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To Barbie or Not to Barbie

Why I kept the dolls away from my daughter — then changed my mind


Published November 1, 2013 at 4:00 a.m.

I have been staunchly anti-Barbie since my twenties. When I gave birth to my daughter, Rachel, I vowed to keep the well-endowed antifeminist figurine away from her forever.

In my view, Barbies are nothing more than miniature Ladies of the Evening, with the accompanying flashy wardrobes. Much has been made of Barbie's measurements and what the real-life equivalent would be: 38-18-32? Please! How dare a toy company produce such a doll, enrobe it in hot pink — the equivalent of little-girl catnip — and promote it so unceasingly?

Alas, Rachel, now 7, adores Barbie.

She has known forever that I do not like the dolls. Consequently, our house was blissfully Barbie-free until she had her first big birthday party at age 6. I cannot say for certain whether Rachel coached her friends in advance on what gift to bring, but she received several Barbies that day. Of course, I now realize that there was no way to keep the doll out of our house forever.

Over the year, Rachel played endlessly with her prized Barbies. Occasionally, she would express her desire for new Barbie dolls and accessories. But she wouldn't openly ask me for them, most likely because she knew my answer would be "no."

There was one Barbie question she did ask me, and quite often: "Mommy, why don't you like Barbie?" I'd say something about her skimpy clothing before quickly changing the subject.

Then, one day, after hearing her ask me yet again — "Mommy, why don't you like Barbie?"— I looked into her eyes. Only then did it dawn on me that maybe I had been sending the wrong message — a very different message than the one I intended, one that held the potential to be truly damaging to her developing sense of self.

I realized she had been coming to me as a confused little girl, caught between her real feelings of Barbie-love and her innate desire to please her mother. Was she wrong to love Barbie? Each time my daughter asked me why I didn't like Barbie, was she hoping for reassurance that it was OK for her to like Barbie? That she was still a good person? That I loved her in spite of the Barbies?

And so I had to ask myself why. Why do I dislike Barbie so much? What does she represent to me? And how could it possibly mean the same thing to my daughter?

Do I hate Barbie because she's everything I'm not? Because she has everything I don't have? Perfect hair, amazing figure, unlimited wardrobe, cars, townhouses, beach houses? Constant, adoring — unblinking! — gazes from Ken? Even multiple professions: a successful doctor one day, a WNBA player the next?


But I think my real beef with Barbie is that her identity lies in appearances. Unattainable appearances. And, more than that, it's the idea that appearances are what matters. That what's sexy is important. These are precisely the messages from which I want to shield my daughter.

The day I took the time to really hear my daughter's Barbie question was the day I realized that I need to pick my battles more carefully. That Barbie — in the big scheme of things — is not a big deal. That childhood is for pretending. That, at her age, it's about fantasy, not real life. That there are times I need to keep my opinions to myself, especially if they may hurt my daughter.

Down the road, there will be plenty of stands to take on issues such as drugs or sex. On those, I won't back down.

But for now, I have relented — somewhat. For Rachel's last birthday, I actually went to the store and made the first Barbie purchase of my life: I bought her a much-coveted Barbie minivan and even some relatively modest Barbie clothes.

I had a curious mix of feelings that day in Walmart. I was strangely embarrassed, yet also a little excited at the thought of witnessing the inevitable joy on my daughter's face. When the day finally came, I had never seen a more thrilled little girl — she could hardly believe her eyes when she shredded the wrapping paper and saw the pink boxes before her.

I know that I must make it a priority to convey to her, over and over again, through words and deeds, that it's not what a person looks like but what's inside that matters. That she is beautiful whether she is tall or chubby or her hair is sticking out. That her talents and kindness are what will define her, not whether she is a 36D with a 26-inch waist.

As long as I am vigilant about sending this message, I have faith. She will be fine.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.