If you’re a millennial mom, some of your favorite childhood memories likely involve Barbie. Your old friend was an astronaut, an RV driver, a stand-in at the dream wedding venue, and a staple in the mansion. But of course, the first thing you did was strip her down and put other outfits and ridiculous heels on her. She wasn’t only a doctor or only a beach girl, she was whoever you wanted her to be. My nieces now have my collection, minus the shoes (obviously), and though their hair may be frizzy, the rest of them is still in top, well-loved condition. To my knowledge, none of the Barbies have retained their original career training.
Reading the news about Barbie’s new body (or, bodies, really), brought out waves of emotions, and a few questions. Were these new dolls Barbies? Barbie, to me, is blonde, tall, and, yes, prone to tipping. You wanted something different? You went with Midge, or Skipper or one of Barbie’s host of friends. Those weren’t Barbie, even though we called them barbies.
TIME Magazine wrote about introducing the new Barbies to a group of girls, and noted that, even though they identified with the new Barbies and played with them, they didn’t identify them as Barbie:
“And despite the girls who thought the curvy doll looked fat, most of the kids in the groups I observe choose their favorite doll or the doll that looks most like them based on hair, not body shape. A curvy, blue-haired doll that many girls dub Katy Perry is by far the most popular. But when asked which doll is Barbie, the girls invariably point to a blonde.”
So what’s the concern, the crux of the issue? For one, “old” Barbie (sorry, girl) is scientifically unrealistic, so the concern is that she’s presenting unrealistic expectations to a group who is impressionable (aren’t we all) and causing body image issues.
I don’t know if Barbie is doing that.
I don’t know that she isn’t doing that.
I don’t know that the new Barbies will help and/or fix that.
Here’s what I do know.
My mother never talked about weight. Year ago, before there were studies about how particularly girls emulate their mothers, she was ahead of her time. Did she think herself flawless? I doubt it. Did she understand that leading a healthy lifestyle with a respect for your body was important? Absolutely.
She never once mentioned my physical body in a negative way, but she also never focused on it. She praised my talents, my school work, my friends (they were awesome friends), and my work ethic. Sure, she also told me she liked certain outfits, but the closest she ever came to saying something negative about clothing was saying, “That doesn’t really do anything for you,” which always referred to the color palate, or letting me know that larger chested girls didn’t really need to be wearing super skimpy juniors dresses (thankyouthankyouthank, mom!). #lifelessons
She never criticized me, or others. I never heard her whisper about someone’s appearance behind their back. She never weighed someone’s worth by the size on their tags, and yet.
I remember not wanting to wear a specific brand of jeans, because it told your size in inches on the back tag, visible to everyone.
I remember thinking in high school, while playing three sports, this is the best my body is ever going to get. (Hello 16 year old me! You are wrong!)
I remember a basketball coach refusing to give me a uniform until I lost weight before a season.
I remember sucking in while taking a shower, only to wonder who on earth that was suppose to benefit.
I remember my college roommate always asking why I bought baggier clothing than I needed.
I remember being pregnant for the first time and loving it because I realized it was the first time in my life I didn’t feel anything negative about my body.
I should mention I’m 5’10” and have stayed between 135-145 since eighth grade, giving me a BMI of between 19.4 and 20.8 (firmly in the “Normal” range of 18.5-24.9). While I can certainly feel the need to work out to improve my strength, bone density, and (heaven help me) posture, weight shouldn’t even be on my mind.
Now I have a daughter (and a son, but he’s still in the gurgle-and-drool phase), and I notice her noticing me. We talk about how makeup is fun and mommy likes playing with it as she watches me put it on each morning, not how I “need” to wear it. We talk about what clothes are right for what season, and what activity (no long dresses on the fast slides– you get tangled!). We talk about eating healthy foods so that our bodies can grow, not so that we can fit into our favorite jeans.
I catch her looking in the mirror and fluffing up her hair. She grabs her toy lipstick and smears it expertly across her lips. She knows exactly what she wants to wear each day. She’s two. She has zero Barbies.
I know my time is coming. There is so much research happening. Don’t say “you’re so smart!”; instead say, “you worked so hard!” or “I love that you figured that out!” Encourage the process, and not the label. There’s even research showing how linguistics of Disney movies play into our girls’ perceptions of themselves.
Basically, I envy Cooking Light Executive Food Editor Ann Taylor Pittman, who said among other things in reaction to the Barbie news, “I’m glad I have boys”, but I also wouldn’t trade having my daughter for the world. I would also give the world for her never to struggle with body image issues.
Did Mattel go too far? Not far enough? Will this change how our girls see their bodies? The short answer is, I don’t know.
The long answer is that I can’t prepare the road for my child. I can’t take away every unrealistic vision of what the female body can or should do, or what it should look like. What I can do, the only things I can do, really, are model healthy eating habits for her, show her how to use her body to make it big and strong, encourage her to understand that people come in all shapes and sizes, and correct misperceptions as I hear and see them.
I don’t want her to be obsessed with size or weight. I want her to be obsessed with Legos and her newly-discovered scissor skills. And I wouldn’t mind if she picked up a few Barbies, of any shape or size, along the way.