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Barbie's no threat to little girls

They learn more about self-image from their moms

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Diana was going to be late for her super serious business meeting. Her tiny feet barely hit the ground and she'd lost a high heel back at the mansion, but she didn't care. She had a big presentation to make and she wouldn't miss it for the world. She had to convince her boss, Kylie, that the company must stop using Styrofoam in their products.

This is an average plot line from my early days as a playroom producer, aka as a little girl playing with Barbies. My best friend Megan was always Diana; I was always Kylie. Complex business narratives, angry mothers-in-law, pool parties, social justice campaigns, and a whole lot of crawling around on the shag carpet in my attic ensued.

As Barbie turns 50 this year, and I turn 30, it seems an opportune time to reflect on just how much, or how little, Barbie really causes problems for little girls' self-image.

Here's the received, feminist wisdom: Barbie's freakishly tiny waist and history of self-abasement (most famously in 1992 when she said, "Math class is tough!") influences girls to have impossible standards for ideal beauty and underestimate their own intelligence.

My own mother, a second-wave feminist and therapist to boot, tried to minimize Barbie's ominous presence in my life to no avail. I would beg, steal, and borrow just to get one of those stiff plastic ladies into my hot little hands.

And here I am, a couple decades later – happy with my curves, convinced of my own intelligence, and unabashedly feminist. You see, when Megan and I "played Barbies," we didn't really play Barbies so much as we invented twisting, turning versions of the adult female lives of our wildest imaginations. Sure, it sometimes included a little risqué contact (getting caught was a great plot twist device), but it always included an exciting professional life and plenty of self-confidence.

Barbie wasn't an oppressor; she was an empty vessel that we could fill up with all of our confusion and excitement concerning femaleness – just as Barbie creator Ruth Handler had envisioned it in the late 1950s.

That point seems to be missed as the continued popularity of Barbie, and her more modern counterpart, the sultry Bratz doll, continues to be a sore point among mothers.


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