She Snuck a Barbie and the World Didn’t End

Barbie and Bindi Irwin. One of these things is not like the other.

This weekend my daughter snuck a Barbie doll that I use for Media Literacy Workshops for parents, teaching them the harms of gender stereotyping and sexualization. And she wouldn’t give it back. Ironic, I know.

I had taken Surfer Barbie and Wolverine out of the bag to snap a picture of them together to illustrate my point on how disproportionate their bodies are, coupled with stats on how boys’ and girls’ positive body image is tanking. After I got the photo I needed, I shoved Barbie under a pile of baby clothes headed for the tub in the basement, except her damn legs are so long they were sticking out from underneath the jammies and t-shirts. I was in a hurry to get the kids their lunch, so I didn’t give it much thought.

And that was my undoing. Apparently 5 year old girls have Barbie radar, because Amelia was on that doll like white on rice. She noticed it a few minutes later, ran to it, looked around to see if I was watching, then grabbed it and ran back to my desk while holding Barbie victoriously above her head as she expelled a giant “AHHH HA! Now I have Barbie!!”

I might have muttered something under my breath, then said to myself, “Self, just play it cool.”

“Mmkay, Smalls. Well, why don’t you go play while I finish this email and then make lunch.” That’s me, playing it so cool as Amelia races upstairs to go stash Barbie somewhere in her room.

While eating lunch, Amelia has pondered up a few questions, because up to her this point, her 5 years, 4 months, and 5 days of life have been Barbie/Bratz free. (for the sake of disclosure, we have a couple of Disney Princess books that were hand-me-downs)

“Hey Mom, why are Barbie’s feet high and pointy?” Amelia asks.

“Because she always wears high heels,” I say, extremely interested to see where this is going.

“Yeah, but she is supposed to be a surfer so how can she surf in heels?”

“I know, right? Doesn’t make much sense to me either. Maybe she leaves her heels on the beach.”

“And and AND a shark EATS her! Rawmahnaom rawrrrerrr!!” offers Benny, Amelia’s little brother. Ben and I fist bump.

“Ugh, Ben. And Mom? Why does she wear so much make up? Bindi doesn’t wear make up but she also surfs and she has the right kind of feet. Her make up would wash off…” Amelia trails off, I can tell she is sorting it out in her head, so I let it marinate for a few moments.

“Yes, I suppose it would. I don’t wear make up when I swim because it seems silly and it would wash off.”

“Mom, you wear make up so you don’t look so tired. Maybe that is why Barbie wears it,” suggests Amelia.

“Darling, Barbie does not have children. I don’t think she is as tired as Mommy is. I think she just always wears make up.”

“Mom, why are her legs longer than Bindi’s legs?” asks Amelia.

“Well, Barbie is supposed to be an adult and Bindi is a kid, so Barbie is taller. Barbie is like, twenty five and Bindi is only twelve. But if Barbie were a real life person, her body could not look like that. Her body wouldn’t function the way it needs to in order to be healthy,” I answer.

“Huh,” says Amelia.

“Huh,” says I.

And that was the end of it for the afternoon, until my husband came home from work. The dogs alerted Amelia that he had pulled into the garage, so she tore upstairs to grab Barbie, and then rushed to the door to meet her daddy.

“Ohmygawd DAD! Look! I got a Barbie and now I know what she feels like and she wears high heels but not when she swims but she does wear make up all the time and she isn’t tired like mom!”

“Holy sh…..should we tell Mom what you have?” asks my husband.

“Yeah, who cares? Mom said I could play with it.”

“Seriously?” questions my husband as he walks into the dining room. “You let her have a Barbie?”

“No, she stole Barbie. But getting it back from her will be a bigger deal than just letting her play with it for a couple of days. I guarantee you that plastic hunk will be forgotten somewhere by Monday morning.”

“The world IS coming to an end this weekend,” jokes my husband.

“Heh, maybe. But Surfer Barbie has a tasteful tankini on, which is better to me than a uber sexy, club-y outfit. And Amelia has already begun to question why she is so different from her Bindi Irwin doll, so let’s just let it be.”

