I am a feminist. I am raising my daughter to be a feminist.
For some, feminism is about choices. The choice to work or stay home. The choice to have kids or remain child free. The choice to wear red lipstick or lip balm. The choice to pursue any hobby or career and not be discouraged or hindered because you are not a man.
For me feminism is about choice, but it is also about empowerment. It’s about becoming a full person in every way and not being sidetracked spending time, money and energy trying to meet standards imposed on me strictly because I am a woman. As part of our empowerment I strongly believe that we should not bow to pressure that would have us spend excessive amounts of energy, money and time on our hair, nails, makeup, tan, and weight loss programs.
I was raised in Texas, by a mother who believed strongly in “packaging”. I spent my teens, twenties and about half of my thirties passionately focused on said “packaging.” Yes – I had long, bleach-blond hair and fake nails. I dieted constantly. I wore heels and miniskirts. I tanned (sun, tanning bed, lotion – you name it).
Those fifteen years of “packaging” were a complete waste of time as it only attracted superficial, dishonest, easily distracted, insincere men.
In my late thirties I had an awakening of sorts. Because of all the time, money and energy I recognize as wasted, I want to raise my daughter not to fritter away so much of her life on those things and focus instead on the things that are more permanent and contribute in a real way to her self-esteem and her ability to build genuine relationships with genuine people.
That means I want her to avoid all the “packaging” efforts that are exhausting to maintain and serve no other purpose than to impress all the wrong men.
Those things are the whalebone corsets and foot bindings of the modern era.
A lot of women who consider themselves feminists would disagree with me on this. They love getting manicures they tell me. They like wearing heels. Push up bras and Spanx make them feel sexy.
I think they have a degree of delusion. I secretly judge them a little. But I am not about to try to change their mind.
But of course the one person’s mind I do try to influence is that of my daughter. I’d rather she have great skin than great skill at putting on makeup. I’d rather her feet never ache in her entire life because of a pair of shoes that someone convinced her “look sexy.” I’d rather she keep her nails short and clean for piano, basketball and martial arts.
I want her to be fit and strong — not tan and skinny. I want her to think of her boobs as a nuisance to be tolerated until she gives birth, when they will miraculously become little milk machines that nurture her children. Months later I want her to think of them once again as a nuisance to be tolerated, if with a small bit of nostalgia for the bonding that took place upon them.
[As has been pointed out to me, some women actually enjoy their nipples quite a bit. I never have, so for me the whole area is a waste of space, but for those who enjoy yours on a regular basis, more power to you.]
I know, I’m pretty far out there in my particular brand of feminism. Sometimes I grow out my underarm hair as a way of saying F-You to anyone who thinks it’s gross and unacceptable. Men have a choice whether they shave their underarms. We should too.
So how did someone like me, all super-opinionated-super-feminist, decide that I would build my daughter a barbie collection of insane proportion and thereby encourage her to play barbies nearly every day of her life for the next ten years?
Well, it sort of snuck up on me. First I decided it was the most economical choice. Then I decided it was a laudable environmental choice. And finally I felt comfortable that I could make it work as a feminist choice.
I was delighted to learn that Mattel had changed barbie’s body in 2000. She gained wider hips, a belly button and became much less buxom. You can see a comparison of different body types on this wonderful blog post.
The photos shown in the blog don’t really show the degree to which barbie’s bustline was reduced because a lot the old body’s bustiness came from the shape of her torso. The real significance of the change is easily seen when clothes made for the old body are put on a belly-button-bodied doll.
So learning about the body change took care of the drama around the topic of “what barbie’s measurements would be if she was a real woman” because the belly button body, in my opinion, looks very much like your average teenage girl.
Now I had a plan. I would purchase belly-button-body dolls, then I would cut and dye their hair until I had a little doll posse I could tolerate looking at and feel comfortable having my daughter playing with on a daily basis.
I took a trip to Toy’s R Us and was delighted to find a line of brown-skinned dolls called the So In Style girls. These girls had long hair (I could fix that) but they actually had much more practical and often more modest clothing. The characters of the SIS line are Chandra, Trichelle, Grace and Kara and I bought them up during that first visit.
I bought boxes of used goods off Craigslist, cherry-picked the better dolls, took the BBBBarbies to Goodwill and kept all the clothes. I soon had gingers, brunettes, raven-haired beauties and old school Christy and Nikki gals.
I had diversity!!
I had a lovely set of barbies that looked more like the girls of the world. Our barbie brigade looked like the girls at the mall. Shoulder length hair or shorter. More brunettes then blondes. Tennis shoes, jeans and t-shirts.
I had created for Leah, with Mattel’s unwittiing and somewhat reluctant help, a world of possibilities.
Leah could use her barbies to pretend to be anything she wanted from a pilot, to a princess, to the president. By extension, these toys would provide me with endless interactions for conveying my feminist views to her and for peering into her developing psyche.
This barbie doll world has become my platform. It’s my chance to lecture Leah, without ever giving a lecture.
When I tell my daughter I don’t wear high heels because they are uncomfortable, she’s not impressed. After all, I’m just a fat old lady. But when Bella or Grace says it, it really means something to her. When Trichelle tells Kayla she wants to be the star of her high school basketball team instead of a cheerleader, this too makes an impression.
I have Chandra telling Darren that she won’t marry until after she finishes college. Darren tells Chandra he could never love a girl that wasn’t independent, smart and genuine. Leah absorbs everything the dolls say with a twinkle in her eye. I know that Leah is impressionable enough to believe that the coolest two teenagers in the history of the world are letting her in on their secrets and I exploit that to the fullest.
So, in short, when the slutty clothes and ridiculous platinum blonde hair is gone, what a feminist mom and her impressionable daughter are left with is whatever they want to be left with. The world of barbies becomes a clean slate again. Empty of values until you introduce your own.