In part one of this article, I told how Barbie came into our home despite my strong moral objections. Now I'll explain why those objections aren't so strong anymore.
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As the years have progressed with Barbie in our home, I can honestly say the level of imagination Little Mama uses to play with her Barbies is extremely high. She will use them to create and act out entire stories that last for quite a long time. She uses other building toys, like Magformers and SmartMax, to construct furniture and houses for them. That’s pretty inventive. Between playing with Barbie dolls or playing on a smart phone, I think Barbie is a much better use of Little Mama’s brain power.
But what about the self-image issue? This one is still struggle at times. Regarding Barbie’s clothes, I limit them to what I deem appropriate. Unfortunately, not all the clothing available for Barbie can be labeled as such. I simply don’t want Little Mama or Tres thinking those styles or appropriate or that women should put their bodies on display to be cool, trendy, socially acceptable, or appealing to men. Fortunately, there are plenty of acceptable and even empowering clothing choices for Barbie these days. But more on that later...
Concerning her body, Barbie is more realistically proportioned than she was in the past (check out this throwback article from 1997). Even so, her changes through the years have, admittedly, not produced what we'd call a regular body type. Recently, though, Barbie has undergone her biggest transformation and she now comes in various shapes and sizes.
Tres saw me taking the picture of Little Mama with the Barbies (above), and she ran up to me making this face and shouting, "Cheese!" I couldn't leave her out after that.
But whether Barbie's body changes or not, I’ve realized some things.
- Barbie isn’t real. My kids don’t believe any of their other toys, no matter how realistic they look, are reflective of life’s goals or expectations. They understand that toys allow you to mimic life, but they’re only as accurate as pretending can let them be. Certainly, they couldn’t articulate it that way, but they understand it.
- There are people who (naturally) have measurements similar to Barbie. There are some in our family. Tall, lean with some curves, and long-legged. The ones we are related to have always been that way and are so by genetics. And just so you know, those people exist on my husband’s side of the family and I, therefore, didn’t get any genetic trait of that sort! This point combined with the previous produces this: Though real-life people can be shaped similarly to Barbie, this body type is not common or average. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think my girls can see and process that message.
- The Boy has played with action figures from a very young age, as many boys do. These figures are all tall, lean, muscular, and have what would be considered good looks. Even Ken has a six-pack and perfect hair. This isn't the normal body-type or look for the average man. Yet, boys don't suffer from the same self-image issues as girls, and their toys aren't blamed when boys do have self-esteem problems. If both genders are playing with dolls with extreme physical characteristics, why is it only little girls who are said to suffer from such play? My argument is that it's not (wholly) Barbie's fault. She's a scapegoat. We don't want to blame famous entertainers, who have a far greater visual presence and impression than Barbie. We don't demand they leave a little more to the imagination with their clothing choices and put a little more meat on their bones. And, thus, we really don't want to blame ourselves. Why do (primarily) female performers, young and old, starve themselves and run around in their underwear? Because we encourage it with our purchases and viewing choices. We, as parents, also have culpability in our children's constant exposure to such images (see #6 below).
- How many of you played with Barbies as children and expected to look like her when you grew up? Maybe some of you did, but I didn’t. My sister didn’t, and none of my friends did. Barbie was Barbie, and I was me. I knew curly, red-haired, freckly Dee wouldn’t be like the doll in my hands. I didn’t consciously have those thoughts, I’m sure. But I was smart enough to know it, and I think most kids are smart enough to make that connection.
- My self-image problems didn’t come from Barbie. I was a Barbie fanatic. I played with Barbie constantly. My Barbie dolls were hands-down my most played with toys. As I got older, I didn’t play with Barbie as much until I didn’t play with her at all. I didn’t have self-image issues when my Barbie days had ceased. Those began in middle school with bullying. When other boys and girls told me I was fat and ugly, I believed them. Barbie certainly didn’t make me feel that way. After that my insecurities grew from seeing the “ideal” celebrated in the form of actual, living people on television, the Internet, and printed media. Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera, and that genre (I’m dating myself with these references) ruled my teenage years. It was real people, not dolls, that damaged my self-esteem.
- I recently read an eye-opening article (which I now cannot find...argh!) about the average age girls play with Barbies. Barbie was initially designed for girls about 8 to 12 years old, and just a couple of decades or so ago the average age girls played with Barbie was 10. In the past, it wasn't so odd for girls as old as 14 to play with Barbies. In fact, Ruth Handler, Barbie's creator, obtained the prototype for Barbie upon seeing her 15 year-old's interest in the doll (but that's another semi-shocking story). Today's target Barbie audience ranges from 3 to about 6 years old (see here or here). That makes me sad because I know that the very young girls not playing with Barbies are obviously replacing them with something else. I have a pretty good hunch what that something else is for most girls—social media. My heart aches when I see a girl who looks to be about 9 or 10 repeatedly taking selfies in different poses, positions, and facial expressions in an attempt to get that perfect picture. Kids get bothered if they have less “likes” and “friends” than other people they know. I would rather my children have one true, real friend than 7,000 of the virtual type. And then there is cyberbullying. It makes me glad I’m not a kid now but terrified because I have kids now. To choose between Barbie or an electronic device connected to all of that is no choice at all for me. Barbie wins.
- This last realization is big pill to swallow, fellow moms. At least, it is for me. A big part of any future self-image problems my girls may have come from me--not Barbie. My girls won't hear Barbie talking about her butt being too big or her thighs jiggling too much, but they have heard it from me. If my girls observe me constantly focusing on my perceived flaws, they will grow up doing the same to themselves. Knowing that I could teach my girls to berate themselves is sobering. I have to stop. We have to stop.
Can Barbie contribute to poor self-image? Yes, I suppose she has a degree of guilt in some cases. But my observations and common sense now tell me that she takes a disproportionate share of the blame while other, much more heinous offenders go free. In Barbie's case, I think it has much more to do with how Barbie is presented and clothed than her actual fake dimensions on her fake body. Are your kids dressing her in revealing clothes and engaging in pretend mean girl behavior? If so, Barbie's got to go (and other issues need to be addressed). If Barbie is simply hanging out with friends and being a ballerina, astronaut, veterinarian, or something equally encouraging, then I don't think the problem lies in her.
I would have loved a super hero Barbie, when I was a kid.
Based on my observations, the Mattel company has taken parental concerns with Barbie into account. There are now a couple of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) focused Barbie options, as well as, super hero Barbies (where unlike super hero women in comics and movies, the heroine is wearing clothes). In fact, you can find Barbie dolls engaged in all types of wholesome activities and careers. This speaks to Ruther Handlers vision for Barbie: "My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
While I still take a guarded approach with Barbie (as with all things that are catered toward my children), I realize now she can be pretty awesome.
How do you feel about Barbie? Let me know in the comments!