Kristl Smith Tyler played barbies a lot from age 9 until about 12 years old. She was ridiculed by friends and family for playing with them at that late age. Playing with barbies at this late age was not an indicator of any developmental deficiency as she was in the popular crowd at her school, and had been chosen for the gifted and talented program of studies. Instead, it was an outlet for her fantasies. She was able to act out social scenarios and play out a life of adventure and achievement using barbies as her Bavatarbies.

Her barbie obsession also helped her develop other skills. She worked on her sewing in order to create home furnishings and  clothing. She learned to sculpt by building tiny food out of a clay known as Sculpey. She used the family 8mm film camera to write, direct and produce a barbie soap opera called “Dial L for Love.”

Then, around 1982, she caved in. The pressure got to her. She let the world she’d so lovingly crafted and cared for be crated up and relegated to the attic.

Working as a nanny in her early 20′s she realized that children need to be taught how to play with most toys. The children in her charge were primarly focused on “My Little Pony.” When they played “My Little Pony” they would lay them all out on the floor, choose which ponies belonged to each player. Then stare at each other for a few minutes and move on to another game. Occaisionally they would brush the Ponies’ hair for a minute or two before the staring began and they moved on.

She played with the children and their ponies and introduced play scenarios into their activities.  Through this experience she realized that children often want toys but have no idea how to play with them for any length of time. They need to be mentored.

In 2010 she decided to purchase some dolls for her small daughter. She wanted her daughter to reap the benefits that role-playing activities can provide. However, in the years since her own barbie-playing hey-day she’d come to have strong opinions about BBBBarbie’s fitness as role-model.

As she began building out a starter collection for her daughter she realized that the barbieland she wanted her daughter to play and learn within wasn’t coming off the assembly line, ready to use. It needed some hacking, modding, mixing and mashing up.

She wasn’t one to spend too much time (a little) complaining about the lack of body diversity, she was instead one to make diverse bodies happen. She wasn’t one to decry the lack of natural hair textures, again she set about to make it happen.

Along the way, she’s spent WAY more money than any other mentor should – but always with the idea that blog readers would pick and choose the mods and mashups that meant the most to them.

Additionally, since her daughter is an only child, Kristl pretty much has to play barbies with her daughter at least until she’s old enough to have playdates. That means that Kristl is constantly observing the spontaneous scenarios that arise during play, and the value lessons that can be interwoven into play.

As scenarios arise, Kristl tries to catalog the scenarios that arise for the benefit of others – so that someday a compendium might exist where someone could say, “I want to play but I can’t think of anything” and will be able to pull up this blog and get some immediate ideas.

Kristl welcomes guest posting so if you have an idea for a post that you think will work well for this blog, please write kristlsmithtyler AT gmail DOT com. These can include play scenarios you use currently or used when you were younger, they can also include hacks, mods, customizations and other assertions you have carried out in your own barbieland.



14 Comments Add yours

  1. Erica says:


    Just wanted you to know that I am a new subscriber to your blog and that I enjoy reading your posts. I played with Barbies as a kid, but never once stopped to think of how these fashion dolls could be used to highlight cultural differences or teach our daughters how to navigate some of life’s tougher situations. I’ve nominated you for a SUNSHINE AWARD!!!

    1. Thanks Mikimu. That is wonderful of you to nominate me 🙂 I am also glad you subscribed.

  2. I love this bio! It’s very similar to my own. I played Barbies till I was almost 16 – and I too had a Barbieland! I also sewed clothes for them and made food and accessories out of anything. I had two friends that I used to play with, and we had families and an ongoing story and everything. My mom still tells people about the perfect little paper plates I made using cardstock and a party favor *lol* People used to ask my mom if there was something wrong with me for playing with Barbies. But I was one of the few of my peers that did not end up in trouble with the law or having babies before I finished high school. Kids are in such a hurry to grow up many will never have the fun we had as kids with our Barbies. Even though I don’t play now, I have most of my Barbies from my childhood, saving them for a special little girl of my own to play with some day. I love your blog and look forward to reading more.

    1. Thanks for subscribing. It energizes me to create more content whenever people comment and/or subscribe. I hope that my blog both encourages mothers to let their daughters play, and to let them play longer and longer. There’s so much to be gained.

  3. crystaltipps says:

    your blog is brilliant, keep doing what you’re doing.
    hannah – hannahjdavies.com, London, UK.

