To Barbie or not to Barbie

After a few months in a bag on top of a wardrobe, the Barbies are out again, and suddenly I can’t cross a room without stepping on a smiling naked lady. I always feel a bit weird about them – and bear in mind that I’m using “Barbie” as a generic term for those smiley plastic lady dolls with big boobs and tiny feet – and I don’t encourage the acquisition of new ones, although the girls have occasionally been given them as birthday presents. But most of the collection could generously be described as ‘vintage’ – or maybe ‘heirloom’, like an endangered variety of stripy tomatoes. Some were mine from the eighties, and some were my aunt’s from the seventies; there are Barbies, Sindies and cheap knock-offs from every era; there are Flower Fairies, sizes just right to be the Barbies’ children, and some little babies that were originally a separate play set but have been accumulated into the Barbie collection. Noticing that all the adults were female, I also picked up three man-Barbies of different kinds in a charity shop (when I played with them as a child, I pooled Barbies with two friends, but we had a single Ken between us so constructed complex family dramas to allow him to be the father of all the children belonging to all the different Barbies; between us we had plenty of experience of absent fathers and reconstructed families, but sadly no concept of gay marriage or donor insemination that might have given poor Ken a break from his duties).


Seeing them together makes me realise that part of my uneasiness about standard Barbies is to do with their uniformity: this is what a beautiful lady looks like, here are twenty versions of her with only minor variations, and now you can start hoping that when you grow up you might look like her (you won’t, though). The variation in shapes over the years reduces that sense that “this is what perfect looks like”, and in a way it draws attention to the weird exaggerations and extremes as being a bit freaky, rather than unattainable ideals. They got my daughter asking questions that developed into an interesting conversation about changing ideas of beauty, not to mention the disturbing realisation that many Barbies, Disney princesses and so on are ultra-sexy-lady parts (tiny waist, long shiny hair, huge boobs, impossibly small hands) crossed with some features that make baby mammals appealing to their parents (big round eyes, gigantic heads that their tiny necks can’t support).


Being so ancient, we do even have a number of Barbies with visible disabilities: missing hands, no legs, prosthetic arm (ok, I think it’s probably meant to be a weapon of some kind, but it’s the best we could do)… They are all thin and white, though; and even though I might be able to find a Barbie with darker skin, the recently released bigger Barbies still don’t get much beyond what you might call sturdy: they wouldn’t snap while walking in a strong breeze, but they aren’t even chubby, let alone fat. Maybe I should add a few biroed stretchmarks and play dough muffin tops. And today my daughter pointed out that “this one looks more realistic when you twist her waist right round so her bum’s at the front so it looks like a vulva”: definitely not territory that Mattel is likely to venture into any time soon.


When I’d just finished writing this, my daughter came into the room with a Barbie who needed my help to undo a hairdo that had gone wrong. As I untangled loom bands from the shiny brown hair, my daughter was explaining to me why this particular one was her favourite: “because she’s got hair the same colour as mine” (hers is a vivid red, but this doll’s auburn gets close enough for her). Without knowing what I’d been writing about, she added: “I wish they’d do dolls with curly hair so I could have one more like me, though”. So there’s another gap in our collection that I hadn’t even noticed: ginger Barbies and curly Barbies. I can’t quite stomach buying a load of new ones, but maybe I’ll try eBay, or DIY!


Bedtime stories

Some of our books are due for a little holiday.


I really don’t have anything against any of these – in fact I really like The Troll, and I enjoy how Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book comes full circle, and the details in the illustrations. But my two-year-old has been on a Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler binge for a fortnight now, and I have to call time. He loves Pip and Posy – really, really loves. To a toddler, it seems there’s nothing quite so compelling as an exaggerated drawing of a sad face, and on that front Pip and Posy deliver every time. So I read the books again, and again, because I can put up with a bit of boredom in exchange for my son’s pleasure in telling me, with his mouth turned down at the corners, “Pip sad. Pip SAAAD. Pip cry, cry, cry!”.

But there comes a point where, even to indulge this slightly disturbing delight in other people’s suffering (totally developmentally normal, honest), I just can’t do it again. So all of these are sneaking out of the pile of bedtime books – just back onto the ordinary bookshelf where they’re a bit less conspicuous – and in their place will go some books that don’t make my heart sink. How is it that some books I find it tedious to repeat, and others I have honestly never felt bored with? Some of these books I’ve been reading for ten years now and I still enjoy them even though I am word-perfect without looking at the pages. The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig can make me laugh out loud even the hundredth time around.


