This week, God-willing, I will celebrate life’s half-century mark. So it’s only natural to reflect on all the people, places, and experiences that have inspired, influenced, and blessed my life. And those who know me, know Barbie doll earns a spot on that list.
The poor girl has taken a lot of flak this past week for her #Unapologetic marketing campaign and her decision to pose for Sports Illustrated in her iconic black and white swimsuit. Throughout her 55 years, Barbie has endured her share of critics who cite her body shape, flawless skin, and glamorous style, for being a poor influence on impressionable little girls. For some, Barbie has become an effigy for everything strong, powerful women are supposed to hate — and posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated seems only to fuel their contempt.
Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my four sisters and I were the first generation to test Barbie’s influence on the female psyche. For a decade or more, the pink-boxed Barbie doll was the most popular toy under our Christmas trees and beside our birthday cakes. Her face adorned lunch boxes, t-shirts, stickers and coloring books; together with our neighbors –the four Mansour girls — we coveted and collected her fashionable clothes, pushed straight pins into the side of her head (earrings!) and dreamed of one day living in dream houses, just like Barbie did. Amidst the humble hand-me-downs and dollar-stretched households typical of our small hometown, Barbie was always the glamorous friend who helped us escape into Malibu vacations, Hollywood wardrobes, and awesome careers — giving us hope that what we could dream as little girls just one day might come to be.
At 50, I still love Barbie dolls. #Unapologetic indeed. About 20 years ago, I strolled through the doll aisle of my local toy store. As a mother of a young son, it had been a very long time since I’d seen my childhood friend, but I immediately recalled the joy of youth with her by my side — and I was smitten once again. Here she was, standing before me in all her glory, dressed in stunning, sequined, couture Bob Mackie gowns, displayed in collectible boxes with expensive price tags. The grown-up girl in me just couldn’t resist. It was, of course, an unnecessary, impractical splurge for a doll I could never have afforded as a child — which is precisely why I wanted her. The purchase symbolized an achievement of sorts for my 10-year-old self who grew up to be a college graduate, career woman, wife and mom — one who could now afford the occasional, impractical, ‘just because’ treat of this beautiful, collectible Barbie doll.
Before I knew it, my small treat grew into one hundred more. Crazy? Perhaps. Ok, YES, it was. But what fun this crazy little collection has been. I’ve shared my collectible Barbies and many wonderful memories with two new generations of little girls now. To see my nieces play with their India Barbie I customized as ‘Aruna’ Barbie long before they met their real Aunt Aruna from India, made the welcome so much sweeter. To spend an entire afternoon with all the little girls of my neighborhood, now in their twenties, as we celebrated Barbie’s 40th Birthday with a ‘BE ANYTHING’ Party and a front-page featured article in our local newspaper is something we’ll never forget. And to bond with my granddaughter with a Barbie doll ritual she insisted on every time she visited (carefully removing three favorite Barbies from the display case, telling what we loved about them, carefully putting them back, and then flipping through my Barbie Collectibles book and pointing to all the Barbies ‘Nana’ has) has been my favorite Barbie memory yet.
It is the spirit of Barbie I love most of all. Because in the pretend world of little girls, there are no impossibilities and no constraints. No glass ceilings. No income inequities. No inabilities. No cannots. Barbie can be anything we pretend her to be. President? Of course. Astronaut? Why not? Beautiful, no matter her race, nationality, career, or choices? You bet. A swimsuit cover girl at 55? Go for it! And what is first created in play with little girls can, and often does, pave the way for creating reality in the women those little girls grow up to be. Pretending prepares for what’s possible — and Barbie teaches us that anything is.
So let adults fixate on her plastic body. Little girls are smart enough to know she’s a doll. One who comes with thousands of choices — like how she dresses, the shoes she wears and where they take her, the country she is born into, the racial beauty she is proud of, the hairstyles she changes, the people she loves, the pets she adopts, or the 150 (and growing) careers she’s tried and excelled at. A bold, brave, beautiful doll whose helped millions of little girls, and the women they grow into, first pretend, then BE bold, brave and beautiful in our choices too.
You go girl.
Love from your friend of 50 years,
Post script: Mattel’s latest creation is Entrepreneur Barbie, introduced at the recent Toy Fair in tribute to the millions of women who create business opportunities for themselves. It’s now the favorite Barbie of Ambit Women.