    1. Thanks Hannah – that’s quite a compliment. I checked out your blog. I like your feminist musings a lot.

  4. helen735 says:

    Hi Krystl!

    FANTASTIC BLOG! My daughter is 6, brown skinned, but makes self-portraits that look like they were done by Jennifer Garner. She has a Princess Tiana doll, which she loves but never plays with. Meanwhile, I didn’t see the incredible potential in hacking Barbies for social justice. Brilliant!

    Tiana might keep her ‘do the way it is, but there are a couple dolls at the Walgreens down the street that could use a natural make-over. And it’s time I made a playdate with a few Barbies and my daughter. Thanks for the great ideas, and keep them coming!

    1. Helen,

      I really needed to hear this today. Thanks so much for commenting. You can turn her around. You loved someone brown enough to make her and I know you will be able to tell her what you are feeling when you see a doll with brown skin. I think most whites are so married to the idea that they must be “color blind” that they forget the deluge of messages their child will be subjected to. She will not get an equal number of messages that “Brown is beautiful” from the mainstream. That’s why we have to step it up.

      Compliment other children in front of her and be explicit – “Look at her brown skin! It’s so beautiful”. You really think so, right? i know I do. Also, cartoon characters – “I get to be that one!!” (the brown one) – and we fight light-heartedly about who gets to be “her.”

      The world will get to her eventually – I will let you guys know how it goes for me and what I try (and fail at, and try again). In my mind, if I can get her to believe in her beauty up to age 12 – I will have won. That’s the age when my brown-skinned niece told me she was tired of the way blond-haired blue-eyed girls are elevated. She told me her looks were not valued at all. That’s the day I realized I hadn’t laid the proper groundwork for her.

      Point out stars who have curly hair – don’t just say “Isn’t she beautiful?” say, “Isn’t she beautiful with her brown skin, Ebony eyes, and curly hair?”

      If you are doing her hair, rave about the curls, “You are so lucky to have these wonderful curls. We have to take extra special care of them.” Instead of saying to some other mother, “Ugh, her hair takes SO MUCH WORK.” You don’t sound at all like someone who would do this – but just in case 🙂 or in case someone reading this.

      Tiana can keep her do- though I noticed some of the later versions released by Disney has her hair natural but pulled in to a bun. You can use that to your advantage. Just point it out.

      Good luck and please check back and let me know how it is going. I really want to know!!!

      1. As a Black person… it’s nice that you want your mixed kids to feel that way. But to see this coming from a white person, it may seem awkward. Well, it seems awkward to me. I think not emphasizing the “browness” or whatever would be better. Don’t make it so overt, it seems like you’re trying too hard. Expose her to people that look like her, but don’t force it. Chances are, if she’s lightskinned and not really “brown”, when she deals with actual black kids, other issues may arise.
        Ebony eyes? I’ve never heard that. Dark brown is the color right? Many people have dark brown eyes but because of lighting and angles they can look black, but they aren’t. Only black part of an eye is the pupil. Why say ebony?As an eye color, I doubt it actually exists.
        Also, with your niece, it may have been weird for her… since you know, you’re white.
        On the other hand, it’s nice to see you instilling that your daughter is beautiful the way she is. Have you tried to learn much about black hair and how to style your daughters hair yourself (as opposed to just the dolls?) http://blackgirllonghair.blogspot.com/2009/07/bglh-interview-with-white-dad-of.html . How much have you invested in learning about black culture and teaching that to your daughter? It’s so much more than being like “Ohhh see that brown skinned singer with the EBONY eyes? Isn’t she so pretty” (see how that can sound deeming even though it means well?)

        1. It does not feel awkward to me at all. And it doesn’t seem awkward to my husband or daughter. We have plenty of black friends and I compliment their daughters and they don’t have a problem with the way I do it. I agree it can, at times sound a little forced when complimenting skin but complimenting hair and eyes comes off smoothly almost every time – bc it’s common in our culture. To compliment skin I have to be more creative so that it doesn’t sound forced. With my daughter I simply sandwich it into a litany of compliments and it works very well. I would say complimenting skin tone does work best as sort of a parade of compliments.

          The other thing that takes creativity is complimenting boys. It is very hard to pay a boy a compliment on his physical appearance. Our culture just doesn’t really allow it. Thankfully, most black men in America grow up to like their skin color. They may not like other things about being black (job discrimination for example) but they like what they see in the mirror.

