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!


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