It’s been quite some time since we talked. I saw you recently when I was walking by the toy section at Target. We smiled and waved politely before continuing our separate ways. I was trying to find ink cartridges for my printer, and you … well, you were busy being a mermaid. Barbie, you’ve changed.
We used to be such good friends. You were different than other dolls. You were an adult and not a baby doll. You had exciting jobs like astronaut, veterinarian and pilot. You had outfits that could easily transform from high-powered businesswoman by day to a night on the town in seconds. You opened up a range of possibilities beyond dolls that were only about motherhood. You showed me that I could be anything I wanted to be.
I know you have received a lot of criticism for your weight and size. There’s concern that your unrealistic proportions negatively influence girls’ body image. I want to be honest with you here: I never really thought about your size. When it came to body image, I was more influenced by what my peers said and the media’s obsession with women’s weight than I was by you. Even now in my late 30s when I obsess about my weight, it has never once crossed my mind to say, “Geez, I wish I looked more like Barbie.”
But you did have a big effect on me. You inspired my imagination. We used to build colonies on the moon, and you even found time to maintain a veterinary practice when you were on breaks from space travel. Much to my surprise, you took up skateboarding because your sister Skipper was not using the skateboard she had showed up with when she arrived on the doorstep of your Dream House.
Barbie, here’s the thing. You seem to have abandoned who you were back in the early ‘80s. When I visited a toy store yesterday, I walked down your aisle, and you were mostly about being a fairy, a mermaid or a princess. Sure, I saw you as a pilot, a doctor and a baby animal rescuer mixed in on the shelves, but princess versions of you dominated the aisle. Fresh from the second wave of feminism that dominated the ‘70s, the version of you that existed in my childhood did all kinds of things. Yes, you were really into fashion and hair back then, but you seemed to represent much more than the pervasive princess culture that fills every aisle of girls’ toys. I get it: you have given in to all that in order to stay relevant in a world where toy companies seem to be focused on this one version of girlhood.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on you. Maybe I am idealizing you based on what I made you out to be. Maybe you were always like this, and I just didn’t see it because you were my vehicle for all the places my imagination wanted to go. You gave me my first taste of making up stories—something that I have carried in to my fiction writing to this day. Maybe girls are still taking you home and ditching your pre-packaged princess story for adventures like the ones we used to go on. I hope that’s the case. I hope the overabundance of Princess Barbies isn’t swaying girls into seeing you only one way.
When you first showed up in my life, you were fresh off the beaches of Malibu—a place that sounded far off and exotic even though it was only about 45 miles from where I grew up. Before the Dream House days, I would build houses for you with the pillows on my bed, and I would fill up the kitchen sink, so you could have a swimming pool. Anything was possible.
Maybe I need to be like Lisa Simpson when she designs her own doll after her beloved Malibu Stacy starts uttering phrases like, “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl.” But in a way I was already able to do that with you. Even with your love of fashion and beauty, I was able to shape and mold you into the stories I wanted you to star in–ones where you were intelligent, independent and free of impossible standards of femininity.
Barbie, I want you to continue to be a way for girls to imagine all the stories and possibilities that are out there. You can still be a princess and a mermaid sometimes, but I want you to embrace all the things you used to be. I want you to be reminder to girls that anything is possible, and being female is not just about princesses and fairytales.
Maybe think of being the first female president instead of a princess–something you could earn because of your brain and leadership skills, not because you were born into it. Mostly, I don’t want you to feel trapped into ditching everything you used to be at the mercy of the hyper-marketed princess culture. Be yourself.
P.S. I wouldn’t mind if I walked down your aisle and saw Writer Barbie or HR Professional Barbie.