The Barbie Project: Phew

Barbie ProjectThis month marks number six of the Barbie Project and I’m really grateful the only parameter given to all of us moms was: Get down on the floor, play, and observe. Share with us what you learn.

There is a lot we can learn from our kids, once we master the art of sitting back and listening. I think sometimes we get so busy in our ‘over-parenting’ mode that we miss the opportunities our kids provide.

About a week ago Amelia and I were walking into her Girl Scout Brownie meeting and the sun was at our backs, low in the sky on a late September afternoon. This elongated our shadows in front of us and as Amelia noticed this she began walking in a glamorous way and said, “Hey Mom! Do I look like Barbie?”

Given what I do for a living (in part, providing families with tangible tips on raising confident girls) you might think this question from her would make me panic that my young daughter’s strong body image and self-esteem had fallen apart, and months of playing with Barbie had driven her to accept harmful beauty norms and all of that baggage dumped on Barbie’s plastic shoulders. I could have launched into a soul-saving speech about how she’ll never look like Barbie unrealistic proportions and she’s beautiful just the way she is but beauty isn’t everything and it is who she is on the inside that counts……

Whoa! Deep breath.

2014-09-25 16.15.40

Instead, I said nothing and as I watched my daughter sashay across the parking lot I thought about what was inside my head at eight years old. You know what? I can distinctly remember watching my long shadows in the late afternoon in my front yard in Pittsburgh, thinking I looked like Barbie with my instantly-long legs and sophisticated walk on tip toes in my jelly shoes. I do not recall ever wanting to look like Barbie, but I certainly wanted to be grown up. I can remember wondering what I would look like as a grown up and that I couldn’t wait for long legs because that meant I was no longer a short little kid. Maybe that’s all Barbie meant to Amelia, too.

I was about to answer Amelia when she runway-walked herself right into a pole and fell over. With her arms and legs all over the place and everything she had been carrying spread about, she instantly reminded me of the mess of Barbies on her bedroom floor and I said yes, now she definitely look like her Barbies. She thought that was pretty funny and she walked into her Girl Scout meeting with a smile.

I think the lesson for both of us that afternoon: Being a little girl is all about having balance.


Fast forward to yesterday afternoon, Amelia was in her room playing with her Barbies and I wandered up to get a few photos for this month’s post. I walked in to find her in deep concentration, huddled over her toy dog.

The doctor tells me this dog choked on a hot dog during a beach rescue. I don't even know how that happens, but it sounds serious.

The doctor tells me this dog choked on a hot dog during a beach rescue.

“I’m going to need your help. This dog has a pulmonary aspiration…a giant hot dog. She’s been under for about twenty minutes and I’m going to have to do a tracheostomy at this point,” Amelia said is a very matter-of-fact, clipped manner.

“Oh, are your Barbies running an emergency vet hospital?” I guessed, kind of not getting what was going on. Which was about to become all the more clear in a moment.

“No honey, I am running the hospital. She went down during a beach rescue,” Amelia said as she continued to work on the toy dog. “I’m going to need you to scrub in. I need to tube her. Hurry up!”

I realized I didn’t know where exactly I was supposed to scrub in for surgery, and I was distracted by the pile of naked Barbies lined up on the floor next to me.

“Trach tube!” Amelia barked.

“The wha?” Me, clueless and feeling bad for my plastic patients.

Amelia using a Barbie to perform a tracheostomy during surgery.

Amelia using a Barbie to perform a tracheostomy during surgery.

“Oh never mind!” Amelia grabbed one of the naked dolls, spun her around in her hand and inserted a foot into the dog’s mouth and successfully ejecting a hot dog. Apparently the Barbies were Amelia’s surgical tools.

“I’m going to finish here. Go check on the mermaid in OR 6. She had a really bad case of bioluminescence. Make sure her kelp iv is still going and ask her friends to move to the waiting room. It is going to be a long surgery and I’m going to try a new procedure, but tell them her prognosis is good.”

The mermaid in OR 6.


PHEW! Yeah, you know, after six months of playing with Barbies, I think we’re all good here.

Amelia's patient pulled through surgery.

Amelia’s patient pulled through surgery.


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.}

The Barbie Project: Accessories Are a Girl’s Best Friend

We are in our final five days of summer, just a few sweet hours remain before the kids return to school. The memories have been made, trips taken, ballgames won, fireflies caught and released, trails hiked and lakes jumped into, bonfires burned, lemonade stands held, adventures with cousins had and more dinners allotted to the local ice cream joint than should be appropriate. Our summer bucket list is nearly complete and as we look down the home stretch to three glorious months…..

We can’t stand the sight of each other.

There has been a lot of “togetherness” this summer for the children and I, which is wonderful. And not, because I work from home and “work from home” with two kids + two dogs + two kittens is nuts. N – U – T – S.

