I’m going to open up a can of worms and admit something that might not be very popular. I let my daughter play with Barbie dolls.
I’ve read repeatedly that Barbie dolls contribute to the negative self image of girls because of the doll’s unrealistic physical appearance. There have been studies that suggest that exposing girls to these dolls can contribute to eating disorders later in life. While I think they’re part of the problem, how girls learn to feel about themselves is a lot more complicated than what dolls they play with.
I don’t blame Barbie for my negative self image. I blame The Young and the Restless, General Hospital and Days of Our Lives. I blame Charo on the Love Boat. I blame Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty. I blame all of the images I was exposed to as a child that weren’t age appropriate and that desensitized me to early sexualization. Those shows are the reason I took a knife and sliced the mouths of my Barbie and Ken dolls so that I could squeeze their cheeks, thus allowing them to French kiss. It wasn’t Barbie’s skewed proportions that made me want to look and act like a grown up. And it wasn’t her skinny plastic body that told me my butt was too big and my boobs were too small.
The inappropriate sexualization of children is everywhere and it’s such a part of everyday life that many of us don’t even notice it anymore. Girls in first grade are dressing like their older teenage sisters. Teenage girls are dressing like a page from a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Whether or not you think Barbie is a good role model, it’s hard to deny that adult sexuality is being sold to our children. I pretended my Barbie was a scorned lover. My daughter pretends that hers is a doctor.
I can’t control everything my daughter is exposed to but I can control what she sees at home. I made a rule for myself that I would never talk negatively about my body in front of my kids, especially my daughter. She will never know how I feel about my boobs, my belly or my thighs. I will proudly prance around the pool in my bathing suit without embarrassment or shame. She’ll never hear me call myself fat, ugly or (God help me) old.
My good friend Rutabaga tells it like this:
“I think the idea that girls identify with Barbie as the ‘perfect’ woman is what most anti-Barbie people are concerned with…but to blame one doll when there is so much more that influences children is like saying that every child processes information the same exact way and we must shield them from anything harmful because it will resonate within their brain. Which is just not true – we don’t exist in a vacuum where each thing that we experience stands on its own. A mom calling herself ‘fat’ and always talking about what she ate and how ‘bloated’ she is etc is going to have a huge impact; maybe coupled with the Barbie – a child might make that connection. Sure, I’d like to see a more realistic Barbie with stretch marks and a little belly, but to deny my kid the chance to play and use imagination is not a better alternative.“
And don’t even get me started on the messages we send little boys. My father-in-law sent me an article on how schools’ zero-tolerance policies on guns not only lack in common sense, but are sending the message to boys that their imaginative play is shameful and unwelcome.
My stepmom refused to let my little brothers play with guns. One day they chewed their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into the shape of guns and she realized that she was fighting a losing battle. My son is the sweetest 4-year-old you’ll ever meet. He hugs complete strangers and sends everyone off with a hearty, “Have fun storming the castle!” He also saves the world from bad guys with his sword and lightsaber. Sometimes he’s Peter Pan and sometimes he’s Captain Hook. Is he at risk for getting kicked out of preschool because his idea of imaginative play is shooting the bad guys?
The way my kids feel about themselves starts at home. If they see something on TV that confuses them, we talk about it. They don’t hear my husband and I call people fat or ugly. We monitor the games they play and what they watch on TV. I know it’ll get harder as they get older because we’ll have less control over their influences but we’ll continue to do our best to lay a strong foundation.
So, for now, we’ll play with our Barbies and weapons, although not at the same time – that’s a whole other can of worms.
P.S. Can of worms #3 – If you really want a good reason to boycott Barbie dolls, do a little research on the foreign companies Mattel uses to manufacture their toys. Forced labor, excessive overtime, unlivable wages and poor living conditions are directly linked to many of the toys we buy our children.