Barbie battles

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As the mom of a young daughter, Tami Mohamed Brown has learned which battles to pick.

It was a treat to find myself in the dinner company of a seldom-seen but well-liked old friend, both of us now mothers of daughters. We talked about the chaotic act of balancing work and home, about growing up female, and about the challenges-both real and imagined-that we faced in raising young girls today. The conversation shifted to another kind of struggle, though, a topic I had passed off as passé.

“I decided we’re not going to allow Barbie dolls in the house,” came my friend’s declarative statement from across the table. “They’re just not good for any girls-they’re terrible for their self-image.”

Forget the Mommy Wars. These are the Barbie Battles.

Before I replied with the sage but unwarranted advice of a more “experienced” mother about knowing when and where to pick your battles and expend your parental energy, I stopped myself. I felt time roll back and remembered myself saying those same words, taking that same “No Barbie” pledge because as a brand new mother, there had been absolutely no way I was going to allow any daughter of mine to be one of those Barbie girls.

The reasons were obvious. I, too, had issues with the doll’s appearance and how it might play into my daughter’s thinking. Its cardboard cutout standard of beauty was nothing short of unattainable by real-life women. I also disliked the unmistakable consumption that Barbie encouraged. She was materialism at its worst, with her pink plastic need to own and accessorize. Her make-believe life of primping and shopping and leisure was frivolous, trivial compared to the issues the women I knew struggled with every day.

No. I was not going to allow Barbie in my house. And I actually managed to hold her off until, unannounced and uninvited, she came driving a pink van into our home one birthday, a holiday gift from a relative. My daughter Nora was 4 or 5 years old at the time and thrilled; she treated her blonde-haired doll cautiously, carefully. She didn’t want to muss Barbie’s hair. She didn’t want to crumple Barbie’s long gown. And she didn’t feel that she should take Barbie’s gloves off because, as she put it in a high-pitched plaintive whine I had never previously heard her use, “Then she wouldn’t be beautiful. She would be ruuuu-ined!”

“Do you see what I mean?” I hissed at my husband Ahmed.

“It’s a doll,” Ahmed said, looking at me oddly. Barbie didn’t last long in her perfect state; it was far too limiting for Nora.

The doll became a swimming and bath companion and her hair came undone and tangled. The evening gown was replaced by something my daughter thought would be “more comfy,” and the high heels were discarded for practicality’s sake when they refused to stay on Barbie’s feet.

By way of birthday parties and family friend cast-offs, Barbie gained a small entourage of friends: We have Pierced Barbie, inspired by a fascination with a friendly coffee shop barista. There is Beauty School Drop Out Barbie (think pink-haired Frenchy from “Grease”), her hair always an experiment in length, style, or color. And then there’s Tattooed Barbie, flashing one-of-a-kind washable marker art on her arms and ankles.

I’d like to believe that rather than warp her sense of image or self, Barbie’s cookie-cutter features have provided my daughter with a clean slate to imagine with, to recreate on. But that internal Barbie battle, that anxiety the doll seems to bring on for many mothers of young girls still lurks deep in my psyche sometimes.

“I’m so sorry-it’s Barbie. I hope that’s OK.” I can’t count how many times have I heard-or used-that apologetic, questioning phrase over a present, a birthday cake, a beach towel, for goodness sakes.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” we assure one another.

Still, I worried when Nora confessed she didn’t like the brunette dolls, that blonde Barbie was always the infinitely better choice.

Damn, I thought. Maybe I had screwed up; maybe Barbie was affecting her perception of beauty. I began to gather words about how we’re all unique, that she shouldn’t measure herself against the appearance of something unrealistic, when she cut me off-

“Mom,” she said impatiently, “I already know all that stuff. It’s a doll.” She sighed.

“It’s just that it would be so much easier to make the blonde Barbie’s hair blue.”

“Yes,” I said in relief. “There’s always that, too.”

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.