So the other afternoon I had the kids go to their bedrooms with their kittens for some quiet time. An hour later I went to check on them on account of too much quiet – which is always unsettling for parents – and found Benny slumped over napping in a giant bucket of LEGO and Amelia sorting through all of her Barbie outfits and accessory pieces. Earlier in the day she had found a castle and furniture at a garage sale she just had. to. have. As her kitten purred in the background she dressed and redressed each doll as she planned out their role in the story she was creating in her head.

Kittens love Barbie.

Kittens love Barbie

I sat down and looked at the pieces around me which led me to think back on when I was her age and would have been doing the same thing during a rainy summer afternoon. I wondered what she was thinking about and if she would remember these lazy hours of her childhood like I do mine.

Amelia plays with her Barbies, obligatory Naked Barbie present and accounted for.

Amelia plays with her Barbies, obligatory Naked Barbie present and accounted for.

I asked her what she was playing and if her Barbies liked their new house. As we chit chatted, I surveyed the pieces around me.

The accessories around me gave me pause, they might not be what people associate with Barbie.

The accessories around me gave me pause, they might not be what people associate with Barbie.

The bright pink (SO much pink) accessories around me made me smile. They reminded me of the adventures my Barbies played out when I was a girl. They are bits and pieces to imagination. A key meant to unlock stories. A prop able to enhance a script waiting to be written and rewritten each time they were pulled out.

You know, Barbie takes a lot of heat for being vapid, focused on beauty, shopping etc. Maybe some Barbies facilitate that,  but I feel the dolls we’ve brought into our home for Amelia send a different message. I think it is easy to sell girls short and assume they’ll play “Wedding Day” or “Shopping Spree” over and over again with their dolls.

I think it is wise to expect more from girls.

Amelia's favorite dolls and their accessories.

Amelia’s favorite dolls and their accessories.

Pilot hat



Treasure chest

Ocean creatures and a bucket of fish

SCUBA tank, mask, regulator and fins

Briefcase, tablet, smart phone

Astronaut helmet and suit, air tank, moon boots

These things tell Amelia to go out into the world. To dive deep, soar high. To run a business instead of work for one. That the layers of the atmosphere do not confine her. They remind her girls are confident, competent, and courageous.

These items spread across Amelia’s bedroom floor could take her to a sunken ship full of treasure, an investment meeting, or a new planet waiting to be explored. Of course, those are the obvious uses and my eight year old would roll her eyes and says she is far more clever and creative than that. One of the things I like about Barbie is the outfits and accessories are interchangeable, meaning the stories waiting to be created during play are interchangeable as well. So the woman of color who is a pilot can easily change into the business outfit for a press conference because now she is the POTUS. YES. PLEASE.

And the astronaut suit could become a hazmat suit for compassionate health relief workers delivering a much-needed antidote to victims of a terrible epidemic or intrepid engineers who rescue people in danger on a broken space station who had been hunting treasure in space that is guarded by aliens posing as familiar sea creatures who cover you in goo and feed you to fury orange monsters who live in purple tents.

Listen, I’ve been critical of Barbie before and I probably will be again if need be. But I like the side of Barbie that shows girls they can dream and aspire to do big things in the world.

I guess sometimes I have to ask if it is Barbie who limits girls…..or the adults around girls who assume they know what will happen during play because girls are so……girly. I define “girly” as girls who see themselves as accomplished pilots, extraordinary ocean researchers, powerful businesswomen, and explorers of our world and beyond. Yeah, that’s VERY girly to me! More importantly, that’s how my daughter views being a girl and playing with Barbies has not come close to undoing any of that.

Amelia commented that she really really liked how the dolls' faces were different from each other.

Amelia commented that she really really liked how the dolls’ faces were different from each other.

The child’s imagination is limited only by toys that are limiting. The afternoon I spent watching Amelia play I observed Barbie as a great companion for story telling. Better put – Barbie was a vehicle for storytelling. When chosen with diverse storytelling in mind and with the idea that girls should know no limits, there are many Barbies that offer this type of play to girls. In our home I try to guide Amelia with choosing toys that reflect what real life looks like, so we make sure to have dolls that represent women doing a variety of jobs, experiences, and adventures. Equally important to us are dolls that represent women of color as the world is a colorful place.  I’d love for there to be even more diversity in Barbie’s appearance and body, and Amelia and I talk about that issue and how we’d like for Barbie to explore that more. Maybe some day they will.

I think there is a lot left to explore, including parents really exploring how their daughter’s imagination works and what stories unfold on bedroom floors or tree forts or where ever it is your girl’s dreams come to life and they use Barbie as a tool in that storytelling.

What stories does your daughter tell?


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


The Barbie Project: Barbie Meets the Man Eating Lions of Tsavo

I played with Barbies as a kid and I can’t quite recall what sort of stories my girlfriends and I acted out, but I feel like there were several sinking cruise ships, attempted kidnappings by Russians, and weddings that ended in disastrous emergencies requiring Barbie’s immediate attention and quick thinking. Which she always did best in a pale blue ball gown while leaping from her purple Corvette.

