Thursday, May 19, 2011

My First Barbie

A true tale.

My best friend growing up not only had Barbies; she had a custom-made Barbie house that her handy father built for her. And the car, and Ken, and Strawberry Shortcake too, which made for some weird perspective play as a seven-year-old because she was almost as tall as Barbie, but I digress. And while I knew I would never get a custom-made Barbie house of my own, at the very least I wanted my own property to bring over to Lisa's so that I wasn't forever at her mercy of which Barbie I might get to play with that day.

So I asked for a Barbie, and was denied. So I begged for a Barbie, and was denied. I may have cried, but even at that age such behavior seemed beneath me; I always preferred reasoning over cheap emotional tactics. Proof of this is in my first will, circa 1982, which I slipped under my bedroom door for my parents to find after they had unjustly banished me to my room for the afternoon; then and there I decided to waste away in my room for eternity, in order to show them. I hastily wrote my goodbyes, then thought to retrieve it to crayon in a codicil: "Leave everything to Lisa"—even in despair, I was practical. 

Pragmatism must be an inherited trait, as shown when my parents turned the tables on me—wily, they are!—and said I could have a Barbie, if I paid for it myself. This didn't faze me; I'd never bought anything with my own money before, so all the pennies and nickels I'd picked up off the ground were burning a hole in my piggy bank. There may have even been a stray dollar in there, ferreted away from a clandestine handoff from an aunt or two. The Barbie—branded by Mattel as, fittingly enough, My First Barbie—cost seven dollars. I presented fistfuls of change to my parents, who then—listen up, Generation Y!—took the most convenient route of purchase, which was to place a call to the JCPenney's Catalogue toll-free number and issue the order to a live operator.

Then, we had to wait a few weeks for delivery, during which time my anticipation of the Barbie grew exponentially. I bragged to Lisa about how soon I wouldn't have to play with her Barbies anymore; I'd have my own Barbie and my Barbie could be friends with her Barbies just like we were friends and the whole thing seemed fantastic in a mathematical sort of way.

The JCPenney's Catalogue didn't deliver to your home, mind you (that cost extra, and my funds were depleted); you had to go to the JCPenney's and pick up your package. My mother and I took our tan hatchback through the drive-through service window for expediency, and my mother thrust the package into my lap as quickly as humanly possible, as though it were coated with flesh-eating toxins that only targeted adult skin.

A word about my parents: My feminism was handed down to me the way some families hand down, say, the Baptist faith, and in fact I've been accused of using feminism as my religion. That may be true, and while I like to think I'm an autonomous creature who also happens to be a feminist, the fact is that growing up in a feminist household engrains certain things into your mind. We actually were Methodist in a loose sort of way, and when your mother sings hymns in church with a female-gendered spin—"Praise her! Praise her our heavenly mother!" rang my mother's dischord in our small South Dakota town—it lets you know that this feminist stuff is to be taken seriously. My hyphenated last name is theirs; my strict usage of "letter carrier," "firefighter," and "police officer" is theirs; I still have the "Ankle-Biting Feminist" pin I wore to an ERA protest march in 1980.

So is it any surprise that my parents' wariness of Barbie went beyond the fiscal implications? For those of you who missed my mother's guest post here: Ours was not a household in which beauty per se was elevated. So to have a daughter pleading for Barbie—the embodiment of everything my parents were trying to tell me I didn't need to be—must have been anathema to them. And I don't know what they thought would happen once I'd acquired one, but here's what did:

I stared at the brown-paper-wrapped package on my lap for a moment, and it hit me: All my money, all the times I'd bent over to pick up a penny or tucked away those secret dollars instead of frittering them away at the corner candy store—every cent I'd owned was in that box. And I no longer had the money. True, I hadn't worked for it, but it had been mine, and it wasn't any more. I'd bet it all on Barbie.

This truth seemed unbearable. Not that I no longer wanted the Barbie: I did, and I played with her, and enjoyed our time together until I decapitated her and split her chin in the process, as all little girls do to their Barbies eventually. I just knew, as she sat in my lap, still unwrapped, that I'd never get my money back. I couldn't ever spend that money on anything else—I mean, I hadn't planned on using it to get to Cuba, but now the option was gone. Every option was gone. It was just me and her from now on.

My investment failure increased exponentially when, during the transaction's debriefing, I had to sit through my mother's extraordinarily embarrassing presentation titled Barbie Isn't Like Mommy. "Mommy has hair there, and Barbie doesn't. Mommy's waist doesn't look like that; Mommy's breasts look different [she may have referenced nipples but my memory is fuzzy on this point]; Mommy's feet can be flat and don't have to wear high heels." It was a worthy effort on her part, yet her audience was already dejected, jilted. I was in no mood to listen to prattling about Barbie's lack of pubic hair. I had already internalized how she was just a piece of cheap—or rather, extraordinarily expensive, given my debt-to-income ratio at the time—plastic.

