I Bought a Barbie. And I Can’t Go Through With It.

Mattel's "I Can Be...A Sea World Trainer" Barbie that my daughter will not be receiving on Christmas morning.

 

For a mother, that lure of giving that perfect gift to a delighted and giddy child on Christmas morning is pretty strong.   

My daughter is obsessed with ocean life. This began several months back, when a student teacher at her preschool brought in a giant floor puzzle with an image of the layers of the ocean on it. We’ve checked out every ocean book the library offers, two times over. We’ve watched “Free Willy 4″ more times than I can count. Imaginative play usually involves Amelia training her baby brother, whom she has turned into a dolphin or seal. Our bedtime stories involve belugas and narwhals and orcas and grey whales and various attacking sharks.  

She’s been coveting this Sea World Barbie. She squeals every time we see it in the store. She picks up the box and hugs it. I try to ask her questions like, “Do you think the doll is fun? Are you more excited for the dolphin and orca?” to try to get a picture of what she is really so wild about. She does not own any other Barbies, nor does most of her play seem like if she had a Barbie, it would fit in. I’ve had people tell me the very imaginative ways their girls play with Barbie. I’m sure they do. But my daughter has very imaginative play without the aid of a sexualized toy. Sexualization is sexualization, whether it has blue eye shadow or not. 

Several weeks back I was Christmas shopping and saw this Sea World Barbie for $10. That’s half the price of the dolphin trainer doll on the Sea World website, and the doll there seems to have the same body proportions as Barbie. I do not like Barbie, but I had never purchased one as a parent, so I thought maybe I should try it and see things from that side of the fence. I bought it. And I immediately regretted it.  

I rationalized that I would talk to my husband about it, and get his take. I could always return it, and Amelia would never know. I was certain she would love this on Christmas morning, but I had this pit in my stomach every time I thought about giving her the first Barbie. It goes against everything I believe in, and work for.  

Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, estimates that 90% of 3-10 year old girls own at least one Barbie, with the majority owning eight. We fall into that other 10%, because I read the research and studies and articles all day long. I teach other parents about media literacy and sexualization and the pinkification of girlhood. I know the science behind all of this, and base my business around it. 

Still, I cannot in good conscience give my daughter a toy that is sexualized. That promotes beauty and sexiness as a woman’s ultimates assets. That only has one body size. That has ridiculously sexed up outfits for careers that aren’t very imaginative. That has impossible body and physical portions that disrespect my daughter’s natural beauty and healthy body.  

I know there are tons of people who will say “Get over yourself, Lady”, “Barbie is no big deal”, and my fave “I played with Baribe and I turned out fine”. But research is telling us over and over and over again that early sexualization IS a big deal. A really really big deal. Sexualized childhood is something I do not accept for my children.  

I just can’t do it. I can’t be responsible for giving her those messages. She’ll get them from other sources as she gets older, and it will be my job then to help her question those messages and navigate around them to stay the course of high self-esteem and positive body image.  

I have a lot of parents ask me or email me and say, “How do I do this? How do I keep this stuff away from my daughter?”. Many times I have the answers. Other times I am just the mom of an almost five year old girl, and I can’t answer because I haven’t been there yet.  

I think a lot of good parenting comes down to common sense. And when my mama instincts, when my gut, tells me “Don’t do it”, I don’t do it. Sea World Barbie will be returned to the store.  

For the record, my husband said a firm no to Barbie. Although this Barbie is certainly relatively tame, most others are not. He did, however, spend all of last Friday night digging through boxes in our basement. Saturday morning he presented Amelia with a four inch Princess Leia toy from his childhood. That’s one princess I can live with.  

Sometimes being a good parent isn’t about what you do, it is about what you don’t do. I don’t give my children toys that make my heart hurt. And I think we’ll all have smiles on our faces come Christmas morning. 

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Yesterday our friend Dr. Robyn Silverman wrote this great post: “Happy Holidays! I Hate Everything On My Child’s Wish List” with a helpful list of consideration points should you find yourself in a dilema similar to mine.

Comments

  1. At the end of the day, after all the rationalizations, opinions from others, thinking about the squeals on Christmas morning, it all comes down to your gut.
    We want to buy a play kitchen for the kids. My son wants one and it’s something he and his sister can play with together. My friend offered me her almost brand new kitchen for free. I thought, “YES! I love free toys!” and then she told me it was the Disney Princess theme. I said no. I don’t need my 15 month old daughter learning about that crap already.

    • Way to go, Mama! For the record, we LOVE our Step 2 (gender neutral) play kitchen. Benny Boy uses it all of the time…to cook his dinosaurs. But cooking none the less.

