5 Feb 2016

Barbie & me

11:54 am on 5 February 2016

She's got a new, more ‘realistic’ body, but it's too late for 80s and 90s kids. Seven writers look back on what old-style Barbie meant to them, way back when.


After decades of manipulating lumps of plastic and little girls' neuropathways, Mattel appears to have finally twigged to the fact things have shufffled along a bit, and children's toys based on mid-century German sex aids will no longer fly. Not with millenial mums. 

Cue the all-new "curvy, tall and petite" range of Barbies, designed to conform to this new world of social awareness and, in doing so, reinvigorate droopy sales. 

Which leaves us, the last generation of old-Barbie owners, with memories. Of pin-thin legs, of unhappy haircuts, and of that time you and your sister propped her up, nude, so you could point and laugh.

Here, seven writers recall what the famed blonde doll meant to them. 


'She was like this little sexual harassment voodoo doll'
- Ben Hagemann

My parents weren’t big on buying us overtly commercial toys, so figurines were an unusual item in our toy pit. (Yes, a 'pit'. My father built, inside our open-plan house, a large section of depressed floor a foot deep for our toys. His theory was that they would then not spread out everywhere. Really, it was a terrible falling hazard for small children.)

Anyway, a relative had given my sister a Barbie doll, and while that clearly seemed to me to be a toy for girls, I have a vague recollection of being quite curious nonetheless. I don’t remember what kind of clothes she had, but I do remember that I would take them off and look at her boobs; touch the smooth cool plastic and wonder why they had no nipples. I suppose I was concerned with the anatomical correctness, I don’t know.

I suspect if there had been other figurines around the place I would have engaged in some sexual role play, but it was just Barbie, all on her own, and I hadn’t heard of alone-sex yet. So my sister and I would strip her down, stand her up somehow, then point and laugh. She was like this little sexual harassment voodoo doll. 

I don’t believe I ever visualised Barbie as an accurate replica of women, because her legs seemed way too long and skinny. And her toes were too pointy so she couldn’t stand up on her own. And she didn’t have a vagina, either. I think that was important to me at seven years old, I think I wanted there to be at least some kind of dimly representative crevice - to show that, beneath it all she could be an actual person, and not just a lump of plastic. 

'He was looking down, puzzled'
- Rebecca Kamm

I spent my early childhood drawing two different, but very distinct, cartoon scenarios. The first involved lust-fuelled, crazy-eyed thugs chasing women with Jessica Rabbit figures, who ran ‘away’ with thinly veiled delight. The second saw docile princes kissing princesses gently on the hand, as both floated dreamily in the air. 

Which is to say, I had a mild fascination with courting. (Or what I imagined courting must look like, before I grew up and realised I had missed the mark slightly.) 

Nonetheless, it came as a shock when I asked Mum to recall my Barbie days and she said the one I loved most of all in the whole world was Wedding Barbie. Because really, what any self-respecting feminist sort of wants to hear from her mother is sure, you gazed upon Barbie’s silly face for a bit, but then you torched her tiny dresses in the garden as you rallied – ahead of your time, from a place of instinctual, little-girl wokeness  for the end of gendered toys.

Or at the very least that you just weren’t that fazed.

But I was fazed. Barbie, with her astonishingly perfect face, just was female beauty as far as I was concerned. So much so that when I got a brunette one with olive skin, she was an exotic curiosity. Nevermind that I, too, had dark hair and dark eyes, or that as a child in central London half my friends were Nigerian and Indian and Asian. No, Barbie’s was a clear-cut world wherein brown hair, of all things, was other.

One day, a day that would end my Barbie days, I threw a 'beach party' for all my esteemed, stiff-legged guests. I imagined sun and sand and trendy clothes and gossip. It was going to be great. But at some point things devolved, and what was supposed to be a lighthearted platonic affair became a scene strewn with clumps of courting Barbies. Just lying there, grinning, horizontal. 

And suddenly my dad was there too, at my beach party.

Where had he come from? The front door, probably, but his attendance was a big shock. He was looking down, puzzled. My face burned as he then pretended -- in a gesture of fatherly kindness -- not to have seen at all. 

I knew he had, though, and so did he, and who knows what really happened when men and women liked each other but maybe I should should try and squash my curiosity, because clearly it was a secret until you were older and prettier and big-girl cool. Until you were Barbie. 

'I was enraged'
- Veronica Schmidt

The day I got a Sindy was a dark one.

I didn’t want a Sindy, I wanted a Barbie. Sindy was shorter and rounder than Barbie, and, most importantly for my parents – who had four daughters – she was cheaper. The cool kids had Barbie. The really cool kids had several Barbies. And the coolest kids had several Barbies and a load of pink (they were always pink) accessories. I hated them all.

As I played with Sindy in the Lego house I built her, I longed for Barbie and her elaborate, plastic, two-storey abode. As I dressed Sindy in the clothes my Mum sewed her from old curtains, I thought of Barbie and her glittering gowns made from unnatural fibres.

Why did I long for a hunk of plastic moulded into the shape of an anatomically ludicrous woman? The same reason today’s kids long for Frozen figurines and Hot Wheels sets, I expect: the power of branding. But what power!

When I had grown too old to play with dolls, the unthinkable happened: my parents, worn down by years of child-wrangling, folded and bought my little sister – the youngest – a Barbie.

