Monday, March 9, 2009

Turning 50 with Barbie

(BiV's contribution to International Women's Day)

Today I realized for the first time that I would be turning 50 this year with Mattel's Barbie, who was launched March 9th at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. I haven't yet embraced this milestone (I have until November to come to terms with it), but then, neither has she.

Barbie's creator, Polish immigrant Ruth Handler, had noticed that despite the fact that dolls of the 1950's were mainly helpless infants to be cuddled, her daughter, Barbara, preferred to play with paper cut-out dolls. Ruth realized that a more grown-up doll would allow girls such as her daughter to enact imaginary adult situations and allow them to project fantasies of independence and glamour.

While traveling in Switzerland Ruth came across a German doll which had the physical characteristics she had envisaged – long legs, a tiny waist, a bust. The doll, "Bild Lilli," had gone on sale in 1955 and was based on a prostitute from a German adult cartoon. It was marketed not to children but to men in bars and tobacco shops as a novelty, though Ruth was unaware of this at the time. When she returned to the States, she used Lilli as a proto­type for her new doll, overcoming the resistance of engineers and other skeptics who insisted the doll was too expensive to produce and would not sell well.

Now that Barbie is turning 50, she has experienced a few changes in her figure, just as I have! In 1997 Barbie's body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist. It's odd how my life parallels this--I had the last of my eight children in 1998, and I definitely noticed a bit of waist thickening by then!

Other than that, it seems Barbie hasn't aged at all. She's still wearing swim suits, glamour gowns, and driving around in her pink DreamCar. I think that women of my generation have a lot more in common with Barbie than we do with our own grandmothers. And there's some good and bad in that. Yes, we emphasize materialism a lot more than those thrifty denizens of the Depression and World War II. Some 50-year-olds have fought aging tooth and nail, with nips and tucks and permanent eyeliner. It's true that we place WAY too much importance on a 19-inch waist. But on the other hand, we've stayed fit all these years. We aren't hiding behind an apron and a saggy sweater, but we are out windsurfing and jogging. We are in the House and in the Senate, and we're competing in triathlons.

Here's Barbie at 50:

Here's my Grandmother in 1958, a pre-Barbie generation. At 50 years old, she is already wearing the gray, tightly curled grandma haircut and baggy sweater. It would be another year before I made her a grandmother for the first time, but she already looks like one.

Now, my mom in 1987 at 50. She has just won the 5K race for her age group. At this point in her life, she has 4 grandchildren, and only her hairdresser knows for sure.

Here's me--I'll be 50 this year. And this is my facebook profile pic. (Can you tell I am just dying to have you comment and tell me I look more like Barbie than my grandma at 50???)

So, despite her unrealistic proportions which may influence girls to place undue importance on physical beauty, and her many accessories which promote a consumer culture, I wasn't completely ruined by my Barbie dolls. Through role playing, she taught me how to talk to boys (Ken). She taught me class and confidence and that it was normal to develop breasts. She showed me that girls could be anything from a doctor, teacher, or astronaut while still playing tennis with her friends. And wearing pink designer sunglasses.

I admit I played with Barbie, and I admit that we had them in the house when my 7 daughters (and one son) were growing up. (Though he tended to rip off their heads and use their dismembered bodies as guns.) I even admit that I have purchased Barbies as birthday gifts for little friends' parties. Tell me, what was your Barbie experience? And were you scarred for life?


Cynthia L. said...

This is a really fun post, BiV. And yes, you look totally fabulous! It's sad to think what a hard life previous generations must have had to make them look so old so fast.

Maraiya said...

I think you are gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Barbie has not scared me for life even though I wasn't allowed to have one until I was 10. *gasp* but I still played with them.

My daughter has had them since she was three (this was a parental rule I just had to rewrite) and she LOVES them. All those gorgeous dresses and shoes.

I did make her get rid of Ken though. I was a little concerned when I found her playing with a naked Ken. Add to that the family story of my sister-in-law, when she was Lulu's age, telling her mother, "Oh, they're humping" and I decided I wasn't quite ready for that lesson in sex ed.

Maraiya said...

