My grandmother gave me a case of 1960s-era Barbies and accessories when I was little. I was fascinated by red-haired Midge and her black stockings with the seams up the back, her wrist-length white gloves, her Mary Jane high heels, and her little red coat with real brass buttons. I carefully played with those dolls for years.
When I became a teenager, I discovered feminism. I had been raised by egalitarian parents and my mother always worked, so I had the basics covered, but the feminist discussion about gender constructs and body image was fascinating.
I took women’s studies as my minor in university, and once spent an entire class deconstructing Barbie.
I was determined my children — sons or daughters — would never own a Barbie doll.
Various studies have shown if she were a real woman, Barbie would be thinner than an anorexic at the waist and would not be able to menstruate. Her ankles would be unable to hold her body weight and she would not be able to walk in anything but high heels.
There have been many studies about the effect Barbie has on the self-esteem of little girls who dress her in gold spandex and pretend she and Disco Ken are at the ball. One example is a 2006 study in the Journal of Developmental Psychology.
The authors found that five- to eight-year-old girls in the study group who were exposed to a Barbie doll were more likely to express “lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape” than girls who were exposed to an Emme doll (which had a body shape equivalent to a woman who wears a size 16.)
When my boys were little, we bought them dolls and trucks and trains and a kitchen set. We made sure they had playthings that were both stereotypically male and female.
When my daughter was born, we were determined to continue that, while also avoiding Barbies, Bratz and Disney princesses.
There was just one problem. My daughter was a girly-girl. She loved pink, princesses, dresses and tea parties. She collected tiaras.
Luckily, she is also a natural athlete. She loves to throw a ball, to run and swim. As she grew, she discovered surfing and skating and video games.
And one day, she asked me to take down her Disney princess posters and get her a red blanket for her new loft bed, not pink.
I thought we had beaten the girly-girl stage. Her new poster in her room showed pro-surfer/amputee Bethany Hamilton, smiling as she gripped her board with her remaining arm. My daughter’s hero was a professional Christian athlete who had survived a shark attack. I was delighted.
And then I asked for her Christmas list.
“I want a Surfer Barbie,” Naomi exclaimed. “And then I can pretend she’s Bethany. And I want a Barbie dream house.”
I was taken aback. “Naomi, you have a doll house,” I pointed out. “And a nice doll.”
“Yes, but Barbie surfs, Mom. I want a doll with a surfboard.”
It’s the accessories that get you, people.
I struggled in the weeks before Christmas. She had received a Barbie doll before, one with the new flat feet, pants and a shirt, and a profession (Dr. Barbie), but she never played with it and I gleefully got rid of it.
It was hard to argue Barbie was banned, but it was just as hard for me to buy her one wearing a bikini.
In the end, I caved. She got a Surfer Barbie and a Barbie camper, for those road trips to Tofino and California.
Surfer Barbie gets played with almost every day, and no fashion shows yet. So far, she just surfs.
I often wonder if I should have stood firm, but since Naomi is focused on shredding waves and riding barrels with Barbie, I’m putting up with her for now.
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