I was enraged. And to make matters worse, I had to be silently enraged, for I had recently manufactured a new mature image and being seen to care about dolls wouldn’t do it any good. My relationship with my sister may well have collapsed had she not, soon after receiving the prized doll, cured me of all envy by taking to Barbie’s flowing blonde hair with a pair of blunt scissors, leaving her with an uneven number one and serious lacerations to her plastic scalp.

'Shorn, she looked appalling'
- Noelle McCarthy

I had Crystal Barbie. She was meant to be quite high-end: the dress was a gowny get-up with a crystalline sheen to the fabric and a detachable stole that looked like an air-conditioning vent.

This was 1983, so she also had a full bouffant; her hair stood about 3 foot high from her forehead. Still, it was soft and shiny. I remember being obsessed with her hair. At the age of five or six mine was black, and so frizzy it was horizontal. 

Eventually, fuelled by a mixture of resentment and curiously, I scalped Barbie. Shorn, she looked appalling. Like one of those poor French women who got their heads shaved for consorting with Nazis.

I don’t know what happened to her after that, I think I probably hid her so I wouldn’t get into trouble. It’s only now I look back that I see how weird and unreal she was. At the time (before I cut all her hair off) I thought she was beautiful. 

'We knew it was uncool, but we were hooked' 
- Mava Moayyed

When I was nine, I decided I was too old to play with Barbie dolls. The problem was, I loved those blonde-haired beauties more than life itself. So my best friend and I came up with a brilliant plan to only play with them on the weekends and tell no one about it as to not damage our solid primary school reputation. 

My friend had the most impressive collection of Barbie dolls along with shoe boxes full of outfits, tiny handbags and EVEN a ken. We’d spend hours at her place dreaming up Ken/Barbie love stories and scenarios that required several outfit changes. We knew it was uncool, but we were hooked.

We barely ever played at my house; I only had an off-brand mermaid thing and a Brandy Barbie (what happened to her?) whose braids I had cut off. For a whole year, I lived with extreme shame and pleasure, like a kid with some sort of bizarre fetish.

Eventually, the shame became too much. Ten-year-old me couldn’t justify it anymore. I mean, I was about to start intermediate! So we stopped. I still occasionally see that friend and, to this day, we haven’t spoken about those secret Barbie weekends. I imagine it’s the sort of thing that’ll up in a therapy session when I’m 40.

I decided a transplant was in order'
- Megan Whelan

My cousin had a Peaches 'n' Cream Barbie, AND a Barbie swimming pool; you could push a button and the “spa” would bubble. I had probably never even been in a spa back then, so that just seemed the height of luxury.

I had two Barbies. I don’t remember either coming to me brand new, so it’s entirely possible they were both hand-me-downs, or maybe I’ve just always been bad at looking after my property. My Barbies didn’t have amazing peach-coloured nylon ball gowns and matching shoes. They had dresses made out of what looked like someone’s grandmother’s old curtains.

Looking back now, I’m proud that my Barbies were into recycled fashion before it was a thing, but then this seemed like such an injustice. The biggest problem of all, though, were the dolls themselves. One had long glorious blonde hair, but legs that had been chewed – either by me or our long-suffering cat E.T – and double-jointed knees. The other had lovely legs, but hair that was matted and snarled. (Not unlike my own.)

Taking matters into my own hands, I decided a transplant was in order. Removing and replacing the heads was a relatively simple operation. But it turned out that Barbie’s legs are not one size fits all. (Or, just as likely, one of my treasured dolls had actually come off the back of the truck.) No amount of pushing, manoeuvring or PVA glue would make the nice legs fit on the pretty head.

What was I to do? Live life with two imperfect dolls in ugly green upholstery-fabric dresses, or accept the reality that perfection – even in the epitome of unrealistic beauty standards – was impossible? Well, I still have the legs somewhere, if that answers that question.

'The doll was a marvel to me'
Katie Parker

My favourite Barbies were the ones foregrounded by their physicality. A brunette whose hair you were encouraged to cut yourself (featuring a Velcro pad at the back of her head and an attachable length of spare hair, for when this inevitably went astray). A Kelly doll who for some reason came with her own toilet and (what delighted me most) a teeny, weeny roll of toilet paper.

The best one though was my pregnant Barbie. A ‘friend of Barbie’ named Midge, rather than Barbie herself (who, presumably too chaste to come down with such a condition, could be purchased separately as an obstetrician), the doll was a marvel to me.

The state of pregnancy was, in a display of incredibly loaded realism, temporary. Concealed under her prim maternity smock, was a hollow plastic stomach which, attached to her torso magnetically, could be removed and beneath which contained a very little foetus.

The idea was to wrap the baby up in the wee accompanying blanket and then rock her to sleep in the wee accompanying crib, but this was never of particular interest to me. Instead, Midge’s slim perfect body, and its monstrous concave addition fascinated me. As a child I was not particularly keen on the idea of being pregnant (perhaps even less so now) and Midge’s fantastically easy gestation and completely painless childbirth probably confused me even more. 

According to eBay, Midge was a particularly controversial addition to the Barbie world. Released alone as ‘Midge and Baby’, parents feared she might encourage two of the world’s greatest evils: teenage pregnancy and single motherhood. Pregnant Midge was recalled, and subsequently re-released with no additional accessories, save for a paper cut out of her husband, Allan, now beside her in the box. I just hope my Midge was single Midge.