By LISA BELKIN
Mattel, via Associated Press
Ah, Barbie. Fixation of generations of little girls. And their mothers — but for different reasons.
Rebecca Fitzgerald is struggling with the Barbie dilemma at the moment. Not whether she should buy her 3-year-old daughter the doll; she is quite clear that she would never do that. No, her problem is how to keep her father from showing up with one. And she is looking for advice from Motherlode.
I was hoping to get help from you and your readers on explaining to my 60-something father why Barbie isn’t an appropriate gift for my 3-year-old daughter! I know there’s been research on the effect of Barbie on body image in kids as young as 5, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find. He’s a physician and a father of three girls raised to think they could be president — as long as they were pretty, too.
What kind of explanation would prevent him from buying makeup kits, high heels and fishnets when he thinks a busty gal in a tiny dress is a good role model for my preschooler?!
My first thought was that Rebecca show her father the work of Galia Slayen, now a senior at Hamilton College, who has built herself one big Barbie doll. Hers is a life-sized depiction of how Barbie would look if she were “real,” and by Ms. Slayen’s calculations, poor Barbie would measure six feet in height, with a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips. Made of chicken wire and paper maché, she was a project for National Eating Disorder Week when Ms. Slayen was still in high school. She is dressed, literally and symbolically, in the “size double zero” skirt that “used to slip off my waist when I was struggling with anorexia,” Ms. Slayen wrote in a post on The Huffington Post earlier this year. “I put it on Barbie to serve as a reminder that the way Barbie looks, the way I once looked, is not healthy and is not ‘normal.’ ”
You can see Ms. Slayen’s appearance on “The Today Show” with her mutant Barbie here:
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After Galia Slayen, I thought Rebecca might get some good advice from Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture” (who happens to be appearing at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa Tuesday night on a panel titled “Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Sponge Bob Ate My Son: The Reality of Marketing to Kids.”)
So I forwarded the note from Rebecca, and here’s what Ms. Orenstein had to say:
Well, first of all, as with children, you need to establish limits with grandparents in general. The grandparents’ role is to adore the grandchildren, yes, but also to respect the parents and their wishes whether or not they agree with them. So answer No. 1 is your father shouldn’t give your daughter a Barbie simply because you don’t want him to. Regardless of whether he thinks that’s foolish or wise. Anything else overrides and undermines your parental authority.
So that’s the Dear Abby part. Let’s move on to Barbie. Barbie is really a symbol of your larger concern, right? It’s not Barbie in a vacuum. And it would be simplistic to say that A+B=C; that is, that if you play with Barbie you’ll grow up to have an eating disorder. In fact, I wish it were that simple.
But what you’re battling against here is something larger and more complex — a marketing and childhood culture that encourages girls in an unprecedented way from an unprecedentedly young age to define themselves through appearance and play-sexiness, that defines femininity through materialism and narcissism. There’s a marketing notion called kids getting older younger: products are pitched initially to older children, but younger kids, wanting to be like cool older sibs, soon adopt them, at which time the older kids instantly abandon them as babyish and move on to something even “cooler.” And for girls, being cool means looking hot.
Dad sounds like a science-y guy, so lob some hard stats at him to explain: when she was first released in 1960, Barbie’s original demographic was 9- to 12-year-old girls. Now a girl is done with Barbie by 5. Fifty percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls in a survey by a market research group say they regularly wear lipstick or lip gloss, and the percentage of 8- to 12-year-olds wearing mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010 (why isn’t the percentage of 8-year-olds wearing mascara zero?).
I’m sure you saw the recent fracas over the push-up bikini top that Abercrombie & Fitch was trying to sell 7- to 12-year-old girls. That top is still out there; they just changed the name, not the product. The point is, the pressure on girls to define themselves from the outside-in rather than the inside-out is enormous. And confusing. And alluring — because it’s fun. For a while, anyway. I mean, makeup! Sparkles! Fashion! Who doesn’t like that? And it can be creative, but in such a well-worn, narrow way, right?
Meanwhile, a large-scale survey by Girls Inc. found that between 2000 and 2006 the percentage of elementary school girls who were worried about being thin went up far faster, and was much higher, than the percentage who worried about the quality of their school work. The percentage of the same girls who believed you had to be pretty and thin to be popular went up, too. The pressure girls expressed to be perfect (good at school and sports and pretty, popular and thin) went up. And the American Academy of Pediatrics — an organization I’m sure your dad respects — recently put out a memo to its members telling them that eating disorders were on the rise among children under 12 and they needed to be more mindful of the signs.
Beyond that, when we were children (or at least when I was) Barbie was a doll. Basta. She was not a lifestyle. There were no Barbie toothbrushes, Barbie tricycles, Barbie scooters, Barbie breakfast cereal (I don’t know if there’s really Barbie breakfast cereal, but there are now Disney Princess grapes, so there might as well be, and believe me, if you haven’t started fighting with Dad about Princess, that is coming). Do you really want your child to be subject to that kind of training: that her role in life is to advertise and consume licensed products to the hilt? Forget the girl stuff — your child does not exist to be a marketer’s land grab.
O.K. Now I’ve scared you. I’ve scared him. So what’s a mom or grandpop to do? I say, fight fun with fun. I’m wondering why your dad is so obsessed with Barbie. Because he liked watching you play with her? Because he thinks she defines cute, innocent girlness?
If it’s the former, why not suggest a present that would involve the three of you doing something, making some memory together? If it’s the latter, well, I get that. Girls are adorable when they play with Barbies or Princess. And little girls also have a developmental need to find a way to assert that they’re girls (more on why another time) in the most extreme way with whatever tools are at hand. When I was a child that mean baby dolls, strollers, doll houses. Now it’s spa makeovers for 4-year-olds.
That means, though, that countering with generic toys is really not enough. Besides, it’s hard to convince your daughter (or your father) that you’re giving her more choices by saying no all the time. So you need to offer her other ideas, playthings, books, movies, clothing that signify girl and signify fun yet broaden her idea of femininity. I have an evolving, idiosyncratic list of resources for this on my Web site (and if you have others, by all means let me know). Maybe you could suggest one of them to Dad as an alternative. If he’s looking for a doll companion, how about a groovy girl or a go-go sports girl? Or troll eBay for a Mulan doll (they’re out there; hard to find, though). You know what my daughter adores? Her Lennon Sisters paper dolls. I kid you not. Tell him that she will have so many messages beamed at her every day of her life that only a particular look and a particular body are acceptable, and you don’t want them to come on her birthday from one of the men she loves most in the world. In fact, you could just leave it at that.
Full disclosure, I’m personally harder core on other issues, so a few Barbies infiltrated our home. I just got ridiculously picky about which Barbies. No Barbie Basics No. 10. Not even those dopey fairytopia Barbies. We had Wonder Woman Barbie. Indonesian Barbie. It was ludicrous. But there was one of my (many) compromises. And then I put a dollar in the therapy fund.
But again, it’s not Barbie per se that’s the issue, it’s the whole culture coming at your daughter. Barbie is just the symbol.
And hey, maybe for her birthday you could give him a few presents: “Packaging Girlhood” by Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb; “So Sexy So Soon” by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne; “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” by Lise Eliot; “Consuming Kids” by Susan Linn; and, of course, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” …