By Pamela A. Lewis
When the Barbie Doll turned fifty in March, 2009 I, like many women my age, began thinking about her again.
My Barbie journey began when I was the unliberated age of ten and received the doll as a gift from my mother. If you had known my mom, you would never have thought of her buying a Barbie doll. A traditional, conservative woman, her doll choices were very consistent: non-Freudian, sweet-faced sleeping, drinking, wetting, flat-chested little girl dolls, completely devoid of anything remotely erotic.
So the arrival of Barbie into my innocent doll world was seismic. What was my mom thinking, I wondered. Not only did the prominent missile breasts get my attention, but Barbie’s whole get-up. She was clad (sort of) in the signature black-and-white striped strapless bathing suit, complete with slinky sunglasses and those use-me-abuse-me, open-toed stiletto heels on matching, permanently high-heeled feet. Her blond hair was caught in a swingy pony-tail. And my favorite feature: her sideways glance, demure yet seductive.
This was not my mother’s doll. It wasn’t any mother’s doll. I wasn’t even sure how to make Barbie my doll at first. She was more in the line of a kachina or one of those elegant but remote Japanese dolls kept under glass, to be looked at but never played with.
After a while, however, I got the hang of playing with my Barbie. The trick was in the clothes. Once I began building her wardrobe and accessories, she was transformed from something between an adult sex toy or miniature mannequin to a doll I loved and around which I created a life.
My female playmates, although allowed to touch my Barbie, had to adhere to very strict rules. The understanding was play nice or no Barbie for you. There was a fifteen-minute play limit; only one hairdo change; no mixing and matching clothes and accessories; and no inappropriate postures. When I eventually acquired Ken and friends tried to have him and Barbie engage in more adult activity, I put my foot down, casting the transgressors into the outer darkness to play with Betsy Wetsy or some other, lesser toy. I became a tyrant, but to my mind, Barbie needed the utmost protection.
Barbie became my most special doll, and I wanted to be like her. I didn’t really need the breasts, especially once puberty kicked in, but I wanted her temperament. She was sophisticated, stylish, intelligent (although she never said a word), beautiful, and had lovely things and nice friends. She had a boyfriend and no acne. I even imitated the famous sideways glance. “Why are you always looking sideways?” asked a friend once. “I’m being Barbie, can’t you tell?” I answered. And yes, you can call me spoiled because I amassed quite a pile of Barbieabilia: her convertible, the furniture (“cardboard modern”), Ken and Midge, her freckle-faced sidekick, and, most of all, the wonderful clothes and adorable, (but a podiatric nightmare) shoes.
So why to this day do I hide in my apartment and give myself fifty lashes with a cat-o’nine tails? Because, fool that I was, I gave away Barbie, all of her chic dolly goods and cute pals, to a friend shortly before my family and I moved to a new town.
The fashionable yet somewhat shocking doll that my mom brought home sold for only $3.00 back in 1959. On September 26, 2006, a Barbie doll set a world record at auction for 9,000 pounds sterling (US $17,000) at Christie’s in London.
I could’ve been on “The Antiques Road Show.”
I could’ve posted my Barbie on Ebay for hundreds of panting, covetous collectors.
Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
Yet, apart from learning how to find just the right bag to go with that eye-catching suit, Barbie inspired me to believe that I could have it all or at least try to; that I didn’t have to accept the conventions doled out by a society that saw women in only a few limited roles. Barbie was beautiful and brainy. All right, and probably dog-tired from all her different occupations. But at least she was making her mark, so I could, too.
Wherever my Barbie is, I hope she forgives me, knows I loved her, and accepts my thanks for all the hours of joy she gave me. And I hope that she’s wearing more comfortable shoes.