The Barbie Project: Base Camps, Brains, and Beauty

This past Tuesday evening my eight year old daughter and I drove up to the UW – Madison campus to hear Dr. Mireya Mayor speak as part of the National Geographic Live tour. I had read Mayor’s book, “Pink Boots and a Machete” a couple of years ago and really enjoyed following her work. To my second grader Amelia, Mireya Mayor was a hero, part scientist and part Indiana Jones-like international explorer.

I think it is important for Amelia to have contemporary female heroines so when I saw that Mayor was coming to Madison I immediately bought tickets and I’m so, so glad that I did. Amelia and I had a GREAT time at Mayor’s talk. It was exciting, beautiful, inspiring, funny and touching. When Mayor first walked on stage in her sleek black pants, black stiletto heels and pin straight hair Amelia whispered to me, “Oh Mom! She looks like my Barbie scientist!”

I smiled and said yes, Dr. Mireya was indeed very pretty and that I was excited to hear about all of the adventures she had been on. Over the next hour we traveled around the globe with Mayor, going in and out of African rain forests and field sites in Madagascar and tent camps hanging off of cliffs in South America. We heard about Mayor being inspired by Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. We learned about never-seen-before frogs and mouse lemurs Mayor discovered on expeditions, and we saw the ugly side of trekking around the world in the form of mud, blisters, hunger, and illness.  Amelia was breathless, hanging on Mayor’s every word. At one point Amelia became so excited I thought she was going to rush the stage.

And that is what I wanted for Amelia out of tonight — to see a woman standing in front of her who would say, “I did all of these incredibly amazing things and you can too.” I was thrilled to see so many young girls also in the audience. Entire Girl Scout troops had come to see her! In fact, during the Q & A following her talk I approached the stage and handed Mayor a copy of my book while I asked her to tell all of the girls in the audience what are two or three things they could do now as tweens and young women if they wanted to become scientists and explorers.

Mireya’s answer was beautiful, but it was also incredibly empowering. She shared with the audience that she had been told all of her life that she was a pretty girl. Her Cuban mother and over-protective aunts wouldn’t let their little doll be in Girl Scouts because they felt it was too dangerous. Mayor worked hard in school because she knew she was very bright (Fulbright scholar-bright), but her prettiness always came first to other people. In college she was treated poorly by professors who thought her too much a girly-girl to go on expeditions or be taken seriously about earning a PhD in anthropology. She experienced bias and stereotypes because to help pay her way through school she was a Miami Dolphins cheerleader. People couldn’t see past her attractive exterior to get to the intelligence and grit and confidence that lay underneath.

And as she talked about this, I kept thinking about Amelia’ comment about Barbie when she first saw Mayor. Amelia is a gorgeous girl, truly beautiful, and I wondered what she was thinking as she was hearing Mayor describe the bias she encountered because of her looks. It reminded me of another awesome and also beautiful female explorer we follow, Alison Teal. I didn’t want Amelia getting the message that the world would say you can be beautiful, or you can be brainy and brave. In our family, women are all three.

Because of her pretty face, no one took Mayor seriously at university. Until she made them. She proved herself over and over again in the field, has made remarkable discoveries in the field of primatology, and has done fantastic work traveling the globe as a National Geographic correspondent. Oh, and during all of this she just so happens to be a mother to five kids under the age of eight. Like I said, serious hero material right here.

She told the girls in the audience not to allow anyone to hold them back. She encouraged them to always believe in themselves and to believe in the power of their minds. She promised them there was so much left in the world to discover and it was just out there, waiting for them. And she told them that it didn’t matter what other people thought of them, they could become whoever they wanted to be.

After the show Amelia and I grabbed a slice of pizza and while we were eating I asked her what her favorite part of the night was. She chattered about needing a passport and wanting to drop out of second grade to begin attending UW Madison.  Amelia said that she liked how Dr. Mireya was pretty and proud to be a girl but that what was most important was how smart and brave she was.

Amelia looked up at me in that moment, her eyes a little misty and she said in a tone reflecting awe, “Mom? Remember the part when Dr. Mireya was talking about sleeping above the clouds? I’m going to do that some day, too. I’m going to be just like her.”