“Fine, but I don’t want her to have any more Barbies. That’s just garbage for her head,” my husband says. Ahhh, I do love the man.

“Agreed.”

So that was that. Amelia never mentioned Barbie for the rest of the weekend. Barbie was stuffed in a box with the Bindi doll and all of Amelia’s headbands and jewelry and never resurfaced. I had to dig around for her this morning after the kiddos were at preschool.

I’m not glad Amelia swiped her from the counter, but I’m glad she immediately started to question why Barbie was different from the other toys she has been raised with. I’m glad Amelia’s foundation is rooted in healthy, non-sexualized, age appropriate lessons so that Barbie isn’t the norm. To Amelia, Barbie looked abnormal. Fine by me.

I don’t feel like I have failed my daughter. I try to be a great parent, but not a perfect one. Amelia won’t be getting any more Barbies. I don’t like Barbie any better than I did last week, but it was actually rather cool to see how it played out, as I knew this day would come at some point. And my daughter questioned what didn’t make sense to her. All I ask is that she never stops questioning.

We can’t have our kids live in a bubble. We can’t be perfect parents. We have every right to keep products and messages out of our homes that we know to be harmful to our kids and their development. The message I want to send is that even when something slips through the cracks, if you have raised your children with a healthy and balanced foundation, they will question the messages and experiences that do not make sense to them.

Never stop questioning.

Comments

  1. My four year old daughter (who has a few mild learning difficulties) got a fairy Barbie from a charity shop so I reluctantly let her have it. She broke off it’s wings and I saw her putting it on her toy digger truck and driving it around. I later saw her kick a ball around and carrying the doll. She also got Disney princess dolls. She removed the dresses and put them, again, on the trucks. She also gets them to slide down stair bannisters and I see her acting out conversations and getting them to hug.
    Really, so long as you expose your daughter to real people and real life alongside the fantasy, they’ll be able to twig that it doesn’t have to be an aspiration, just a doll. They’ll be able to question. I had TONS of Barbies and Sindy dolls (the British Barbie, who was a lot more chunky (i.e. healthy) than Barbie and because my mum always taught me about what real healthy people look like, I turned out okay. I always preffered her little sister Skipper anyway!

    Thanks very much for a really interesting insight!
    Rozi

  2. I love the way you handled that! Way better than I probably would have.

    I personally don’t have a big problem with Barbies, but I love that you have made a decision about what is & isn’t allowed in your house & have not buckled to social pressures. I feel that way about some things that all my kids’ friends have but ours do not.

    You played it cool, Mama. Great job!!

  3. Very interesting. I like it when kids ask smart questions. I wonder why she wanted the Barbie? Did you she tell you why she wanted to play with it? Did she play with it, or did she just take it and hide it to vex you? That’s what one my kids would do. They are really into vexing Momma.

    • My kids are also experts at vexing momma. She first swiped it because she knew it would annoy me, because she knows it belongs in my office with my stuff for the business. Earlier that day she had used the dollhouse and stable to build a massive horse compound of My Little Ponies and other toy horses we have. When she first snagged Barbie she ran upstairs with her and although I didn’t see her playing, the destruction I later found was synonymous with “Sea World Marine Life Rescue Center and Dolphin and Whale Training Facility” which is her favorite thing to play. In the later part of the afternoon, while I was making dinner, Barbie and Bindi had moved down into the horse compound and were training and feeding the horses. After she showed it to my husband, she stashed it downstairs in a box in our new playroom. After Friday night I didn’t see her play with it. She has a messenger bag she carries her most important wordly possesions is, and Barbie didn’t make the bag.

      I will say, had she found the Sea World Barbie still stashed in the attic from Christmas when I couldn’t bring myself to give it to her….I think that Barbie would have had a much bigger impact and would probably not left her side. But that would have been mostly about Sea World and very little to do with the Barbie.

  4. I was wondering the same thing as Jennifer. It would be interesting to hear what her thoughts were on why she wanted to play with it. Nicely handled.

