I’m a Barbie girl. Er, well now a Barbie Mom. I grew up on Barbies. They were some of my first toys, my favourite toys and I collected them by the dozens. Barbie campers. Barbie cruise ships, Barbie cars, Barbie clothes by the case. Kelly, Skipper, Midge and yes, even Ken. I loved those dolls.
The singular smell of a new Barbie still has the power to send me back to the 1970s where Barbie was, in my room, master of her world. Not mistress. She danced and dreamed and charged forward through space and captained boats and then came home to Ken, Kelly and Skipper. Skipper ran the daycare or babysat her sister in some sequences. Other times, she was out too while Ken, his hair painted on back then, looked after the kids and made dinner, all the while looking handsome.
Barbie was how I explored my world, my role as a girl, how I constructed elaborate imagined scenarios. Even the occasional tawdry ones. I built social skills and rehearsed a script I saw in my future. Wink. Wink. Ken was nothing if not romantic, even with the strange Howard Cosell voice he had affected. One summer, when my father had a nervous breakdown right before my parents divorced, I saved all my money, channelling every ounce of confused gawky energy into a mind-numbing paper route. No time for holidays. No sleepovers. No, No, No. Eyes on the prize, I saved all my pennies to buy at end of August, Barbie’s latest incarnation. A beautiful, magical version of herself that was the best doll ever, the one that taught me pride, independence and the power of identifying a goal, committing to it and then following through. She was the sweetest reward. Spectacular. And her shoes, icing on the cake. Back then play so easy, before teenage dramas overtook my entire frontal lobe.
Over the years Barbie has taken it on the chin so to speak, criticism has come and gone and she has weathered it all. And she is still standing, in fact stronger than ever with the newest Barbie reimagined and the gorgeous new inspirational TV ads for girls. The Barbie I Can Be campaign is solid and a strong attempt to move Barbie into digital territory. She is Barbie, the teacher, Barbie the veterinarian, Barbie the athlete and Barbie the Mom, the big sister, the teacher, the bride.
There was a time when I was a newly married snooty childless sort who imagined a world without dolls for my daughters. They would, if I had them, be fearless and wonderful. My girls. Smart girls, unfettered by traditional images of girls. My daughters would be anything, go anywhere. They would move through the world effortlessly with grace, or reckless abandon. Not chained to an image, never constrained by gender. They’d be wearing boots, high heels, Doc Martens. Runners. Skechers. Their choice. Not mine and certainly not anyone else’s. And then we adopted our girls. My first beautiful girl came into our home 6 weeks old. She was Christmas every morning and I bolted out of bed first thing to see her and she grew so fast, years now seem like they were only days. But wrinkles and grey hairs tell me otherwise. I would buy her only toy cars, legos, puzzles, books. No pink. Well, I think that approach lasted perhaps two months and grandma arrived with a truckload of pink and, as my daughter grew, well it turned out she liked dolls and she wanted Barbies and she adored pink, rose, fushia, cotton candy, even pepto bismol hues. She wanted dolls and I could never, in those early years, deny that angel child anything. She was a gift, too good to be true and I would move clouds for her to walk on, change colours of the rainbow, rearrange letters of the alphabet if she should so require that they be moved. And daughter number two, well when I speak to adoptive parents about siblings and what that can look like when you adopt, I often tell them of my youngest being seven months old and rolling clear across the living room floor to steal her sister’s Barbie. That was the day my oldest girl yelled: “send her back to her foster mom.”
One Christmas Payton’s god mom, a good friend named Judy, bought her happy family Midge, the one with a magnetic tummy and a tiny doll tucked inside. For months I listened at the door as my girl made her into birthmom happily handing over baby to foster mom and then adoptive mom. And sometimes Midge could cycle through all the roles, acting out each side of the adoption triad. I never tired of that story. Carefully my daughter scripted and choreographed the parts until her adoption made sense. My younger daughter Ainsley had no use for dolls until recently, unless you count that one time when she dragged her ballerina Barbie to the developmental pediatrician so that she could soar through the air arcing her highest ever angle through space and landing at said doctor’s feet, just as she entered the room. Barbie has very untraditional roles in Ainsley’s hands. Barbie is most often a rock climbing, bungee jumping, race car driving gender-bending blonde.
When I was 10, I had a hard time parting with my collection, but part with it I knew I must, because I was getting too old to play with dolls.The year we moved to an apartment downsizing by divorce, my mother stashed the Barbie collection at Grandma’s. Then one by one they slowly vanished. I had dreamed of keeping them for my kids, buried treasure passed through generations. But they were gone. By then I was a teen and had little interest in much other than boys and part-time jobs, writing, and making money.
Over the years I had role models. Strong female role models. My Mom. My grandmother. A few select friends. But Barbie was instrumental in those early years helping me to create my own story. When I watch my daughters play, in their own unique ways with their dolls, I know they will each create their own unique, brilliant stories, and futures, built first on tiny Barbie feet.
Mom Central Canada and #BarbieICanBe The Voice has launched a new website to help Moms raising daughters to be smarter, stronger, happier, and more fulfilled. Leading Canadian Parenting Coach, Terry Carson will provide perspectives, wisdom, and experiences with parenting.