Amelia is speaking of an expedition Mayor took to remote mountains in South America, described as lost islands in the clouds. On cliffs thousands of feet in the air Mayor and her crew spent the night in tents sitting on a three foot wide shelf, secured to the rock face with climbing pins. When she woke the next morning she was face-to-face with the sunrise, having slept above the cloud layer.

Something like this….

Climbers with tents secured to the cliff face.

Climbers with tents secured to the cliff face.

Which is why the following day, I should not have been shocked when I walked into Amelia’s room and discovered this:

Amelia's recreation of one of Mireya Mayor's expeditions.

Amelia’s recreation of one of Mireya Mayor’s expeditions.

Base Camp Barbie and her porters are cliff camping, in my bras, just like Amelia’s hero Mireya Mayor. Amelia was using her Barbie dolls to play out the exhilarating adventures flying through her imagination. The human lungs and heart are from her medical school mannequin, I’m guessing those are supposed to be the rocks at the base of the cliff.

I’ve been criticized for allowing Amelia to play with Barbie, and I understand some of the concerns and I think everyone has the right to their own opinion. But what I notice when Amelia plays with Barbie is that she isn’t really focusing on the beauty or the fashion. She uses her Barbie to play out adventures, just like I used to do when I was little with my Barbies. I think craving adventure must run in the family.

I think raising healthy girls is all about balance, so Amelia and I talk about body diversity and defining beauty for ourselves and we make sure her Barbies are wearing clothes that aren’t too sexy and shoes that allow Barbie to accomplish the adventure at hand. I have great conversations with Amelia as she questions or calls out ridiculous body proportions and homogeneous beauty she sees in media. She sees me model a positive, healthy body image.

So I can handle a little Barbie. After all, Amelia is using the world’s most beautiful and most vilified doll to prove to me that she knows that pretty’s got nothing to do with it. Bravery and brains are what we value most in our family. Amelia has shown me that beautiful Barbie and adventurous play are not mutually exclusive.

Maybe Amelia will grow up to be a world-exploring, cliff-camping, jungle-trekking anthropologist who repels off some of the globe’s steepest cliffs in search of unfound species while coming face to face with some of the deadliest snakes. I hope so, if that is where her heart takes her. Considering the rest of Amelia’s bedroom looks like this, I see a prescription for Xanax in my future…..

Amelia's desk, full of specimens, a camera, magnifying glasses, and homemade satellite phone and computer.

Amelia’s desk, full of specimens, a camera, magnifying glasses, binoculars, and homemade satellite phone and computer.


Amelia's prize possessions, her giant microscope and whale chart.

Amelia’s prize possessions, her giant microscope and whale chart.


Learn more about The Barbie Project and meet the other bloggers on the project.

On twitter, look for hashtag #BarbieProject and join the conversation.

{Disclosure: This is a compensated campaign as part of The Barbie Project. All thoughts and ideas are my own.}

Barbie Project



Melissa Atkins Wardy owns and operates Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a small business in Wisconsin, where our shirts are printed and shipped with love. 

Find Melissa Atkins Wardy’s book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” on Amazon.

Join the PPBB Community in conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


  1. Wonderful, Melissa! I just love it all. When I was your daughter’s age, I desperately wanted Barbies and my mother felt they were warped representations of women’s bodies. I begged relentlessly until, one Christmas, my mother gave me exactly what I’d asked for, Beauty Secrets Barbie and Sport and Shave Ken. But the Barbie was African American. At the time, I was bummed because I couldn’t get a comb through Barbie’s hair. Now, I look back and shake my head at my mother’s brilliance. It’s one of the most clever and memorable lessons she taught me about diversity of beauty.

  2. mistakesweremade says:

    I still can’t get past the feeling that when we endorse Barbies for our girls, we are endorsing the belief that it’s acceptable to judge women on their looks in every single endeavor that they undertake. That no matter what women achieve, they need to do it while look beautiful — specifically in a way that goes beyond the narrow boundaries of conventional beauty and into the rarified, extreme, and sexualized realm of “glamour”. I agree that children can absolutely use even the most extreme and unrealistic representation of femininity in a positive and creative way. I question, though, whether it is appropriate to ask them to do that, especially given that there are alternatives.