One thing I have noticed as I watch my daughter play with her Barbie dolls and act out dramatic scenes with the characters she develops is that the adventures she creates exponentially outpace what is sold to her through commercials or media built around products. I can’t think of anything specific, but shopping for prom and makeup disasters come to mind. I recall Amelia watching a video with a bunch of mermaids and there was some issue with a hair-product delivering prince. My brain didn’t really know what to do with that.

I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve never seen a commercial aimed at the 3-8 year old girl demographic themed around man-eating lions. 

We were on vacation for the first two weeks of July and last week Amelia did nothing but practice riding her bike in order to earn a kitten, so she hasn’t played with her Barbies in a while and was happy to pull them out again. She was also mad at me last week after I dashed her hopes of living in the Chicago’s Field Museum because I told her if she tried to live in the Field Museum she’d be arrested for squatting and because she is a minor I’d have to do her jail time.

So I have been exiled from her room since returning from vacation and therefore have not been able to observe her playing with her Barbies. I tried to mend fences by saying we could build a rocket ship and launch her Astronaut Barbie into space or build a ninja obstacle course and time her Barbies and they tried to make it to the finish line….

I thought I had her with the promise of pyrotechnics, alas I was only able to get into her room by saying I needed to check on the new kittens.

Amelia setting up the Barbie animal training camp sit, pre-man-eating lion attack.

Amelia setting up the Barbie animal training camp sit, pre-man-eating lion attack.


“Hi. How are the kittens? What are you playing?” -Me

“I’m playing with my Barbies. They are on a safari because they train cats and dogs to help people and this is part of the training.” -Amelia

“Oh wow, that is so cool. I really like their camp site. I like the little girl, is she so brave going out into the bush and training the kitten as her service animal?”  -Me

Tragically I do not think young Barbie ever saw her doom coming.

Tragically I do not think young Barbie ever saw her doom coming.

“What? Oh honey. No. She was dragged away from camp by a man-eating lion of Tsavo. You can’t go out into the bush or you will become prey. That is her body laying in the lair. Jabban is a porter and he shoots the lions with tranquilizers if he can see them in time. The team has lost six members already, the survivors are mourning. That’s why Barbie is up on the mountain now, she’s calling for reinforcements and she can guard the camp from up high.” -Amelia

“Wow.” -Me

“Listen, they were all told there were man-eaters in these parts. You have to understand the terrain. Scientists have to have respect for how violent nature can be. Why are all of their feet pointy? I have to pretend all these shoes are hiking boots. Will I really be arrested if I live at the Field Museum? Do you know anyone who has ever been arrested for that before? When I buy the Field Museum they won’t be able to arrest me because I will say it is my house.” -Amelia

Amelia uses her Barbies as trainers for service animals.

Amelia uses her Barbies as trainers for service animals.


And that’s the thing about girls, I’ve come to learn as I watch my daughter and her friends play. Sometimes what we find for them in the marketplace is limiting them based on gender stereotypes, but when girls are raised with the message the world is theirs to explore and nothing is off limits to them and their desire for learning and adventure… never know where they will end up taking you.

I don’t mind that Amelia uses Barbie to take her on these adventures.

Has your daughter ever surprised you with the stories she plays out with her toys? Has it shifted your perception of who girls are and what things they are interested in?


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


*No Barbies nor kittens (nor man-eating lions) were harmed in the making of this post.

**The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo were real and are on exhibit at the Field Museum. They were two young male lions that terrorized a rail camp in Kenya killing 135 workers.

Our Barbie Dream House: The Barbie Project

My daughter has gotten into playing with dolls recently and it is fun to see the stories unfold as her imagination takes over. Sometimes she enjoys sitting and changing their clothes and putting together different outfits. Like a cute shift dress with an astronaut helmet and moon boots, or a wetsuit underneath a ballgown….because a girl never really knows what is going to happen with her day.

Amelia has been asking for a Barbie Dream house. The ones for sale are cute enough I guess, but they are big and expensive. As I looked the options over I didn’t feel like they represented Amelia’s dreams. Also, the pink. Just so much pink. I know that is Barbie’s thing, but Amelia loves blue. She loves science, art, travel, dogs and books.

Then I thought maybe it would be a fun project for her and I to build a house together. My mom made a castle for me when I was Amelia’s age and it was my favorite toy. My Barbies and My Little Ponies and Strawberry Shortcake dolls spent many, many hours playing in that castle. So did my cat.

The doll castle my mom made for me when I was Amelia's age. Beloved by me and my cat.

The doll castle my mom made for me when I was Amelia’s age. Beloved by me and my cat.

Amelia was a little unsure of how the project would turn out, but once I showed her the photos of my old castle she was hooked. And begging for a kitten.

