My Toy Story
I grew up playing with Barbie. I remember Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, but I played with Barbie. Dressing her up, putting her in the big pink convertible with Ken, and “driving to the beach.” I grew up in Indiana, so the beach was always my imaginary destination. I outgrew Barbie, adopted basketball, riding bikes, and playing outside as my activities, and never gave Barbie another thought.
Until I prepared to have kids of my own. My tune on toys and characters changed. I wanted only educational toys and good role models for my kids. I had my “bad list” of characters: Barbie, Barney, and the Teletubbies. And my good list: Elmo, and, well, all the Sesame Street characters.
What was acceptable and good for me as a child was not good enough for my own kids. Maybe it was working with eating disordered teens at my Boston hospital that changed my tune, or perhaps I was just older and wiser, able to see the underlying messages I never noticed as a young girl. Whatever it was, I definitely had some ideal toys in mind.
Then I made the classic new parent move and declared a ban on Barbie, Barney, and the Teletubbies for my girls. I even went so far as to tell family members not to purchase Barbie as a gift for my girls, that Barney and the Teletubbies were not approved TV shows.
And as the humble pie of parenting would inevitably serve up, my number two girl became infatuated with Barbie and Barney. She had Barbie at preschool and played with her at a friends’ house. She wanted to watch Barney incessantly, even though it was discouraged.
For her 3-year-old birthday party, she wanted a Barbie cake and asked for Barbie gifts. And guess what? I gave her a Barbie cake and she got a lot of Barbie gifts! Family members thought it was funny that my 3-year-old was completely challenging my rules at an early age, and they supported my daughter, not me.
Looking back, I have to say that my daughter enjoyed her Barbie doll tremendously. For a child who didn’t speak much or choose to engage with other adults, she spoke to her Barbie doll. She dressed her. She sat and played with her for many hours at the kitchen island, creating an imaginary life, complete with plenty of outfit changes.
While I wanted to buck the Barbie and control the character influences, my daughter clearly had her preferences. I decided to give in to Barbie and go with the flow, because I figured that to fight Barbie and Barney would likely increase her obsession. Just like taking away sweets can increase a child’s desire for them.
Some feel that Barbie is a poor role model for little girls, embodying a shape and size that is unrealistic in human form. These concerns tend to come from adults, and perhaps they do contribute to an undercurrent of poor self-image. I can certainly see this argument.
But I have no idea whether Barbie imprints a young girl’s mind with lasting images of perfection. I don’t know if it sets her up for a lifetime of poor self-esteem and body dissatisfaction.
What I do know is that I picked a toy battle, and I didn’t win. I waved the white flag, learning an important parenting lesson: pick your battles.
For me, the best approach to Barbie (and other questionable influences) was to surround Barbie with other toys and experiences. Just like managing food, having an array of different foods and flavors, and letting your child experience them all helps to dilute the unhealthy options.
I decided the less I focused on the negatives of Barbie, the greater the likelihood that my girl would accept the good with the bad and learn along the way.
My daughter is now a teen. I can safely say that she, like other teens, feels the pressure of perfection and attaining the ideal body shape and size. However, I can’t blame that on Barbie.
What I can say is that I believe Barbie helped my girl enter a world of imagination and communication, and for that, I thank that doll.