Last month when I spent nearly an entire afternoon fretting about whether I should spend the $80 for one of life's greatest pleasures—a qi gong massage—my gentleman friend pointed out that I rarely spend money on nice things for myself. (Full disclosure: I did recently buy an amazing, outrageously priced pair of sunglasses that I will wear to the grave if I have anything to say about it.) And in general, he's right. My spending money overwhelmingly goes toward eating out and travel, not items, though I don't believe this makes me any less materialistic. And I rarely feel deprived by my spending habits. I don't know how much I learned about Barbie vs. Mommy on that day, or even what I learned about beauty standards. But in the drive home from the JCPenney Catalogue pick-up window, I learned a lot about, as Virginia Sole-Smith terms it, the price I was willing to pay for pretty.


  1. "I was in no mood to listen to prattling about Barbie's lack of pubic hair. I had already internalized how she was just a piece of cheap—or rather, extraordinarily expensive, given my debt-to-income ratio at the time—plastic."

    Poor Autumn-of-years-gone-by! Learning valuable life-lessons so often sucks.

    Sometimes I STILL have those "oh no, I traded my money for something stupid!" moments. They sting.

  2. Wow. I don't quite know what to say, though I want to say something. What an incredibly profound post. I had the same cravings for a Barbie, but after a while she got a severe haircut, was clad in black lycra and transformed into Catwoman - who at that time in my life, was a lot more interesting. I can understand your parents' concern - and the presentation your mother gave made me squirm!! - but it's surprising what we rise above as long as we're encouraged to question everything.

  3. great post. I had so many barbies- 50 at the last count. My sister and I created extrodinarily complex games with them, it was very creative play. We had a large number of Ken dolls too. It's funny, considering how much a part of my childhood Barbie was, that she had so little influence on me afterwards in terms of romantic expectations, fashion and beauty. I think we realized that they were children's dolls and therefore an imitation of life- not real life. And as teenagers we rejected Barbie and her over-glamourized look because Barbie was a child's doll, not something for teenagers, and we were grown up now. ;)

  4. Rebekah, I still have those moments too--and actually, they're usually the adult equivalent of Barbie. My driver's license picture was taken the day after I spent $200 on highlights, and every time I look at the photo I REALLY WANT MY MONEY BACK.

    Mrs. Bossa, I only wish I'd Catwomaned my Barbie! I basically just decimated her. In any case, yes, it was the questioning that served me well. Straight-out forbidding has the opposite effect (my parents forbade me from going to see "Dirty Dancing" in the theater, so of course I insisted at every single slumber party that we watch it); raising questions presents a challenge that even a seven-year-old can live up to.

    Maria, pleased to "meet" you! I'm wondering if perhaps the fact that you were swimming in Barbies allowed you to see them as mere objects of play instead of as a projection of womanhood? Like, when you have 50 of the same thing they take on a different meaning rather than being singularly coveted. In any case, interesting that we arrived at similar conclusions through totally different means!

  5. amazing post :) very personal and witty. I loved my barbies, and I consider myself a feminist today, but I don't have any qualms with barbie. I guess I just really don't remember thinking I should look like her, bodywise, and I never thought she was the hight of bodily beauty at all. I always made a clear distinction between real people and dolls, and I think all kids do. I did want her outfits though.

  6. Hi Annebeth--Thanks! (And nice to meet you/your blog too! I just took my first visit to Dutch-speaking lands, though it was the Netherlands, not Belgium...)

    I don't think I ever consciously felt I should look like Barbie; it was more that she sort of reinforced a body ideal that was around me anyway. (In fact, the doll I felt most irrationally attached to was a rag doll that resembled absolutely no human, ever.) But it's interesting to me to hear from feminists who played with Barbies with no qualms as a child--I think the link was made in my head so early on that now I see them as Pure Evil, when in fact they're not. They're dolls! Dolls that, in the right hands, are just that; and that in the wrong ones can become emblematic of something more unsettling. I'm glad that you fell on the happier end of the spectrum!

  7. The only barbie I was ever handed I threw back in the face of the man who handed it to me. I must've known, even then.

  8. Westwood, I'm guessing that the man who handed you a Barbie was your father, back when you were a tender age. But in my head this incident took place when you were an adult, and it was on a second date instead of flowers, and it's royally funny that was, so I'm keeping it, okay?

  9. Oh, Barbie. I think I can more clearly picture the outfits I had for her than the ones I had for my eight year old self.
    Perhaps you'd like to read this AM Holmes short story about Barbie? []
    I like that we're still playing with Barbies as adult women, but as a language/memory game more so than a physical toy.

  10. Booksidetable, thanks for A) reading, and B) sending along that short story--excellent! And I love your point about Barbies still being a source of play for us in adulthood.