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Stealth Bomber Barbie: Daughters, Dolls, and the Question of Self-Image

A parenting lesson in high heels and a short skirt.

A moment that I had thought about, prepared for, dreaded, and denied for the better part of 20 years arrived this weekend when Barbie crossed our threshold in her 1/4” stilettos clutched by my 3-year-old daughter’s hands.

We have a "marble jar" system in our house to remind me and my husband to use positive reinforcement whenever possible. The kids get a marble every time they do something we’d like to see continue (e.g., share, get dressed, not kill each other), and when the jar is full, they are entitled to something of their choosing. 

After months of working toward their goal, they proudly topped off their jars last week, so my husband took them to Target over the weekend for their big reward. When they got home, my daughter rushed into the house—Target bag in hand—with a look of pure elation on her face. "Mommy! Mommy! Look what I got!" She reached into the bag for the big reveal (“Ta-daaaaa!”), and that’s where my memory starts to get fuzzy.

For context, I need to go back a bit. Okay, way back to the arrival of Malibu Barbie at the birthday party celebrating my six years on Earth. They say the memories that have significant emotions attached to them will be those that are etched on your brain forever, and let me tell you: I remember everything about her. I remember where I sat as I took her out of the box and gawked at her perfectly straight, perfectly shiny, long, blond hair and piercing blue eyes.  I remember that beautiful blue bikini that, when pulled back, revealed magnificent tan lines. Oh, to have Malibu Barbie’s tan! Right then and there, she was my favorite.

As the years went by, more Barbies came onto the scene, but none with the impact of Malibu. And before long, all the Barbies were all relegated to the bath toy bin in a giant tangle of legs and hair, not an ounce of clothing among them.  As I matured, I followed a more progressive path, recognized the impact of the media on girls’ and women’s self-image, and even wrote my high school thesis on the depiction of women in children’s literature. A few more years went by, and I was marching with the National Organization for Women in Washington.

I had Barbies as a child and turned out alright. So why all the fuss?

Somewhere between Malibu’s arrival and my involvement with NOW, I decided it was time to start worrying about my appearance. Do I want my daughter to start dieting in 4th grade like I did? Absolutely not. Do I have only Malibu and her posse to thank for the high incidence of eating disorders—not to mention melanoma—among girls and women? I’d be naïve if I said it was her fault alone.  But it's easy to blame Barbie. I mean, just look at her.

I could make a giant list of how Barbie represents what is wrong with the way women and girls are valued in our culture, but what she really represents to me in this moment is something I thought I could keep from my daughter. I had hoped to shelter her from those messages for as long as possible, and I thought I had more time. I have been so busy fending off the Disney princesses that Barbie slipped in like a stealth bomber.

Like so many other experiences of parenting, this was yet another lesson in the illusion of control and protection. When I came to after the big reveal, I quickly realized this was not something that could go back to the store. My daughter was so excited and absolutely couldn’t wait to get her out of the box. The afternoon went on with a number of shoe removals and replacements and princess make-believe. Things reached a low point when I discovered my daughter trying to take the scissors to her new friend’s hair. (Really? Already?)

To my relief, by day's end, Barbie was discarded in a corner somewhere, hopefully not having done any significant damage.

Cam February 09, 2012 at 04:47 PM
It's so much more than 'just a doll.' That doll has a specific shape, which includes outrageous proportions that young girls...regardless of what their parents tell them...think they have to emulate in order to be pretty and accepted among their peers and with boys. http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/45543000/gif/_45543032_barbie_comparison466.gif That doll has encouraged anorexia/bulemia and self hatred among girls. THAT is the sad fact, because THAT is what steals childhood away.
Rick Hudson February 09, 2012 at 05:13 PM
I have to agree with Jenni's point that it is more about parents influence then anything else. Being a guy I can only speak on the guy things I grew up with. grew up in a home where hunting was a near weekly hobby. I saw plenty of violence on TV. I played with GI Joes, Star Wars and Rambo. I had more toy guns then you could shake a stick at (the Star Wars blasters were the best). The only time I played with Barbies was when I was dimebering them, which I did for the pleasure of irritating my sister. It did not mold me into a serial killer or even a violent person.
Pachacutec February 09, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Sorry, but I still maintain it is just a doll; yes, there might be a few girls who will see this doll and feel that they MUST imitate her because she is "the ideal;" but how many other millions and millions of children over the years have played with this doll and NOT had problems with body image, etc? It's like saying a child who plays video games is going to go out and shoot his neighbors. However, that seems to be the attitude in our society anymore, "if my kid turns out bad, it's the fault of everybody else, certainly nothing I did wrong as a parent." Very, very sad.
Pamela Torro February 09, 2012 at 06:19 PM
I agree. I grew up watching old Betty Boop cartoons (also a disproportionate figure) and playing with Barbies and did not develop body image issues. I also spent a lot of time playing outside in the neighborhood which also seems to be discouraged nowadays due to danger etc. The responsibility to raise a good child should always be put on the parents and what they teach and not on what toys they play with or television shows they watch.
Pachacutec February 09, 2012 at 07:22 PM
I'd forgotten about good old Betty Boop!! Actually, if people are going to place blame for young girls having distorted ideas about their body image, I would say that current female celebrities are probably more of an influence than dolls. As i said earlier, I came up back in the 50's and females in movies and on tv shows were, on the whole, NOT as thin as so many famous women nowadays. But I really feel sad when I see SO many actresses, TV stars, etc., whose ribs and collarbones are sticking out, and think that girls edging into puberty think that's the way THEY should be. Here again, parents need to step up and be PARENTS to their children and try to instill a sense of self-worth and make their kids feel proud of who THEY are.

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