted to be. I identified with otherness and outsiders and nonconformists.
And then I became a mother to daughters.
I have never purchased a Barbie for my daughters, who are now 9 and 5. My daughters are not blonde. My daughters have parents of different ethnicities. My daughters can’t relate to Barbie or, rather, I don’t want them to. At least I didn’t.
Despite my love of Barbies growing up, I’ve had a negative association with them. I’ve put them in the same bin with all the other lies we were told as children. Imaginative play is beneficial to children and I’ve given my kids many alternatives to explore that skill. But not Barbie. My girls know how I feel about Barbie.
But it may be time to talk about Barbie with them again.
Yesterday Mattel rocked my world with the unveiling of new Barbies. New bodies. New skin. New hair. New looks. New fun.
We do not live in a Pink and Pretty Barbie world anymore and these new dolls reflect that. They are interesting and different, just like we all are. They reflect what we are and what we can be. These dolls make me want to buy Barbies for my daughters.
I understand Mattel was forced to rethink Barbie due to declining sales but as a Gen X mom who dismissed Barbie long ago, this change makes me feel validated. Barbie meant so much to me as a child and now I can share that with my daughters in ways I’d never imagined.
As a mom, I encourage my daughters to embrace diversity. I try to have intelligent conversations with them about how the world has changed since I was their ages. Now I have a new tool to assist in those conversations. An imaginative, interesting, nostalgic tool.