Stealth Bomber Barbie: Daughters, Dolls, and the Question of Self-Image
A parenting lesson in high heels and a short skirt.
A moment that I had thought about, prepared for, dreaded, and denied for the better part of 20 years arrived this weekend when Barbie crossed our threshold in her 1/4” stilettos clutched by my 3-year-old daughter’s hands.
We have a "marble jar" system in our house to remind me and my husband to use positive reinforcement whenever possible. The kids get a marble every time they do something we’d like to see continue (e.g., share, get dressed, not kill each other), and when the jar is full, they are entitled to something of their choosing.
After months of working toward their goal, they proudly topped off their jars last week, so my husband took them to Target over the weekend for their big reward. When they got home, my daughter rushed into the house—Target bag in hand—with a look of pure elation on her face. "Mommy! Mommy! Look what I got!" She reached into the bag for the big reveal (“Ta-daaaaa!”), and that’s where my memory starts to get fuzzy.
For context, I need to go back a bit. Okay, way back to the arrival of Malibu Barbie at the birthday party celebrating my six years on Earth. They say the memories that have significant emotions attached to them will be those that are etched on your brain forever, and let me tell you: I remember everything about her. I remember where I sat as I took her out of the box and gawked at her perfectly straight, perfectly shiny, long, blond hair and piercing blue eyes. I remember that beautiful blue bikini that, when pulled back, revealed magnificent tan lines. Oh, to have Malibu Barbie’s tan! Right then and there, she was my favorite.
As the years went by, more Barbies came onto the scene, but none with the impact of Malibu. And before long, all the Barbies were all relegated to the bath toy bin in a giant tangle of legs and hair, not an ounce of clothing among them. As I matured, I followed a more progressive path, recognized the impact of the media on girls’ and women’s self-image, and even wrote my high school thesis on the depiction of women in children’s literature. A few more years went by, and I was marching with the National Organization for Women in Washington.
I had Barbies as a child and turned out alright. So why all the fuss?
Somewhere between Malibu’s arrival and my involvement with NOW, I decided it was time to start worrying about my appearance. Do I want my daughter to start dieting in 4th grade like I did? Absolutely not. Do I have only Malibu and her posse to thank for the high incidence of eating disorders—not to mention melanoma—among girls and women? I’d be naïve if I said it was her fault alone. But it's easy to blame Barbie. I mean, just look at her.
I could make a giant list of how Barbie represents what is wrong with the way women and girls are valued in our culture, but what she really represents to me in this moment is something I thought I could keep from my daughter. I had hoped to shelter her from those messages for as long as possible, and I thought I had more time. I have been so busy fending off the Disney princesses that Barbie slipped in like a stealth bomber.
Like so many other experiences of parenting, this was yet another lesson in the illusion of control and protection. When I came to after the big reveal, I quickly realized this was not something that could go back to the store. My daughter was so excited and absolutely couldn’t wait to get her out of the box. The afternoon went on with a number of shoe removals and replacements and princess make-believe. Things reached a low point when I discovered my daughter trying to take the scissors to her new friend’s hair. (Really? Already?)
To my relief, by day's end, Barbie was discarded in a corner somewhere, hopefully not having done any significant damage.