There’s a new Barbie, and she comes in three different sizes. You’ve probably already heard about this; I’m not a news site, so I didn’t rush to post this on Thursday when the announcement was released. But nevertheless, I’m pretty darn excited.
Like most girls my age in the United States, I grew up with Barbies. My first Barbie was a Christmas gift the year I turned four. She was Ballerina Barbie, and she had permanent tights and toe-shoes and a leotard. I called her Maria, and unlike the other Barbies in the house, she was mine, not my sister’s.
Other Barbies came later. One year I got a Stacie doll, Barbie’s seven-year-old sister, while my sister got Todd, the same-age brother. We had Barbies with bathing suits and Barbies in cool 90’s clothing. Some of my friends cut their Barbies’ hair, but I found that shocking and carefully preserved all of mine. Though I had short-hair, Barbie was a grown-up, and she didn’t.
My Barbies sometimes had jobs, like running car dealerships with my brother’s Matchbox cars, or exploring the jungle of my mother’s house plants, but mostly my Barbies took care of the kids and house like my mom did.
You read that correctly, Barbie was a grown woman in my head. Not a doll my age, but someone who could do grown-up things like drive her jeep and own her little house and run a grocery store (yes, I had all those sets).
I really liked the Beach Boys and often played their records on my mom’s stereo, so despite the fact that I’d been to the ocean once in my life, my Barbies often surfed. In fact, they did all sorts of things I wanted to do.
One time, my sister and I were playing with the teenaged Barbie dolls, Skipper and Courtney, and my doll who was actually a Skipper but whom I called Shelly, and we decided they’d graduated high school and were going to college and needed jobs. My sister made Courtney a radio DJ (so cool!) and I made Shelly an editor for American Girl Magazine. In short, Barbie wasn’t just an adult, she was grown-up us.
You can joke about Barbies all you want; in some ways, they are eminently makefunofable. But remember, when you do so, that they are handed to little girls who are told to take them seriously, and those girls, in turn, do. Because what other doll is an adult?
Adults tend to get all in a tizzy about Barbie’s body, myself included. From her unrealistic proportions to her unrelenting smile, we get a bit irritated with her plastic-ness. It was in reaction to these very things that the doll Lammily was created, a doll with the actual proportions of a nineteen-year-old woman. She comes with accessories like a kit for having periods and feet that can wear flat shoes. I’m a big fan of Lammily; I think she’s a great idea. But she’s also not in stores everywhere, and not what I have a giant box of at my parents’ house.
She’s also not the Barbie brand, and if you think brands don’t matter to kids, buy some Roseart crayons and see what happens.
As a kid, I couldn’t have told you anything about the proportions of Barbie, but I certainly discussed her body with my friends at school. I remember hearing a rumor at one point that new Barbies would be made with plastic molded bras built-in, a fact that my friends and I soundly denounced. Ken had molded-on Y-fronts, but Kevin and Todd were just smooth plastic under their clothes, the same as Barbie, Stacy, and Skipper. Why put a bra on her? She didn’t need one. It was funny what grown-ups thought.
Looking back, it’s funnier still, because I understand exactly why Ken had underpants and Barbie didn’t. It’s fascinating the social mores and norms that trickle their way down to children’s toys, how carefully they are policed. But there’s a good reason to care.
Child me didn’t care about Barbie’s body, yet still, somehow, it snuck into my head. From her itty-bitty waist to her long, long legs, in my mind I thought someday I’d look like that. Nevermind I’d never seen a woman with a body like that in real life, because those women weren’t me—Barbie was. Like how boys reading comic books imagine themselves to be Superman, I was Barbie, surfing to the Beach Boys.
Remember, remember, every little girl grows up to be a woman. That’s their job.
Now that I am a woman with an adult body, it’s often difficult for me to picture it. Laugh all you want, but ask me what women look like in my head, and the first thing that comes to mind nine times out of ten has a waist that would cause her spine to break. Toys matter, and play-acting forms the core of our identity. Any adult who’s decided their child won’t play with toy guns has already realized that.
This is why Barbies with new proportions are exciting. Curvy Barbie and tall Barbie and petite Barbie, they matter. Because when you give a girl a doll that mimics an adult woman, you are giving her a way to play-act what she will be someday. These new Barbies come in a range of skin colors, and that’s so important as well. Hair colors, eye colors—they matter. They all matter. People wouldn’t get so darn angry over them if they didn’t.
You can be cynical about the new developments, say, oh, Mattel is just finding a way to make people buy three times the clothing. Yeah, they have, but you’re forgetting that clothes aren’t the point. Barbie being dress-able is a feature, being her is the main event
I think it’s a fantastic thing that the mainstream toy companies are beginning to create dolls that reflect reality, even in this small way. If this means that a generation of girls will grow up with more realistic body expectations, then Barbie has done her job: allowing little girls a way to explore being the women they soon will become.