  5. Des Gusted Reader says:

    This blog is very hypocritical, you try to teach your children between right and wrong and the meaning of stereotypes.. How bout not teaching them to lie when they dont have the answer. Or to learn the truth themselves from a credible source, then listening to bias feminist parent. “Mommy only wears makeup cause she’s tired” Really? I mean Really? How bout a better example of the truth to teach is DONT WEAR MAKEUP? OR use a “Crutch” like that to justify it and you wearing it.

    Your husband doesnt wear makeup when he get tired? Or does he ? But yet her mommy is setting the example to wear make up when she goes out looking “Tired”. You could of said: Maybe Barbie might be leaving the office after a long day where she is tired and stops off at the beach catch some waves, the makeup is to cover the tiredness at work but its no big deal cause the waves will wash it off. No, I guess your biased influencing version is better to “Educate your child”

    Also you try to tell your child Barbie is unhealthy cause Barbie looks that way? I know a few “Barbie wanna-bes” who go to the gym eat healthy and meditate. Those “unhealthy” woman I say are more healthy then either you(I assume) or I.

    Dont get me wrong, I agree with what you are trying to do to educate and stimulate your child’s mind and how toys can teach leasons and hinder our child’s minds eye. I really think that toys can provide an unhealthy attitude for a kid that carries forth to their adulthood about bad lessons about society and patterns of thought. But when I see ignorant parents try to use “untruths” to teach their children an important lesson, it loses all meaning and purpose when they do it your way. Way to screw up your children.. Next time you think out loud, please dont! And if your a teach, please let me know what class or school you work so I can dis-enroll my children.

    Thanks!!!

    • Dear Des Gusted Reader,
      Clever, what you did there with your name. I wear make up on the days I am very tired and have dark circles under my eyes. I use concealer under my eyes and a little eyeliner in the outer corner of my eyes to make them look a bit more open. Many days I am so busy working at being hypocritical, ignorant, and a bad parent that I only get four hours of sleep a night, so wearing make up is a little break I give myself so that I don’t look dead while walking around caring full time for my two children, my home, and my business that I run solely by myself.

      I almost always have red toes, too. Fire engine red. Please let me know where to mail my Feminist card.

      You are correct, my husband doesn’t wear make up. But he gets twice as much sleep as I do. Also, he has a really nice olive complexion and exhaustion doesn’t show up as much on his skin as my pale Irish skin.

      Fear not! Your children are safe at school. I’ll try to watch my thinking out loud.

      • I enjoy how you didn’t even comment about the women who actually DO look like barbie. You are very hypocritical and personally I disagree with the way you handled that situation completely. There are many ways to sensor your children without lying to them. Children are a lot smarter than you give them credit for. I grew up with tons of Barbies and Bratz dolls and I turned out just fine, healthy AND skinny. You can look like Barbie if you’d like, it doesn’t mean you’re over sexualizing yourself. It means you’re expressing yourself the way you’d like. And if you want your daughter to be a stuck up, lazy, unfashionable, feminist, you’re on the right track sweetie. But I guess the apple wouldn’t be falling too far from the tree so I’m sure you’d be ecstatic. So congratulations on creating more hippy feminists that set a bad name for the rest of us powerful women.

        • I know that women are sometimes made fun of for being “too skinny.” I have a naturally thin friend who is sometimes hurt when people suggest she must have an eating disorder (she doesn’t.) However, I don’t think Melissa’s intention is to suggest that skinny people can’t be healthy, or that women shouldn’t wear makeup if they want to. I didn’t see any criticism of real-life women’s bodies in the post. I understand how you might take offense, since skinny people do get picked on sometimes, but I would hope one could hear criticism of a doll’s proportions without feeling personally attacked. Maybe Melissa would think you look just fine and still have a problem with the doll, you know? After all, you are a real person and presumably have all your ribs intact, but some people think it looks like Barbie might be missing a few vital organs. I don’t know. She doesn’t look as bad to me as I remembered. I think the design has changed a bit since she first came out. Let’s look at the numbers.

