Barbie, our uninvited guest

Recently, Lily said, “I want a dollie.”

Now, she has three different baby dolls (rendered distinct by the monikers Old Baby, New Baby, and Weird Baby), as well as a rag doll kind of thing, so I asked about whether she was referring to any of those first. Nope.

I remembered then that she’d occasionally played with Barbies in the older kids’ playroom at her daycare, so I took a deep breath and reluctantly asked, “Do you mean a Barbie? You want a Barbie?”

“Yeah, a BOB-by,” she said, nodding emphatically. “With white hair in a ponytail. And wings.”

Admittedly, the last detail threw me a bit. But still, the dreaded B-word had been spoken. So I’m thinking that I’ll have to look past my own baggage regarding the iconic doll’s ludicrous, lifelong-body-issue-neuroses-inducing physical proportions and let my daughter explore her innocent desire to play with one.

Not that it would be the first, or only, Barbie in our house. But up until now, the others’ presence had been, well, subtle.

For a dear friend (and fellow “Project Runway” fanatic) had once given me a collectors’ edition Barbie. (In season 2 of the reality series, the contestants designed an outfit for Barbie, and the winning look was actually produced in a limited edition.) That doll sits in its box on the bookshelf in our bedroom, and Lily recently pointed at it and asked, “What’s that?”

Because the doll had been a gift, and because I’d generally hoped to minimize Barbie’s presence and influence in our daughter’s home, I said, “Well, sweetie, that doll is Mommy’s. A friend gave it to me, but I don’t take it out of the box, because it’s a special one.” Naturally, I felt profoundly silly and guilty while saying this – so guilty that my mind immediately combed through any other doll options that might be in the house that I could offer Lily as a substitute.

And in this moment, I remembered another still-in-the-box Barbie that Joe had once received from Richard Simmons (yes, he of the tank tops, shorty-shorts, and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies”) during a live taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman” that we went to together in the late 90s. It was near the holidays, and Simmons had entered the Ed Sullivan Theater from the back way, running down the aisle while doling out Barbie dolls to various people in the crowd; Joe was one lucky recipient.

I quickly did some figuring in my mind. The doll had been in our basement for years, its box thickly coated in dust. It was a cute, kitschy memento, but Joe hadn’t opened it because there’d been no reason to open it before, right? Now that his little girl wanted to play with a Barbie, he’d be happy to let her break it out, wouldn’t he?

So I made the call without thinking much more about it, leading Lily downstairs to release the black 1996 Olympic gymnast Barbie from its Fort Knox-like packaging. And Lily happily carried it around the rest of the day. But when Joe came home, it became clear I’d made the wrong decision.

“That’s the doll I got when we went to Letterman,” he said, dejected. I knew that; of course I knew that. But I reflexively, guiltily pretended like my memory was hazy on this point. Just as I’d always meant to keep the “Project Runway” Barbie stored away to look at occasionally, Joe had obviously intended on keeping the Richard Simmons-bestowed Barbie in its box for years to come, so he could remember one of our first trips to New York City together.

And why didn’t I know this? I’ve long been aware that if there’s a romantic in this partnership, it’s Joe, hands down. Yet my own selfishness caused me to vaguely convince myself that he’d have no sentimental attachment to this item.

All of which is to say, like everyone, I can be a real jerk sometimes. Or at least someone who’s knee-jerk solutions are sometimes on the shallow and unwise side (yet more evidence that always going with your gut isn’t necessarily the best policy).

For a while, I tried to make myself feel better by telling myself that I’d put the Barbie back in its box. And indeed, for a couple of weeks, Lily forgot about the doll entirely, so I considered this possibility more and more. But yesterday, out of nowhere, Lily asked for the doll with black hair and stripes (on her gymnast tights). So Barbie is suddenly high on our two year old’s radar again.

I’ll admit that I was hoping against hope to avoid Barbie altogether. But she’s out of the box now, in every sense of the phrase.

While I certainly don’t think the doll is the sole cause of low-self-esteem and body issues in girls/women, it’s often one of the first prominent images – for little girls, particularly – of what “pretty women” are SUPPOSED to look like. Yes, the onslaught of idealized female images is ultimately unavoidable; I can’t keep Lily in a cosmetics-and-fashion-ad-free deprivation chamber throughout her childhood. But at this point, what she’s aware of, and what she sees, are largely filtered by way of our decision to share things with her.

However, by way of Lily’s daycare center, Barbie ended up sticking her little, high-heel-molded foot into the door of our house. Ah, well.

I certainly went through a brief Barbie phase as a kid; and while, like nearly all women, I suffer flashes of shame and doubt about my body and general appearance sometimes, I never suffered from an eating disorder or anything of that nature. So I remind myself that despite the inevitable, media supermodel parade that awaits Lily, she still has a chance at becoming a self-assured young woman who (hopefully) will have the critical thinking skills necessary to unpack the propaganda.

And despite my screw-up with Joe’s doll from Letterman, I’ll admit that I’ve lately thought that if Lily’s going to have a Barbie, I’m kind of glad it’s not the standard blond-with-blue-eyed type. My hope is that this will, from the get-go, inspire her to see all different types of people as beautiful.

It is just a doll, though. And despite my tendency to neurotically over-think such things, I need to remember that to Lily, it’s just another item to carry around and bend and undress. Mommy’s the one bringing all this paranoia to the situation.

So, note to self: Lily and I have years and years of conversations about beauty pageants, “reality” television, and women’s magazines ahead of us. For right now, I’m just going to let her play.

One thought on “Barbie, our uninvited guest

  1. Andy says:


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