  2. I’m thinking about these kind of things too. I grew up with Barbie but that doesn’t mean it sends the right message. Sometimes being a good parent is about what you don’t do.

    Jessica

    AKA Wiggles McGiggles

    • Hi Jessica –
      I grew up playing with Barbie, too. But the Barbie today is NOT the Barbie of our youth. Her outfits and makeup alone should be enough to put most parents on edge.
      We also have to consider the difference in the urban wallpaper we raise our children in today — it is vastly different from the culture our parents faced.

      Thanks for your comment :)

  3. OK. Here is what you do: Get an Only Hearts Club doll and some Schleich Sea animals and package them up together. You can return the Barbie and stick to your principals while still giving Amelia what she is hoping for!

    • Good idea Bridie!
      I actually found a female dolphin rescue trainer person from Animal Planet. I couldn’t find an image online to link. And I meant to take a picture for the post, but realized I had already wrapped it up! Doh! I’ll share a pic after she opens it.

  4. I agree w. Birdie – my gut says to buy a few ocean mammals (is that what you call them?) and then buy a proportionate doll for her to play with – or maybe encourage Princess Leia to start working at Sea World??

  5. “Still, I cannot in good conscience give my daughter a toy that is sexualized. That promotes beauty and sexiness as a woman’s ultimates assets. That only has one body size. That has ridiculously sexed up outfits for careers that aren’t very imaginative. That has impossible body and physical portions that disrespect my daughter’s natural beauty and healthy body. ”

    I think this excerpt is so excellent useful as it points out to our daily basis struggles in the level of comparisons. When we wake up in the morning, we arent in make up yet, our body type(how large our bones are) makes us wear larges sizes to hide ourselves because we are out of the stereotype implied on us! Moreover, the partner is gorgeous meaning only being skinny and stunning, blond and driving a nice car and wearing brand clothes you can get a guy to check you out!
    But sooner or later we are going to be questioned by our daughters why they dont still have a Barbie as their friends at kindergarden already have at least one !

    • Hi Joey –
      I know she will question me, although she hasn’t shown an interest in any other Barbie but the ones sold with dolphins, which tells me she doesn’t want the Barbie, she wants the sea creatures. When she does question me, my answer will be the same as it will be when she begs for a cell phone, Facebook account, inappropriate clothing, or a riduclous curfew: It isn’t my job to parent based on popular opinion. It is my job to parent based on health and safety. If she is happy with my decisions, that is great. If she is unhappy with my decisions, I’ll know I’m doing my job.

  6. Just got taken to task on another blog discussion for being someone uncomfortable with my “femininity” because I object to “Bride” as one of Barbie’s “career options.”

    I went to great lengths to try to redeem/subvert some thrift store Barbie knockoffs…and eventually concluded that there was simply no way to really overcome the basic problem. There’s just not much you can do about the sexualization of Barbie’s basic form and face–no matter what outfit you put her in, she’s still a sexualized object dressed up as something-or-other, and no matter how “empowering” that outfit may be, she’s a sexualized body and fetishized face wearing it. The outfit comes off (and is this how we want our daughters to think of careers and vocations, as “outfits” to take on and off?!) but the body and face are constant.

    • HI JTB –
      I hope you are treated with more respect here. You make an excellent point, there just isn’t much you can do once a toy is sexualized. I was talking with a girlfriend whose neice had received the new Toy Story Get In Shape Barbie. She became frustrated with the doll and stopped playing with it because the clothes fit so tightly she could not remove them to change Barbie’s outfit.

      I also love the connection you make between careers being reduced to outfits. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I think the important thing is to do what YOU think is right regardless of all the people that don’t have a problem with it. I would have totally given it to her, but I’m not you and Amelia is not Baby Girl and you know what is right for your daughter.

  8. For the record, I grew up in a strictly NON-Barbie house, and I turned out fine:)
    (We had several Princess Leia’s though!)

  9. You have to do what you feel is right. My girl has Barbies, but they were my old ones (my mom brought them over one day and I thought I’d give it a try) …and the clothes from back then are a bit more modest then today’s styles. She is playing great imaginary stories with them. The only thing I have refused so far is when she begged for a Barbie 3 story house. The thing is pink and plastic and I refused. But a house for the dolls to play in would be good (also a good place to keep them instead of on the floor), so I got one that was a bit more money, but it is made of sturdy wood and is neutral with colors. IF any issues arise with her thinking she needs to look like Barbie, we’ll sit down and talk about it. I did not grow up with any issues about my body (well, not from a doll- my issues were from abuse, which is a different story) In fact, when I played with my Barbies, so very long ago, we played horse trainer, animal rescuer, world traveler, veterinarian, and race car driver. I never got into the fashion or clothes or makeup. Every kid is different and it also helps to have parents to help teach the child about what is a doll and what is real life.