We started by me handing her a pile of cardboard boxes I had been saving. Amelia was put in charge of designing the house how she wanted it, as well as choosing the right sized boxes to make it structurally sound. She spent about half an hour playing around with different options, realizing certain configurations posed a building collapse threat, and which boxes would give her the space needed for the different rooms she wanted.

Amelia designs the structure for her house using some simple engineering concepts.

Amelia designs the structure for her house using some simple engineering concepts.

Next we talked about what rooms/elements she wanted and how she would design it. As she looked over arts & crafts scraps for inspirations I wrote down her list:

– fireplace, elevator, singing shower + bath tub, television, carpet, chandelier, fancy couches, and pink, yellow, green, blue, red, and purple rooms.

Amelia develops concepts for her very own dream house.

Amelia develops concepts for her very own dream house.

We spray painted the boxes the colors that she had chosen. I guess we didn’t succeed in getting away from all that pink! This was the only step she didn’t participate in, mostly because she is a well-known rascal and learning how to operate spray paint is not a skill I want her to possess right now….

Our Barbie House gets under and turquoise.

Our Barbie House gets under way….pink and turquoise.

Next we got out art supplies, crafting scraps, and old magazines. We talked about what rooms would need what (the kitchen needs a fridge, she suggested it also needs a candy store). It was interesting to watch her pick styles and colors and personal touches that were important to her. And I learned fascinating facts from Amelia, like white shower curtains “are rather in bad taste” and that pools should always go on the roof.


Interior decorating begins. LOTS of imagination went into this.

Interior decorating begins. LOTS of imagination went into this.

We had to hold off on fixing interior lighting (I may or may not have started a small fire in one of the boxes with some faulty wiring. Oops.) and the elevator endeavor needs more work. We’ll have to postpone those as STEM projects for Mommy Summer School.

Each room offers things Amelia loves, and I’m so proud of what she created. This is really her Dream House…. 

She has her travel-themed bedroom that has a map of the Washington DC metro for a floor and pictures of kayaking, camping, and exploring on the walls. A sliding door takes her to her “outside hangout room” that she wanted. The other side of the second floor has her laundry room/sports equipment room and her art studio. The walls of the art studio feature inspiring words and a photograph of her hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The master bedroom on the third floor has a library, a rocking closet that features a photo of the monarch butterflies she loves to raise from eggs, and bathroom with a huge counter and dual sinks (a concept she is obsessed with). The third floor also features her rooftop pool.

The main floor of the house has her big front porch, fancy Paris bathroom, a “living room that dogs and cats can go in but kids can’t run”, a dining room with a nature theme, and a kitchen with an ode to the Wisconsin cheese this kid lives on. And a chihuahua in a fancy bed to boot.

The finished house! It features all of Amelia's loves and dreams.

The finished house! It features all of Amelia’s loves and dreams.

Here’s some more detailed photos…..

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The rooms of Amelia's Barbie Dream House.

The rooms of Amelia’s Barbie Dream House.

I think it is safe to say, she likes it…..

Relaxing in her Dream House.

Relaxing in her Dream House.

It was so great to watch Amelia’s creativity and imagination blossom as she put this project together. I helped her with steps, but she the design is all her.

Have you ever created something like this for your child? What kinds of things do you think she would include that would reflect who she is?


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.}

Base Camps, Brains, and Beauty: The Barbie Project

Barbie Project

Amelia creates “Base Camp Barbie”. With my bras.

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.}

My Little Girl Has Two of Everything: The Barbie Project

Barbie ProjectThe other day my daughter and I were sitting under a sun-filled window in her room, setting up her Barbie camping set as her Elsa doll and Dolphin Trainer Barbie were going camping with Elsa’s pet Golden Retriever and the trained dolphins. I took this quiet moment to share with my daughter that very good friends of ours were going to become foster parents to a girl her age.

She thought over my words a bit, and then asked if the girl could come over to play with her. I said that after the girl had had some time to adjust to her new family and home, a playdate would be a great idea.

Amelia looked down at her dolls and said softly, “Good, because I have two of everything.”

I wondered what she meant by that, did she mean all of her dolls? Her outdoor toys? Her science kits? The fact that she has a bedroom upstairs she never really uses because she still sleeps in the bunk in her little brother’s room? Did she mean all of the clothes she has?But in that moment I did not want to pry because she seemed to be in a very reflective state. Was she thinking about what would happen if her parents were unable to take care of her? Was she thinking about having to move into a new home with a new family?

She focused intently in setting the scene for her Barbies to begin acting out the script it seems she had written in her head. Accessories and props were being set just so. Outfits changed and changed again until the perfect cast had been assembled for the day’s play. I can remember doing the same when I was a child, where the rules of the real world didn’t apply to the stories I created. I wondered what Amelia and her camping dolphins were about to say.

Amelia's Barbie dolls, waiting for the day's casting call.

Amelia’s Barbie dolls, waiting for the day’s casting call.

“I have two of everything, so it would be very easy for me to share everything with her. Do you know if she has brown skin?” Amelia asked.

