Childhood was awash with playthings. Paper for shrinking down in the oven, crayons for melting out on the sidewalk, toy cars for racing down the hall, and, of course, long-legged Barbies for dressing. My personal variation on the familiar Barbie mutilation story involved lighting one perfectly sculpted leg on fire. I wanted to see if she would bleed. But she didn’t. The moment when match hit plastic was a pretty big one in my short life. Right up there with the news that Santa Claus didn’t live in the North Pole.
It was in this moment that I first realized Barbie wasn’t like me. Barbie had perfectly pert breasts while mine went all saggy. Her blonde hair fell in smooth waves while mine had been recently placed under a bowl and cut. Her legs didn’t have a single scar, while years of climbing mango trees and playing roof tag had left mine ragged. It was a crushing blow to learn that I could never ever look like what I had been, and continued to be told, was beautiful.
Over this past weekend, Mattel released its line of redefined Barbies. Now, when young girls go to their play boxes and take out their friends, someone who looks like them will be staring back. Their developing brains will catch sight of a model of beauty that they don’t have to aspire towards, but can achieve simply by being themselves. Praise the Mattel Gods that this new Barbie comes in more shapes and sizes than 00 and 34D. This revamped Barbie is tall, petite and curvy. Mattel, the company who owns the rights to the Barbie doll, markets these body types as “new,” almost as though they are just now being acknowledged as viable physical dimensions.
While this transition has been tied largely to Mattel’s declining sales, there is a sense that steps are being made towards cultivating a healthier sense of self-love in the young girls who play with Barbies. I, however, remain skeptical of the whole idea of playing with dolls.
While there is certainly something to be gained in having a companion, a listening ear to whom you can tell your secrets and express your pain, there is absolutely no substitute for real human interaction. The fact that girls’ dolls have become the epitome of physical beauty makes me wonder if their silence and fixed expressions aren’t also offering young girls a model of passivity that isn’t desirable for their developing psyches. Dolls have no voice with which to disagree or to express an opinion. Their only viable means of such expression are through their clothing, the complexities of which can be constantly changed, as though offering a substitute for emotions.
While the counter-argument to this belief will always be that “girls just want to have fun,” and dolls are merely an outlet to provide this fun, I can’t help but worry about the relationship between a piece of plastic and a living, breathing being. These dolls may become imbued with too much power and relevance in the eyes of their owners, a tragedy whose ramifications we may never fully understand.
Contact Hannah Broderick at inbloom ‘at’ stanford.edu.