    • HI Michelle –
      I like your comment about sitting down with her to talk about body image. Have those conversations, whether or not problems arise. They are crucial! I wish I knew what happened to my old Barbies. I would love to be able to compare the clothes from 25 years ago to now.

  10. So nice to “meet” another Melissa who has a daughter crazy about all things whales, etc. (My daughter is obsessed with orcas, as you can see from my “most recent post” link ;) She asked for a Barbie doll this Christmas and although I hadn’t seen this one until reading your post, she isn’t getting one for the very reasons you so very well articulated.

    Love your blog, BTW.

    • Oh. My. OrcaGirl. Her blog is too funny! I’ll have my daughter leave a comment for her later on.

      Thanks for the compliments on the blog! They are appreciated!

  11. I grew up with a few barbies, and honestly, I don’t remember having body issues from them specifically (like Michelle, my issues stemmed from abuse). However, a friend of mine (who owned something like 150 Barbies, Kens, and accessories) had MAJOR issues from playing with them! I will never forget how she used to play “sex” with her dolls…for a little girl being sexually abused (me, not her), it was pretty traumatic to watch. I remember not liking my dolls as much after that. In high school, I bought myself a little black doll family (Ken, Barbie, baby), and I liked to sit them on my bookshelf near my bed, where I could see them. The baby (little boy) wore over alls, the dad wore gym shorts and a tank top, and the mom wore straight-leg jeans and a tee shirt. The black dolls (of the early 2000’s) didn’t wear much makeup, and they were marginally less sexualized in shape. I think I was trying to give myself a recreation of family (another story, for another time). If I could find dolls like that for my girls (should I have any), I would consider it. But I compeletely agree with you that most Barbies are far too sexualized. If I can’t find ones like I got in highschool, my house will be a Barbie-free-zone, too.

    • Hi Alena –
      Thank you for sharing your story. I think you should go check out the website http://www.sophieandlili.com — I think those dolls will instantly find a fit inside your heart :) A little secret between you and me – me daughter has one already, is getting another for Christmas, and I cannot wait for us each to have one to snuggle as we drift off to sleep at bedtime. Every girl deserves a girlhood.

      There are other doll options out there, so should the time come that you have kids, you’ll be able to find better and more healthy options than Barbie.

  12. Just last night I was talking with a friend who was debating over getting her 3 year old a Barbie doll for Christmas. I don’t have a daughter, but my gut kept screaming no as we were talking. I have Barbie’s growing up. I thought that’s what I would look like as an adult. They are unrealistic and I think that the longer we can avoid sending these messages to our girls, the better off they are.

    Good job, mama, for following your heart.

  13. Bravo to you Melissa! Your decision not to buy the Barbie is such a loving, act of kindness for your lucky daughter.

    I am not a mother though I really wanted to be. I was raised in a crazy family where there was violence and sexual abuse. But, to me, the most tragic and painful thing of all was how everything became sexualized. Life as a teenager was one big massacre of women, their bodies and their sexual selves.

    I say this as a thriving survivor of all that such things can do to a young girl and woman’s psyche and emotional self. To some, this may only be about buying your daughter what she wants. To me, it’s so much bigger.

    Have a wonderful Xmas! And I know one day your daughter will know and appreciate what a conscientious and caring mother you are. No doubt, she will be a very happy woman one day.

  14. Good on you for standing by what you believe, I really wish more parents would! I personally don’t have *too* many issues with Barbie, that said my daughter has only one (a vet) and I choose any extra outfits (non sexual thank you and yes it was a mission finding one decent outfit!) I was relieved to see Bratz go off the market but I’m less than thrilled with the Moxie Dolls that have replaced them, they are another doll that is sexualised and makes me shudder. And yes, if someone gave my daughter one I would be politely refusing it.

  15. OK, I’m sticking out my neck here, but… I think you should give it to her.
    You know I’m not anti-princess or Barbie. I think moderation and explanation are the key.

    I think there’s a point where we focus so much on the hypersexualization of the toys, we lose sight of the fact that, to our kids, it’s just a doll.

    What about approaching this from a different perspective?

    What if you play with the doll with her and have a discussion with her about why Barbie is not realistic and doesn’t represent real women. And it also opens a discussion with A about why toy manufacturer create toys that way.

    The reality is, at some point she is going to play with a Barbie. If not at home, than at a friends house. Wouldn’t you rather it be at home so you can explain why you don’t feel it’s an appropriate toy?