    Our Barbie experience went like this: I would not buy my daughter a Barbie, but she did receive some as gifts. She liked playing with them, and they were especially handy to have when some of her more rigidly girly friends came over and didn’t want to play with any other kind of toy. When my daughter was old enough, we sat down and had a real talk about Barbies. We talked about the bodies of people we know, how they are all different, and how they are good. We talked about how all her Barbies have exactly the same body, which does not look like anyone we know. We talked about how being pretty is nice, but that a person doesn’t haven to be pretty to be important to us. We talked about all the things we like about people that don’t involve how they look. Then we talked about why the people who make Barbie made her look that way, instead of how a real woman would look.

    Mostly I asked her questions and listened to her ideas. I wanted to know what she thought about her own experience. She said she would rather play with a doll that looked strong and tough, since she goes on so many adventures. I said we could get more like that, but we should keep her Barbies in case she changed her mind. When the dolls went in-played-with for six months, we packed them up.

    One thing I wanted to discuss with my daughter but didn’t was Barbie’s sexiness. And it feels so wrong to give my child a toy whose main attribute is something I feel my daughter is too young to discuss. I am trying to read this Barbie Project series with an open mind (though I may not be succeeding). It seems to me that you’re saying your daughter is so great that she can even have wonderful creative play with what, if we’re being honest, looks so much like a miniaturized sex doll. Which, I’ll agree, is great, and your daughter sounds great! But why, why, why would you ask her to?

    • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

      Mistakesweremade –
      I feel confident in my daughter playing with Barbie because she and I were having the body image and sexualization conversations WAY before Barbie came into our home. My daughter is great, you are right. I’m sure yours is, too. But I am not saying it is because she is so great that Barbie is innocuous to her. I am saying that she had a solid foundation on these issues before we began playing with Barbie so that when body image, beauty, or sexiness issues came up we were able to have really awesome discussions about it, make changes to an outfit or doll that we needed to in order to fit our beliefs, and some things (like certain pairs of shoes) we just got rid of entirely. The power in that experience is that all of it was driven by 8yo Amelia because she gets it, as opposed to her feminist mom handing down mandates.

      Also, if you’ve been reading my Barbie Project posts since the beginning you would understand my concerns about the brand all along and that there are some dolls/outfits we wouldn’t purchase/keep. Over-sexualized outfits are absolutely in that category and Amelia will reject them without needing my prodding. As I look at the doll market for dolls the same size as Barbie that offer the same science and adventure accessories, we have precious few options.

      I don’t like some of the undertones in your comment that feel like being beautiful is mutually exclusive to being smart. Or that being pretty and feminine means you aren’t strong and tough. Or that breathtakingly beautiful girls like my daughter won’t be able to be smart, adventurous, strong, or tough because they are so beautiful. Or that a woman’s adult curves need to be shunned because she might be sexy. I think that sends really unfair and limiting messages to our daughters about women. Sometimes we need to get out of our own way and realize that the entire canon of feminism does not need to come down on the heads of one little girl playing with dolls she likes. I feel it is super important to keep balance and perspective and recognize that while to moms like you and me Barbie may not be the perfect toy, I’m not really convinced it is the most evil. The rest of my daughter’s world is filled with positive, healthy media I approve of 100%. Maybe I’m 70% on Barbie, but if my beliefs on all this talk I do of media literacy, body image, and empowered girls with solid personal brands cannot stand up to a plastic 12 inch doll then I seriously need to rethink my positions on some things. And if I can’t teach my daughter to think for herself on these issues then she and I have much bigger problems than Astronaut Barbie who happens to be wearing a little eye shadow.

      So far, so good and my daughter’s body image and sense of self seem to be water tight. I think that has a lot more to do with what she learns from me and the other women in her life than what she learns from her Barbies that are currently heaped in a bag between a room-sized bookshelf full of books and our couch.

  3. We need a bra camp this summer at our house too! Thanks for sharing!

Speak Your Mind