“Oh, actually I don’t know what she looks like. I just know her name and her age. Why do you ask?” I know my child is enamored with Martin Luther King Jr (among other things, they share a birthday), but I thought it was an odd question for her to ask.

“I asked because I only have one brown skinned Barbie. We need to go get another one before she comes to play. I want her to see that my Barbies can be different people and when you sort them out I have too many that are blonde with blue eyes. I have two green eyes and four brown eyes including the dolls from Jordan but only one of them who isn’t a mermaid has brown skin. But all skin is beautiful so we should just make sure there is a nice mix,” Amelia said and I have to admit, I was really proud that she thinks about these things when she plays. My kids have been raised to noticed gender balance, body diversity, and racial diversity in the media they consume.

“Well, sure, diversity is important and we should have it in our toys, too. So we should definitely get another brown skin Barbie.”

“Right,” Amelia agreed, “because either way we’re going to need two Rosa Parks. And Rosa Parks was not a mermaid, let me tell  you.”

“Ah, sure. I had not thought of that.”

“Oh, honey. I know.” And with that Amelia turned back to playing, arranging the camping tent, pail of fish for the dolphins, and glowing campfire just so.

And I think sometimes we need to pause and recognize toys we may or may not love as parents can mean something different to our daughters. We can be aware of and decode the messages these toys send and I feel that is very important, but not at the expense of missing the messages our children are sending back to us.

A Barbie doll is a toy my child owns. It is a tool operated by her imagination. It is not what defines her, nor writes her future. What a girl owns is not necessarily who she will become. I want to give my daughter a great variety of toys to engage her imagination. I also want to give her the space to show me who she wants to be in this world. This afternoon playing with Barbie allowed her to do both. I saw her imagination at work, as well as the kindness and sharing in her heart.

The camping expedition gets under way.

The camping expedition gets under way.

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.}

Amelia and I Embark on a Journey: The Barbie Project

The Barbie Box arrives. Naturally, we spent lots of time just playing with the box!

The Barbie Box arrives. Naturally, we spent lots of time just playing with the box!

My daughter Amelia is eight years old, a wild, imaginative, creative, artistic, prone-to-mud and snail hunting kind of girl. She is in many ways so much like me when I was her age. She moves easily between dressing up as a queen and wallowing in the mud pit she built in our back yard. She loves building things, reading, playing outside, and recently, she really lovesplaying with Barbie dolls.

When I was her age, I loved playing with Barbie dolls, too.

I had a tempestuous relationship with Barbie  in my early years of parenting, but as my daughter has grown in maturity and demonstrated really solid body image and critical thinking skills I’ve relaxed on my stance on the twelve inch doll.

We balance hours of play with our Barbie Mermaids or Dolphin Trainer dolls with a discussion on whether or not Barbie’s eye makeup comes off when she swims or if her pointy feet are safe to balance around the edge of the animal enclosures or sea rescue boat. We talk about how we like that Barbie comes in different skin colors just like our friends but how all Barbie dolls have the same body. We enjoy putting cool outfits together and sometimes we adjust ensembles with a really short skirt and pair it with leggings. Amelia enjoys the fancy outfits and shoes, as they allow her to play at being sophisticated and grown up. She also enjoys the uniforms like the astronaut suit and wetsuits, as they allow her to see her Barbies as a change agent or hero in a story.

What I’ve learned while watching Amelia play over these past few weeks, and while getting down on the floor or climbing into the fort to play with her, was that Barbie can be many things. According to my eight-year-old, Barbie can be more than meets the eye.  I had spent the summer playing with her and her mermaid dolls in the pool, combing hair tangled mermaid hair, rescuing mermaid tails from the back of the dog’s throat. I wondered how or if our Barbie play would change as we were stuck inside during the long Wisconsin winter. Would we still make up great adventures?

Amelia really enjoyed opening her astronaut and dolphin trainer dolls that arrived in the big box from Barbie. She carefully inspected each package and carefully unpacked each item, outfit, and high heel. She spent quite a bit of time experimenting with the pooping Barbie Pet Trainer dog. She then madly stripped all of the dolls naked and began rearranging their outfits and creating new character roles. She was making the dolls her own. You could almost hear the wheels turning in her head as the story churned and developed.

I had thought it would be super cool to play with Astronaut Barbie and then watch “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” together and do art projects about space. I had thought wrong. Amelia had every intention of turning her Barbies into pirates, the space suit was needed to serve as a ghost pirate, natch.

And so we played, in a giant fort built by Amelia in the family room. The ghost pirate had stolen the treasure of the mermaids and the mermaids needed the pirate Barbies to help them recapture the treasure and return it to its rightful place in the sea.

While Amelia played her characters worked together and the dialogue was hysterical. I got to peek into her imagination and see her resolve conflict, create leadership roles among the characters, and demonstrate bravery, evil, and justice. If we didn’t like the ending, we’d go back and rework the story.