    I also think that if we take things too far one way, one day these kids are going to rebel against it in a major way.

    Rather than bubble wrapping my daughter, I’d rather she was aware and educated. Naivety can be just as dangerous as exposure without a modifying influence.

    • Jenn –
      I understand your point, but I don’t think I am raising a naive or bubble wrapped child. It has been explained to her that her parents do not think Barbie gives nice messages to girls hearts, and we want her to have a happy heart. With me as her mom, she has no choice but to think critically about issues, and that is the opposite of naive.

      She will and has played with Barbie at other people’s houses. I’m fine with that, as it will certainly be part of her growing up in America. I’m not looking to move her to a commune, I’m looking to make sure that the toys I provide in my own home reflect our family values and what I know to be most healthy for my girl.

      It isn’t so much my focus on the sexualized nature of the toy, as it is the process of sexualization that takes place once the doll enters our home. To our kids it is just a doll, as in one of the links I provided, most kids are not aware they are being sexualized when they are being sexualized.

      I guess my feeling is, if I have to do that much deconstruction of the toy, maybe it just doesn’t have a place in our house. It seems silly to me to put a toy in her tiny hands, but then have to say, “Baby Girl, this isn’t what real women look like or how they dress or how their bodies could biologically survive, but I want you to just play with her and be happy and if you start to feel bad about your body, just come talk to me, m’kay?” I’m not trying to be a smartass, but I think you get my drift.

      Ultimately, there is just too much science behind the idea that this kind of early exposure of hypersexualization and distorted body images does do tangible harm. As her mother, I cannot be responsible for that.

      I know you well enough to know that you have meaningful conversations with V that she is receiving balance, and I don’t judge you for any of the choices you make. They just aren’t right for me.

      • Fair enough, and I totally understand where you’re coming from.
        But, just to play devils advocate, because I would be me if I didn’t…

        “It has been explained to her that her parents do not think Barbie gives nice messages to girls hearts”

        And yet she still covets and desperately wants a Barbie.

        So… do you think she’s really getting the message? Or is she hearing “wah wah wah Barbie wah wah”?

        • Right, but she doesn’t want the Barbie doll. She wants the sea animals that come with the Barbie doll that bears the Sea World logo. She has never expressed interest for any other Barbie, at any other time. She wants that damn plastic dolphin.

          I think she’s hearing and absorbing the message.

  16. We recieved a “Going Home” Barbie when we adopted our child from China. Matteo gave them to all the families. This Barbie comes complete with a Chinese baby (um yeah).

    I wasn’t going to give it to my daughter but she saw it when I was looking for something else. It was promptly threw it in the toy bin. She has no real interest in dolls but I would much rather her play with her Mulan doll (positive ethnic role model) than with any Barbie. So I say go with the other doll over Barbie any day.

    • I think you bring up an excellent point that really deserves its own blog post, but what I learned from a mentor of mine who is African-American, is that we do a disservice to our girls by not having accurate media portrayals of their ethnic beauty and uniqueness.

      “Going Home” Barbie is kinda offensive. Chinese children are not pets we pick up as souvenirs or accessories we wear on our hips. But to be fair, there is a huge number of adopted Chinese children who can relate to being brought to a new home and new family that is most likely Caucasian, and perhaps that doll would help with the transition?

      I would think a Chinese woman or child deserves her own doll and likeness, instead of being yet another accessory to Barbie.

  17. Going out on a limb here, but I have to confess I bought my son a Barbie this year for Christmas.

    You see my husband has two girls and being entry level parents still tweaking what we’re comfortable with, I brought out my old tub of Barbies from when I was a child and gave them to my two stepdaughters (now 5 & 3) Of course my now 4YO son trails along his sisters constantly, dresses up in their dress-up clothes, sometimes wearing a princess dress, sometimes being a fire fighter, etc. He wants his nails painted, his hair braided, and make-up on. He’s recently fed into the paranoia of “does my clothes match?” and essentially worships all things sisters. So, for Christmas, I bought him a boy Barbie. He can now play with his sisters.

    We also have restocked our gender neutral play kitchen, our craft supplies, purchased books based on interests, and gone the way of lego, playmobil and tinker toys …

    I guess the few hours a month the kids play with the Barbies makes it a non-issue at the moment. As long as I ensure we have a variety of hair colors, ethnicity, and appropriate dress … With the last one being the big issue for me at this point.

  18. I had barbies from a relatively young age , say about 5, and I have no body image problems from owning one. Although I did wish my clothes were as pretty as hers! My body image problems started at puberty and by then I had long forgotten about barbie.

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