          I measured my daughter’s doll just now. She is 12 inches tall and has a 3.75 inch waist, a 5 inch bust, and 5.5 inch hips. (You can tell from pictures that older Barbies had much larger busts than hips, but I don’t have one of those to measure.) Then I translated those numbers into a life-size version of the doll. I started with a 24 inch waist since I’ve always heard that was the “perfect” size. The 24 inch waist is 6.4 times larger than the 3.75 inch waist, so I multiplied the other measurements by 6.4 to see what they would be on a life-size doll with a 24 inch waist.

          She’d be 32-24-35.2, which seems within reason for a thin person(though I don’t see why it would be so bad to show a larger body type once in a while,) but she’d also be 6 ft. 3 inches tall!

          Most women are not 6’3″. (Not that there’s any reason a woman who IS 6’3″ should feel bad about it, but it isn’t realistic for every girl to expect to be that tall.)

          Now, I googled the average height for adult women in the US (see http://pediatrics.about.com/cs/growthcharts2/f/avg_ht_female.htm) and found that it is 5 feet and 3.8 inches tall. (Hmm, I’ve always felt short, but that’s exactly my height.) So let’s redo those numbers and see what my waist measurement would have to be for me to look like Barbie. I’ll round the height up to 5’4″ to make it easier.

          The 12 inch doll would have to be 5.3 times higher to be a life-size 5’4″ doll. Multiplying the other numbers by 5.3 I find that a Barbie my height would only have a 19.8 inch waist, a 26.5 inch bust, and 29 inch hips!

          It’s not that there is anything wrong with having those measurements, if that’s what you have naturally. The concern is when those measurements become the standard that little girls judge themselves by, and especially when girls begin to believe their measurements are the only thing about them that matter. It’s just a doll, you may say, but it exists within a climate where even models’ images are photo-shopped to an extreme degree. Girls see images like these all around them all the time. You may not have found this harmful for you, but other people have, and that’s why they are concerned.

          There’s nothing wrong with wearing makeup, but there’s nothing wrong with not wearing it either, especially when surfing. Wouldn’t you agree? There’s nothing wrong with being fashionable, but I fail to see how any other woman’s lack of interest in fashion gives you a bad name. There’s nothing wrong with being sexy, but is that the only thing we want little girls to aspire to? I hope you enjoy looking good and following the latest trends, I really do. As a feminist, I fight for your right to have lots of choices. But I retain the right to speak out when I don’t like the limited choices the media presents to me and my daughter.

  6. Melissa,

    Nicely handled (both the Barbie and the trolling). I loved Amelia’s questions. In fact, I’m celebrating every time that my kidlet asks those kinds of questions. I hear you on the Sea World mania. My kids ask almost weekly go “go visit Shamu.” Sadly for them, it’s a minimum 14-hour drive to get to a Sea World . . .

    Cheers on this one!

    P.S. For “Des Gusted Reader”–actually Barbie’s dimensions are not at all realistic. Check out this mannequin created by a college student for a peek at what Barbie would look like life-size: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20055694-10391704.html

    • Thanks Ann.

      Those kidlets, they are really something. Perhaps we’ll have to have the world’s coolest playdate at Sea World together someday!

  7. I love this story (and how you handled the troll!). Good work playing it so cool!

    We allow Barbies here because I don’t see them as a problem when they’re one of many toys in the toybox (and it would seriously be too difficult with our family to ban any toy). Her first Barbie was a hand-me-down knock off one that could come apart really easily and she would take it apart and then play doctor to put it back together (we used to call it Dismembered Barbie). I think as long as your raising your kids to think and be individuals, some exposure to princesses and Barbies won’t hurt.

  8. I would have liked a Bindi doll for my daughter (now well past that phase). Seems ironic that in New Zealand I’ve never seen one. Best we could find was a ‘Madeline’ doll which also had a child’s body (and flat feet) but they were expensive and so hard to find (think they’ve long since been discontinued). Loads of Barbie and Bratz but never any alternatives … Alex did have one Barbie doll (bought for her by neighbour as a joke) but she and her two younger brothers ended up using poor Barbie as evil supreme commander against the action men (also hard to find) – she looked much improved dressed in her camouflage gear. I’ve always tried to avoid buying gender-specific toys but it’s difficult when the toy stores here have pink aisles and blue aisles. All we can do is what we think is best for our child and if that means guiding and filtering, that’s our choice.

