Admit it: how many of you played inappropriately with Barbies as a kid?
Yep. Just as I assumed. Just about all of you.
I got my first Barbie when I was 4. Barbies were my favorite toys up until the time I was about 9. I loved the clothes. My mom made most of them out of fabric from dresses she was going to throw out or donate to charity. My Barbie doll clothes were as beautiful and glamorous as the dresses they came from. They were much prettier than the Barbie clothes that were sold in stores.
Barbie was also fun to play with naked.
I was brought up by extremely sexually repressive parents. Between the ages of 4 and 9, I had no idea what sex was. When I asked where babies came from, my mother and grandmother just said, “God will decide the right time for a couple (married, of course) to have a baby.” I didn’t know where babies came from until the time I stopped playing with Barbies and went to my first sex education (more specifically, female sexual anatomy) class in the fourth grade.
But I did know from a very young age that there was something very mysterious and desirable about a nude woman’s body. I saw silhouettes of them on signs that read “Go-Go Dancers” and “Topless Bar”. The silhouettes on those signs looked like the shape of my Barbie dolls. I also heard that men that went to bars like them in conversations I overheard from my parents and other adults. They made those places sound scandalous and taboo.
As a kid, all of that information and lack of information intrigued me. As with any toy that any kid has at a young age, I acted out behaviors and information that I saw and some that I mentally couldn’t comprehend. Anyone who has taken a psychology or early childhood education class will tell you that this kind of play is called modeling. It’s very typical of preschool age kids. It’s why Barbie was often a dancer or a singer with no clothes on except for a pair of white go-go boots. I’d turn on a transistor radio for music and made her dance on any empty box I could find for a makeshift stage. One of my brother’s G.I. Joes was her audience. It was only my imagination that led me to make Barbie and Joe dance really close to each other like I saw adults do. And if Barbie was naked, G.I. Joe had to be naked, too.
(I wasn’t allowed to have Ken dolls as a kid. I was always told, “It’s too expensive. We can’t afford it,” yet I had at least a half-dozen Barbie dolls. I think my mom had a hang-up about undressed male and female dolls cohabiting in the Barbie Dream House or in the same carrying case. Believe me, any kid will find a replacement for a toy they aren’t allowed to have.)
As an adult, I cringe every time I hear adults trash talk Barbie. The usual complaint is that Barbie dolls have unrealistic body forms and that Barbie clothes and accessories are slutty. I saw the former as a truth when I was 4 years old. I looked at my mother, my aunts, the moms and ladies who lived in my neighborhood, and even the women I saw in the grocery and department stories. None of them had bodies, hair and faces like Barbie. None of them wore the kinds of dresses my Barbie had. I understood that Barbie was a toy, a toy that I used to act out my fantasies and imagination.
Have Barbie and her pals been oversexified over the years? Yes and no. But who controls what toys get into a kid’s toy box?
Does Barbie project an unrealistic body image? Yes, but if you change her in any way, some adult (not child) is going to be unhappy that Barbie isn’t shorter or heavier, isn’t more Latina or Asian, doesn’t have breast cancer or varicose veins, or doesn’t have flabby upper arms or inner thighs.
Sometimes I wonder how many of those women get plastic surgery from guys like Dr. Michael Gray.
At least Dr. Gray has a sense of humor to say, “People always say that these pretty swimsuit models had plastic surgery, well this year no one can deny that the cover girl is all plastic!”
I think the bigger thing that “concerned” parents need to tackle isn’t what kinds of toys are appropriate for kids, but how they talk about sex and body image to and around their kids. I’ve never read or heard a therapist say that a client had sexual issue because of playing with Barbie dolls, but plenty of people see therapists because of judgmental and ignorant things their parents told them about sex.