(There Are Cats In This Book by Viviane Schwarz, Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, Kipper’s Birthday by Mick Inkpen, Clip-Clop by Nicola Smee, Olivia by Ian Falconer, The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr).

These are my old friends: some of them I discovered as a parent, some were stories I listened to as a child, though most of my own books have fallen to bits and been replaced (because they were “very old and broken like Mummy”, as I try not to say too often).


(Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Full Full Full of Love by Trish Cooke, Mog the Forgetful Cat and Mog and the Baby by Judith Kerr, Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough, Penguin by Polly Dunbar, I’m Not Cute by Jonathan Allen, Please Baby Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee).

I’m always looking for new books to read, and despite having more books than we really have space for, we borrow half a dozen from the library every week. Very occasionally, one of them will hit that magic spot where I know I could read it again and again without getting tired of it – I can’t put my finger on what it is about these books, but to get me through the “More! Again! MORE!” toddler months, I cling to them.

Other options to deal with tedious repetition: my daughter wanted Rapunzel read to her every night for what felt like a decade; I found as many different versions of the story as I could get hold of in libraries and second hand book shops and in fairytale collections that we already owned, so there was at least a little variety in our nightly reading. And when another daughter went through a Gruffalo phase, I was happy to read it as long as she’d let me do different accents for each character; I was entertained by the terribleness of my voices and had to concentrate enough to keep track of which voice was whose, and she got her story, so we were both happy. Usually. If she was tired or grumpy she would demand that I “read it in Eng-er-lish”.

See more book ideas here.

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Things I never leave the house without (except when I do)

I made the mistake of clearing out my handbag. It really needed to happen: it was full of crumbs and hankies and unidentifiable bits of rubbish; some coins had got through a hole in the lining and were rattling around inside it; and some child had at some point put some chunky glass beads in there which meant that, while rummaging for keys, my fingers landed on a bead and I thought “oh, yum, feels just like a peanut M & M has somehow got left in my handbag, I’ll eat that”, and I’d only narrowly avoided trying to swallow a small chunk of glass. I’m not sure whether to be more embarrassed by my willingness to eat a sweet of dubious provenance (it’s not uncommon for my handbag to contain actual peanut M & Ms, so I did at least assume they were mine and were recent), or by the fact that this happened a total of three times before I finally decided that I wasn’t really safe to carry glass beads around and I ought to tip my bag out and sort through all the stuff.

So, with my newly un-crumby handbag emptied of junk, I set out for the day, but discovered that I’d removed a lot of really useful things from it. Yes, there was a blue crayon and some old receipts: perfect for a toddler who wants to do some drawing while bored in a queue. Yes, a small bottle of bubble liquid that might have leaked all over my stuff; it was also great that time we had to wait ages for food in a cafe so we took it in turns to blow bubbles and pop them on the table (I decided that nobody could really mind a bit of soapy water landing on a cafe table; and if they did mind then they could hurry up and bring us some food so we didn’t have to resort to bubbles). And all those hankies? Well, I failed to replace them with any fresh ones, with predictably disastrous consequences.

All of which got me thinking about the things I’ve learnt never to go out without. Obviously nappies and snacks and a bottle of water (not only to drink but for emergency wash-downs), and a handy bag or two, the kind that fold into a little pouch to keep in your handbag. I also collect small plastic bags: any time I get a magazine in the post or a weekend newspaper, I save the A4 plastic bags they often come in and stash them in a coat pocket or a bag or the car, because you never know when you’ll need to bag up something unpleasant to carry it home. Spare hairbands, cloth hankies, nappy pins (useful for so much more than nappies), a penknife with tweezers on it. A couple of unexpected small toys are handy to be able to produce in an emergency – finger puppets are particularly brilliant. In the car, I always have a couple of nappies, a packet of babywipes (I rarely use them in normal life, only in the car and on holiday), a collapsible potty, and a number of cot blankets which have substituted for coats, picnic blankets, even an improvised skirt for a child who has weed in all their own clothes.

And then sometimes I get to where I’m going and discover I forgot to put shoes on my toddler before carrying him to the playground, or that my daughter’s at school with no lunch, or I’m in the supermarket without my wallet. On those occasions, at least I have some finger puppets to cheer me up, or at least some clean hankies to sob into.