  9. Melissa,
    I would be glad she swiped Barbie!

    In education, you had the world’s most beautiful “teachable moment.” The stars aligned and 1) she was able to ask questions and critically think about Barbie’s for herself, and found her lacking. 2) The forbidden fruit is all the less juicy after that first taste. You didn’t make a big deal about it AND your daughter found Barbie much less than “all that.”

    She probably won’t be so interested in Barbie anymore. LIttle five year old voice to a friend: “Uh, oh yeah… that is Barbie. Her feet must hurt from those high heels. Mine can run and play and surf and stuff AND wear heels when I grow up! I like Bindi. Bindi is cool. She DOES stuff!”

    When you least expect it, the stars align, and suddenly… there is a beautiful moment, the teachable moment, when the opportunity, the questions, and the real learning meld in their minds, and for one brief moment, you know (for sure) you made a difference in her life.

  10. I wish my kid would question Barbie. She only recently got her first one (4th birthday) and I tried talking to her about the doll during our play (because she forces me to voice the Barbie while she voices her Strawberry Shortcake figurines). She told me that “that’s just what Barbie looks like” and that “Mom, you’re not supposed to make a big deal when people are different!” That little piece of teaching came back to bite me.

    She only wants to play with it when I’m around (to be Barbie), so my opportunities for media literacy and lifting the Barbie veil are limitless … but I wish it was an easier sell!

    • Hmmm….maybe when you are Barbie, she can be a life and wellness coach, and voice her teachings on body love and self acceptance? 😉

  11. Melissa,

    This is a great anecdote to consider. New Moon appreciates your input on the issue of inner beauty and what our girls see within the world.

  12. As you know I love you dearly ! My only daughter is 22 and I did the Disney princess, barbie and cheerleading route with her 100%. She graduated last week with a degree in abnormal psychology. So even with my ( and my parents) horrendous pushing of stereotypes on her little brain, she found her own independent way. She is not consumed with appearance or relationships. My 10 year old son recently climb in the attic to make a fort, he found her old Barbies. He brought them down and a conversation followed where he asked me why people “used to” think little girls had to always wear dresses and only cook and couldn’t be as smart as boys. I was so proud of that statement “used to”….

  13. Wow, that was an awesome post… It’s so good to know that my husband and I are not the only ones who feel this way. I could see almost that entire situation happening the same way in my house. I can’t wait to share this with my mother-in-law who keeps a big stash of Barbies at her house (my SIL’s old ones) for whenever my 7 yr old daughters sleep over. They get their “fix” a few times a year and we don’t really fight it. Thanks for posting!

  14. Great save, both with your daughter and the troll. My two older daughters had Barbies. I couldn’t ban them, but decided, like you, to use them to educate. I explained why I have a problem with them. Besides the body image issue, I explained that the Mattel people have factories in China to which they truck teenage girls hundreds of km from their homes to live in concrete huts and make 2 cents an hour making Barbies. Meanwhile, a neighbor adopted a girl from China. The following dialog ensued between me and my seven-year-old:

    Daughter: Mom, who’s Lavender’s mom?

    Me: Lavander’s mom is Paloma.

    Daughter: I mean, who’s her real mom? Back in China.

    Me: We don’t know her name. Probably some woman who was too poor to raise Lavander.

    Daughter [after a pause]: Oh. I guess she works in a Barbie factory.

    BINGO!

    By the way, I think you mean to write “age-appropriate” [with a hyphen].

  15. Good on you for taking the Barbie away. While I don’t claim to know if playing with barbies is ultimately harmful for all girls (and lets face it, boys), I view the whole Barbie thing as a kind of intelectual junk food. While I’m sure that you, like al parents, let some of this junk food through on occassion, at least you are aware that a filter is necessary. Its parenting done with some forthought and you are to be credited for that.

    Makeup not withstanding, nothing beats a good night’s sleep. Hope you get some soon

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