And that should be scarred. I know how you are about such things. Really wish Blogger let me edit my comments.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I was the oldest and only girl in a flock of 5. So I played with everything from Barbie to Transformers. I had a few Barbies, but I always found her to be a little bland for my tastes, at least back then, which is about 25 years ago. My personal favourites were Jem and She-Ra because they were more exciting to me: flashy outfits, different coloured hair, cool accessories. I was never a girly-girl, in fact I was a huge tomboy for several years, had spiked hair and wore nothing but sports shirts and sweats. My mom always said that I was never the type to play with baby dolls, but I was not too much of a tomboy for Jem and She-Ra. I still have all my dolls in a box at my parent's home, although I don't play with them anymore, and just recently I've been watching old episodes of Jem on Youtube. It's still fun at 30. :)

velska said...

I can't resist saying, that a prostitute from an adult (why do they call it that; it's more "juvenile" than "adult") cartoon seems a fitting prototype for Barbie. ;)

But Barbie is not the problem, never was, just like TV is not the problem vis-รก-vis children's education. The problem is, when parents let try to let TV, video games and other non-concerned parties do their parenting. If a girl plays with Barbie, it's not as bad as when her mom is a Barbie.

As for facing the ravages of time: Should we expect to look the same all through life - or at least till 50? I don't think so, really. There is some dignity in the experience, that is visible on our faces. I never expected my wife to look 20 after a quarter century of putting up with me (she still looks younger than me, although she's a whopping 2 days older).

I think it has something to do with facing mortality. There's really no reason to fear it.

Zillah said...

I played with Barbies for years. I don't think I learned anything from them, except for maybe the basics of two-designs-tend-to-clash, but I also wasn't scarred by them.

You are a gorgeous almost-50-year-old. And your

Petra said...

I wish I could be half as beautiful at 50 as you and your mom are. Seriously.

As for Barbies, I wasn't really into them, but had a few. I mostly spent time making them either care for my plastic horses, which I was into, or having them die violent deaths by car accident, decapitation, G.I. Joe, etc. And for what it's worth, I don't feel scarred for life at all:)

Ingrid said...

I love Barbie! I was a shy girl. My best friend and I would act out dance scenes that we wanted to happen between us and our crushes. We would practice "talking" to boys during these afternoons! Our Barbies represented our dream selves, they got married and had children and still played with one another. We would act out scenarios and would talk about what sounded better and would get our point across better. Through Barbie I learned to imagine things in my head and how to think ahead of what I might say or do in many situations.

I still have a box of Barbies and add to my collection whenever possible. I have all sons...but I just can't get rid of my Barbies! They don't even role their eyes anymore when I walk down the "pink" isle at the store. Rock on Barbie!

G said...

your mom rocks, and you are stunning. your eyes slay me, did you know that? but that is nothing compared to how much I am in love with your brain. (heheh)

thanks for the barbie history. :)

stuporofthought said...

Congratulations on your birthday! You look great!

coffee said...

Barbie continues to be a genius toy, especially since girls like to imagine themselves grown up and Barbie helps them do that

Christie said...

I played with Barbies. My sisters and daughters have played with Barbies. I don't think any of us are scarred for life. Although there were never enough GI's to go around, (and the ones that were, were all amputees, and Barbie didn't have a wheelchair in those days....)The thing I noticed when I was young, and even now is the lack of modest and practical clothing for Barbie. Maybe because of that I never actually envisioned myself dressing like Barbie. She was more of a manequin, who lived in a model house with little doll children.

Zoe said...

Great write up on Barbie!

There's also a great new book by Robin Gerber called Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created her. It was just released by Harper Collins. Read about it at:

Zoe Murdock

xJane said...

You are beautiful! I wonder how much the influence of Barbie has to do with the progression of women-at-50 photos. It was certainly interesting to see that progression!

My cousins had Barbies and when I visited them, they wanted me to play with them: dress them up, braid their hair…I was as confused about this desire and the purpose of dolls as I was about the desire to wear skirts. I had one doll, one that my sister had made and which I loved for that reason, and I built her furniture and sewed her sheets and craft-clayed dishware for her. I never undressed her and only ever braided her hair when her natural (?) braids came undone.

I was also confused about her shoes—they got lost more often than tiny legos, and weren't interchangeable (like tiny legos)—where was the logic in that?? :-p

Anonymous said...

I love your article. I was a live action Barbie and did years of public appearances as her. and it was a blast. I am the same age as she is too and I still have my small waist. Age is relative to how you feel about it. My mother is 85 and is still a sexy and energetic lady. Here's to growing old with Barbie.