It was so interesting to see how the story shifted and sorted itself while we played. I never really knew where we were going to end up. And I think that is what interests me most about The Barbie Project, I have no idea where Amelia’s imagination is going to take us. I cannot wait to find out.


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.}

Exploring all our new Barbie dolls....and Barbie dog poop.

Exploring all our new Barbie dolls….and Barbie dog poop.

Why I Am Participating in the Barbie Project

The Barbie Project A few weeks ago I received a unique invitation from Barbie™ to participate in a play experiment with the brand. The idea behind the project is to have a group of moms with young daughters observe and engage with our girls as they play with their Barbie dolls and share on our blogs what we learned about the space the girls create with their play. What stories and characters, creative themes, adventures, and challenges did they imagine while they played?

Our two main objectives with the play experiment are:

  1. W e are to watch and engage with our child during play, challenge our own stereotypes, and get to know our child better by discovering more about the stories they create while at play. In fact, the only real directive we were given about the project: Get down on the floor and play.
  2. We are to focus on the act of “play” in general, the value of it, and think about how little of it we really allow our kids these days and how we can increase that.

Before I go further I want to say this, because I realize my involvement in this project with Barbie™ may come as a surprise, but Mattel and Barbie™ knew exactly who I was and what my brand and message was about when they invited me to join this project. I think that invitation is really important, and here’s why:  It creates conversation.

Through my work with Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, the Brave Girls Alliance, and my book “Redefining Girly” I am committed to two things: honoring childhood through the value of quality play and media, and creating meaningful change.

I feel The Barbie Project gives me this opportunity. This project brings together a diverse group of mom bloggers from the United States and Canada to share what we learn from our daughters. Most importantly, we get to share what we learn in our own words, on our own blogs. Our observations, comments, and photos will then be shared with the Barbie social media community. None of us are sure what we will discover along the way or how this will end, so it feels like an organic journey. I’m really interested to see what I learn from my eight year old daughter Amelia, and I’m particularly interested to read what the other seven mother-daughter teams will share.

We learn from each other by listening to each other. I have a seat at the table. Amelia has her voice represented at the table. What can all of us learn from each other? During the lead in weeks to this project the Barbie Team has been really wonderful to work with, right down to the thoughtful products they sent Amelia to play with. I requested Barbie dolls that focused on doing something and we received a huge box of toys that included Barbie I Can Be….Astronaut, a scuba diver, and dolphin trainer among other things. (They also included a great learning game for Ben so he wouldn’t feel left out!)

As you consider my participation in this project and as you read my posts each month along the way, here’s what I want you to consider:

  1. I am working from within. To be invited inside requires trust and respect. I am making strides and working internally with stakeholders in women’s and girl’s conversations and experiences, especially within the parenting space. This is a unique and difficult position to earn.
  2. Working internally isn’t always splashy, viral, or “press worthy”. A lot of times it is slow, quiet work. It isn’t about making someone right and someone wrong, it is about understanding and educating and the best way I have found to do that is to have a respectful conversation.
  3. I was invited to have a conversation on a platform where I can share my experiences, Amelia’s experiences, and our points of view on girls + empowered play with a new and enormous group of parents. By virtue of showing up for that conversation I am bringing our voice and our POV to a new community.


I am bringing my points of view on girls + empowered play directly into the center of Barbie’s space. I want that to be what you take away from this post.

If nothing changes, nothing changes. Change is a journey. I hope you’ll join me on this one.


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.}







Reframe the Campaign: Barbie, Sport Illustrated, and Your Daughter

The pairing of Barbie and the SI swim issue has been highly controversial. I see it as a teaching moment.

The pairing of Barbie and the SI swim issue has been highly controversial. I see it as a teaching moment.

The Sports Illustrated Swim issue has paired up with Mattel’s Barbie for its 50th anniversary.  The magazine hits newsstands today with a feature on Barbie in a celebration of the iconic women who launched careers from SI’s sandy pages. In 1959 Barbie launched her 55 year legacy wearing a black and white bathing suit. Since then, Barbie has turned into a cultural icon just like the SI models offering a personal brand has just as much to do with her beauty as it does her suggested accomplishments (for an 11.5 inch doll). The campaign is called #Unapologetic, the idea being that a woman can be both beautiful and successful and not have to apologize for either.

Good idea, great idea actually, yet perhaps not the right vehicle to deliver the attempted message that women can have agency over their lives and be beautiful and successful without having to answer to anyone. Many people are extremely upset and concerned about a child’s toy appearing in an issue of a magazine meant to sexually objectify women for the male gaze.

People keep asking me “Are you going after this??” and my answer to them is “Not in the way you think”. Let me explain why.

