OPINION: Why barbies turn out to be a feminist choice

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.

That’s them.

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.

All I had to do was find ways to make that BBBBarbie less of a bimbo. I figured I could dye her hair, give her a nice bob or Rachel cut and find more modest clothing for her.

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.

A great blog post outlining the various body types Mattel has used over the years.

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.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Lola says:

    I love your efforts at creating a mini-barbie-world for your daughter. I started in a different place, but ended up with pretty much the same thing–I never played with barbies as a kid, I had my little ponies. I was never interested in my daughters having barbies, and kind of vaguely bought into the idea of Barbie as the “anti-feminist” because she is all concerned with looks and famously said, “Math is hard!” My first daughter was given a few barbies which she never played with, so they sat in the toy box. Then little number two came along. Soon she discovered “Bahbees”. She loved the Bahbees. So soon big sister started taking notice of what USED to be her Barbies, which had been claimed by little sister. So I had to buy little sister her OWN barbies. Of course, the two Barbies my older daughter had were both blue-eyed blondes (like her), so I started looking for a little diversity. I found a small collection of brown skinned barbies (two AA, one hispanic, one vaguely asian, and a Ken that looked like Lionel Richie) and we suddenly had a diverse Barbie community.
    I still read mothers complain about barbies and how they’re “OMG SO BAD FOR OUR DAUGHTERS!!!” and i just laugh. One such rant was from a supposed feminist who only gives her daughters baby dolls because ‘that teaches kids to nurture’ and lets them be a mommy…uh….there’s more to being a woman than being a mommy. And frankly, one of my 6 year old’s favorite things to do with her barbies is set up elaborate families, with moms and dads and like 5 kids and uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents…so of course you can play at nurturing with barbies.
    Sorry for the rant, I’m just always glad to ‘meet’ other barbie people:D

    1. Lola –

      Thanks for your insights. You and your daughters are all strong women in that you don’t let the doll company decide what you are going to do with their plastic. Mattel markets as they do because they have their research and their sales figures. I can’t continue to fight them – I have to make the things I can find work for me. It sounds like you have done the same. I enjoyed hearing about your girls and their paths so far. I know that with your encouragment they will continue to bend the world around them to meet their needs!!

  2. Good job Kristl. I love your reading your ideas and viewpoints. Keep up the good work!

  3. Ketutar Jensen says:

    This is absolutely wonderful, except for one thing. I hate the new body mold. Perhaps because I have the body of the old mold. Slender hips, not much bottom, big breasts. This is the Germanic body type, the body of Valkyrias and Viking women.
    My biggest problem is though the swank. The hollow back. The lordosis. She doesn’t have a good posture. Which unfortunately is true about a lot of modern women, especially teenagers.


  4. fionamcgier says:

    I’ve been playing with Barbies since they debuted when I was a child. I’ve got some “pink box” dolls dressed in various outfits around the house, and one who rides on the dashboard of my truck as my mascot, whom my kids nicknamed “Carbie”. The current one is “Carbie version 2.0”, since when daughter was young, she and her girl scout sisters chewed the fingers and toes off the first one. They laughed at me when I changed her clothes to suit the seasons, but they fought over who got to make her “dance” to the music I’d play in my car.
    I have Silkstone dolls in my china cabinet, and posed around the house too. Husband is tolerant, daughter teases me sometimes. But I’ve never felt that Barbies were anti-feminist…if nothing else, they taught that “We girls can do anything…right, Barbie?”
    Glad to see others agree.

  5. fionamcgier says:

    And one of my friends owns a doll store, with her biggest volume in sales coming from the designer Barbies for adults. She goes to doll shows often, and I’ve attended a few. Surprising how many men are there, and not all of them are gay, though many are. They get to indulge their inner selves by playing with the dolls their parents wouldn’t let them have when they were kids. Dolls don’t make you “gay”, they let you imagine yourself to be someone other than who you are, which is what we do when we read fiction. Kind of a healthy thing to do, I think.

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