          She’s exposed to plenty of people who look like her as well as plenty of full-blooded African Americans and Africans. I had a ton of African friends in college and I majored in Anthropology for a time so I know a lot about Africa and Africans. Her school has a lot of African children, and while they don’t seem to understand that she is black and don’t seem drawn to her, I encourage her to be interested in them.

          There have been four chart topping songs about Ebony Eyes. I think it’s a lovely way to refer to her eye color. I prefer it. I think it has a nice tie back to Africa and it sounds richer. Your point about the eyes not actually being black doesn’t hold water with me. Ebony Magazine doesn’t bother you the same way? Anyway, Google the term “Ebony Eyes,” your doubts will be put to rest.

          It wasn’t weird for my niece because I’m white. I wrote that line in the previous response really poorly – she told me she was tired of the blonde girl hegemony. She wasn’t tired of my compliments. Little girls beam when you pay them compliments on their looks. Do you have a daughter? Try it. Give her a compliment on her pinkie toe and she’ll be floating for hours. So, no, it wasn’t awkward for her bc I am white. She was telling me that she felt bombarded by messages that only blonde-haired blue-eyed women were attractive. this from a light-skinned, green-eyed, brown girl. SHE felt undervalued.

          Of course I’ve learned to style my daughter’s hair and I’ve been learning about black culture all my life. Books, friendships, the list of examples are endless. I think it’s important for readers to remember that this is not a blog about our entire lives. It’s a blog about our barbie-play. She is involved in many other activities and engages in a wide-spectrum of activities.

          I detect a slight bit of snarky-ness when you ask whether I’ve learned to do her hair and not just the doll’s hair. Your comment makes it sound like my site is Beads, Braids and Beyond for Dolls. I only have a three posts for styling black hair and one is a pointer to another woman’s site. I just ask you to remember that again, this is not a blog about our entire lives.

          To give you a sense of how the “compliments” actually play out:

          Just this morning Leah built an avatar that had dark brown skin and blonde hair. I realized I haven’t talked at all about the color of hair. But when she showed it to me I just said, “Oh, good job. What’s her name?” Then later that day we got a Barbie toy at McDonalds and it had a choice of little dolls. I am driving so I can’t see them. I ask what her choices are and she says there’s a brown one. “Excellent! What color hair does she have?” my daughter answers “Brown” I say “Yay!! My favorite color hair! What is your favorite color hair?” Leah says “Brown” — that feels totally natural to me. Had she said her fav color hair was blond I would had said, “Okay” and given no hint of judgement or disappointment but I would have worried.

          I don’t see how your example sounds weird, I encourage people to be very specific in their praise.

          One more thing – twice you point out that I am white – in relation to giving compliments to mixed children. I think it’s important to keep in mind that while YOU might not feel comfortable receiving these compliments from me, a white woman – to these children I am not “a white person” I am “Aunt Kristl” and “Mommy” – it’s a very different perspective I think.

          I understand you disagree with me. I appreciate your comments.

  5. amanda says:

    i am trying to find a “plus size” barbie or doll something that someone can create and mixing and matching parts. any ideas where i can buy something like this? amanda1164@gmail.com would be VERY much appriciated

    1. I wish I had a million dollars and we could make them ourselves!! Of course, nothing like that exists.

  6. Johannah says:

    I love your philosophy about Barbies. You’re the first person I have heard think about Barbies the way I do. My daughter is 9 and we have been playing Barbies for years. Every weekend we play for three or four hours. In the summer we play almost every day. We once played for 8 hours straight.

    I have always thought it is great for the imagination. It’s like creating a script for a play and acting it out, all in one. I also use our playing to focus on good values sometimes. Most of the time it’s just for fun, but these are the years our children communicate with us, so I am making the most of this time. I have my Barbies talk about important issues sometimes, and of course, be very independent and intelligent and have great character and integrity (but be real and fun too!)

    I love your blog. We have always been creative about using stuff around the house to create furniture, etc. for our Barbies. It’s a lot of fun.

    Your readers might like to know about Mixis dolls. They are mixed race dolls. I love them! Same size as Barbies, with better faces and clothes. I think they have a website. I just wish I’d known about them when my niece was young.

    I’m so happy I discovered your blog.


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