As I spent the weekend thinking about this campaign my head didn’t explode in the way I have become accustomed to it doing when these big stories pop up in the national media every few months or so. I saw some interesting aspects from this marketing campaign I thought were actually useful, namely that the scope of this means the potential of reaching thousands of families who had never thought of these issues before are thinking about them now that they are faced with the clear juxtaposition of their young daughter’s (or son’s) Barbie doll being in a magazine that is a buffet of Photoshopped breasts and asses. Maybe a lot of folks don’t think about the fact that these models (or Barbie) are larger than their “fashion icon” status and that girls’ play with Barbie extends beyond weddings and fashion shows. Girls’ play also focuses on adventure and exploring all kinds of careers. Barbie, to her hype-feminized credit, has had 150 careers. I think it is high time we give our girls a little more credit, too.

Let’s be clear about the most important part of this story from a parenting aspect: Mattel paid SI an undisclosed amount of money for this campaign to run and it just so happens to coincide with the New York Toy Fair at a time when Barbie sales are down 13%. That means something, and it should not be overlooked. It means that Mattel is looking for ways to connect with consumers in order to boost Barbie’s sales and in the court of public opinion the verdict they have soundly received is, “Stop sexualizing our girls and selling them unrealistic beauty standards as their ultimate goal.”

Perhaps this is Mattel’s “Sexy Merida Moment”, when a company unsuspectingly receives massive consumer backlash as savvy parents now educated on the harms of sexualization in childhood tell media content creators, “ENOUGH!”

The media kids consume is important. But Barbie is 11.5 inches of plastic. YOU are their parent. Be more awesome than Barbie.

The media kids consume is important. But Barbie is 11.5 inches of plastic. YOU are their parent. Be more awesome than Barbie.

Everyone has given their opinion on the campaign, so I don’t really feel the need to add my voice in that way. I can rehash stats about women appearing on SI’s cover only 66 times in 57 years, we can (and should!) have long talks about body image and the media’s perpetual push of a narrowly-defined largely-unattainable version of beauty that is sold to females of all ages, we could rage about the blurring of taboo when a child’s toy appears on a magazine’s soft porn issue originally created to compete with Playboy’s early success, and we can talk about why smart and beautiful women would need a sexualized SI springboard to jump to fame and success in the first place.

We could talk. Or we could do.

What I am interested in is telling parents, “Look, the campaign is here like it or not and from a marketing perspective for a brand that has multiple audiences it isn’t a stupid move. But it is your responsibility to reframe this message for your daughter and it is your responsibility to empower her.”  Mattel’s ultimate goal is to make a profit. As a parent to a daughter, your ultimate goal is to raise a girl with a foundation that allows her to grow into a confidant, strong, intelligent, radiant young woman. If you are the parent to a son, it is your responsibility to teach him that objectification is wrong and that girls/women are equals who are capable of a great many things.

Everyone has been talking about this story since it was released a week ago. People in the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies Facebook Community are talking about it and using shrewd media literacy skills to break it down. At the end of the day, I’d rather parents focus on what they can pull from the campaign and change the conversation around Barbie.

What the campaign is trying to get at is that a girl or woman is more than the sum of her parts. What they are trying to say is that a girl’s or woman’s worth extends beyond her beauty.  The SI icons they are celebrating are each smart business women with lasting brands that stretch far beyond the pages of SI and that is what parents should be focusing on with their daughters. I may not love everything about Barbie, but at the same time a parent is hard pressed to find another doll that is dressed as a computer engineer, astronaut, surfer, president, teacher, etc. and Barbie isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

What I really like behind the campaign is the idea of not having to apologize for being beautiful and successful, and that a girl/woman can be both at the same time. And while Barbie does undeniably fit the mold for “beauty” in our culture, parents can teach their daughter(s) that Barbie is only one type of beauty and the family/child defines beauty on their own terms because we don’t all look like Barbie. Beauty comes from our thoughts, our actions, our relationship with others. Maybe the world sees us as pretty, maybe it doesn’t, but that does not define nor take away the beauty we see in ourselves and share with others.

I also feel this campaign offers some play ideas that creative parents can siphon off because in all honesty,  we have to be the ones leading the charge of giving girls more credit because we know how wicked smart and creative they are.

Some of the play ideas (with our without Barbie) for your daughter are:
– Pretend she is the editor of a magazine (Forbes, Time, Working Mother, Popular Science, New Moon Girls) and has to design an empowering campaign for girls featuring Barbie or a successful woman for her career(s), independence, political ambitions, activism, etc. Would she conduct interviews? Take photos? Create a social media campaign? Teach her how to create her own media, how to tell stories, and how to use her voice.

– Pretend she is the director of the beach photo shoot (she doesn’t need to see the magazine to do this). A trip to the library might be in order to look at travel books to scout locations, and then a Google search at home to check on weather conditions and currency rates. She could establish a budget for the shoot, draw up a passport and foreign money, design a contract for Barbie, plan beach activities for the shoot (soccer, horse back riding, surfing), and then construct an airplane out of boxes or couch cushions. When her play is focused on girls doing things and being agents over their own stories, the concept of girls being objects will feel out of place to her as she grows.

