When I was a kid, I had a sizeable collection of Barbies. And I played with them nearly every day. Well into my teens. Even as an adult, I would sometimes play Barbies with my little sister. Which is why sometimes even I question my firm no-Barbies rule for my daughter. But every time I question it, I decide again that it’s a good rule.
It’s a complicated decision, but it basically boils down to one thing: ideas of beauty. As a born storyteller, I played with Barbies because I could use them to create stories. I was just as comfortable using my brother’s GI Joe’s or Ninja Turtles, but female characters were a bit rarer among those toys. So I usually just stuck to Barbie. But I didn’t play like other kids. I discovered as I got older that other girls gave Barbie parties to go to or big, grand adventures to go on. My stories involved bullying, teen pregnancy and drug addiction. Yes, I was a weird kid. But the point is that I generally didn’t feel good about my Barbies. I hated the blonde, cookie-cutter thing and it sparked in me tales of popularity gone wrong. I played out countless Mean Girls scenarios before anyone knew who Lindsay Lohan was. Through my play, I rejected the “normal” idea of beauty, favoring dolls with dark hair, curls, less voluptuous bodies; anything to make them stand out. But despite the rejection of that norm, I still became aware of its existence. And it still colored the way I saw myself. And while it didn’t actually cause the shattering of my self-esteem (a handful of 6th graders and an abusive stepdad took care of that), it did leave a big crack in my self-esteem for others to wedge their mental crowbar into. I look back and I see the damage all those Barbies did.
And then I look down that pink aisle at the new generation of dolls. They’ve gotten better about showing different versions of beautiful. Black hair, blond hair, brown hair. Asian, black, white, Hispanic, something maybe in between. But the bodies haven’t changed much.Barbie got a less curvy makeover but other dolls have gotten skinny enough to make up for it. And the new “normal” beautiful? Skin. Lots of it. Your skirt better be short and your shirt better show your abs (which means they better be flat). You better wear heels and lots of makeup. This “normal” doesn’t sit any better in my stomach. So my rule is no Barbies. No Bratz. No doll whose clothing isn’t modest. And I don’t think my daughter is missing out on anything. She has Polly Pockets (who don’t much fit in your pocket anymore) and Strawberry Shortcakes, and a ridiculous variety of McDonald’s toys. And beyond showing her that beauty doesn’t involve skin, I think the variety of her toys shows her the variety of people out there. I read a study that basically said if you haven’t talked to your kid about race by kindergarten, it’s too late. With her collection of toys, we can talk about the differences between people in a way that she understands.
So even though I know there will be a day when I will have to piss off another mother, or upset a well-meaning child, I am happy with my no Barbie rule. And I plan to stick to it.