– Pretend she is the icon being celebrated during the anniversary of a women’s publication or as an inaugural figure in the United States’ first ever American Women in History national holiday. Have her write a piece of creative fiction on her lifetime of achievement or a speech she would give at her alma matter. Design a community service event she is the guest of honor for and employ all of her Barbies into the planning and carrying out of that event. Design the dress (or power suit) she would wear to attend the White House dinner hosted by the Madame President of the United States and the first spouse honoring all of the living, amazing American heroines.

– Pretend there was a ship wreck as the team was leaving the photo shoot locale and Barbie is now stranded on an island. What wilderness skills can she employ to survive until Pilot Barbie comes to her aid? Maybe she has to use her experience as an Army battlefield nurse to triage some survivors of the crash and protect all of them until help arrives. Maybe she builds a giant tree house like Swiss Family Robinson or builds her own boat from trees and rescues everyone her damn self.

– If you allow the conversation to stop at the bikinis (or lack thereof), you are a part of the problem not the solution. If your child has seen the magazine, talk about the icons presented but then use the women’s own websites or Google/Wikipedia to learn more about their careers instead of staring at their bikini bodies. Talk about what challenges these women might face if everyone is always focused on how she looks as opposed to what she thinks or does. Question if women always have to look sexy? Talk about what sexy means and who defines it. Talk about struggles the women featured may have overcome in their careers, successes they have had, or philanthropic work they do.

If you need more play ideas and conversation tips to navigate media like this, check out my newly released book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween”.

I’m not about to teach my daughter she is an object of beauty to be gazed at and consumed. I’m about creating lasting change, and that starts at home with the little girl I’m raising to be fierce, smart, and independent. I hope you choose to play along, too.

Your daughter does not have to be limited by media messages.

Your daughter does not have to be limited by media messages.

Image 1 source.

Image 2 source.







Barbie World: Is It What I Thought It Would Be?

“I played with Barbie as a kid, and I turned out fine.”  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that. I could say the same about myself, and minus a few insecure moments about my muscular-and-not-thin thighs, I have by and large turned out okay. My Barbies used to have awesome adventures, mixed in with my LEGO, My Little Pony, and my brothers’ GI Joe. I remember liking the safari outfit just as much as the sparkly ballgown. I never had a Ken doll, my Barbies were far too busy career building and adventuring to worry about that nonsense. I have a more tolerant palette for Barbie than I do princesses, but I think that is in part because princesses weren’t big when I was a kid in the 1980’s (the Disney Princesses weren’t a brand yet) and my Barbies came ready for adventure and didn’t have a pre-written story to be reenacted.

You’ve seen my evolution with Barbie and my daughter play out here. Amelia was six when she got her first Barbie – a mermaid Barbie. She now has several, and plays with them when she is in the tub or pool. Her Barbie collection totals seven dolls: five mermaids, one Surfer Barbie, and one Sea World Trainer Barbie. She also has a Barbie knock-off dolphin trainer from Shedd Aquarium, and a Bindi Irwin Surfer Girl.

While we have stayed far away from sexualized dolls and remain adamant they will not come into our home, I have been able to wrap my head around some of the Barbies. Consider it the “How to be a fan of problematic things” approach. I know the body image issues with Barbie and I have discussed them many times with Amelia, to the point that she can articulate them for herself. As mentioned above, most of her Barbies are mermaids so I didn’t have to worry about sexy outfits because these dolls are half-fish. The Surfer Barbie has a tankini painted on her body, and the Sea World Trainer came in a wetsuit, water shoes, and a fanny pack of smelt.

So I’m not as anti-Barbie as I used to be, but my daughter is older now with more developed critical-thinking skills. The child is an aquatic humanoid and needed dolls that could go in the water with her. She plays for hours swimming with her mermaids, training large imaginary marine animals, rescuing Arctic seals, training her little brother to be a merman, you name it. Her Barbie Mermaids are floating in the pool nearby, helping to create the stage her imagination plays out on.

I know a lot of other people’s girls move beyond the fashion-wedding world of Barbie into true adventures fit for girls ready to take on and take over the world. We had a great discussion on the PPBB facebook page last week about the good that can be extracted from the Disney Princess brand. A ton of parents said that was really helpful, so I’d like to do the same for Barbie. I’ll compile all of this next week into a blog series, because there are some seriously helpful insights to be shared.

So what I’d like to know is:

1. For those of you whose daughters have Barbies, what kind of stories do they play out with their dolls? Where do they play with their dolls?

2. What kinds of tweaks and changes to the story/character development of Barbie could be made to help parents to be more comfortable with the brand? So, maybe we can’t change the physical appearance of Barbie, but much like we did with LEGO when the Friends line was released, what is a “To Do” list we could create to post for parents to see ways that Barbie could be improved and develop more creative play? More adventure outfits and accessories to use in play? New friends to introduce? New story lines?

Amelia's Barbie collection, which now resides outside by the pool for the summer.