Like many women of the Baby Boom generation, I had a collection of Barbie dolls in the early 1960’s. My first Barbie was a “Bubble Cut,” as she is now known because of her round, poufy hairdo. Her waist didn’t swivel, her shoulders didn’t rotate, her hair couldn’t be combed, and she had a huge wardrobe, unlike her most recent incarnations.
I also had a Midge, Barbie’s best friend with freckles, and Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend, whose hair was a kind of fuzz that wore off, giving him patchy bald spots. I treasured my Barbie dolls, and got a lot of pleasure from the clothes and accessories I could acquire for them.
A wide variety of Barbie doll outfits could be found in toy departments back then, and none of them were pink or had anything to do with being a princess. Barbie doll clothing in the 1960s were tiny versions of stylish adult apparel, well made, with great attention to detail.
I loved Barbie’s many outfits and the tiny items that came with them: telephones, record players, ice-skates, books, a clock, a tennis racket, a coffee pot, and much more. I loved these things, not because I had an interest in fashion, or because I wanted to emulate Barbie, but because I loved creating a little world, an idealized world, as you would with a dollhouse, or a miniature railroad set.
Acquiring Barbie’s many accouterments appealed to the collector in me, and I also enjoyed mixing and matching her outfits. A large part of my playtime with Barbie and her friends involved changing their clothes, and we didn’t have Velcro then. It could take quite a while for my chubby fingers to snap all the snaps and zip the little zippers, but doing so came with a sense of accomplishment.
Girls these days might own several Barbie dolls, but not a Barbie doll wardrobe, and this seems strange to me. There are many kinds of Barbie dolls on toy store shelves now, but few extra outfits, and these are made to appeal to the glittery aesthetics of a six year old.
I don’t think girls enjoy changing Barbie’s clothes the way I once did, and the dolls themselves are not cherished as they were when I was a girl. Barbie dolls are relatively inexpensive, and their ultra-long hair inevitably becomes a tangled mess. I often see them at garage sales; the poor, discarded things.
If I still owned my Bubble Cut Barbie she’d be a collectable. Unfortunately, she is long gone. My mother gave away my entire Barbie doll collection – which had been stored in her basement – to some of my younger cousins sometime in the 1970s, assuming I wouldn’t mind. I didn’t know what had become of my Barbies until several years later, and by then those cousins lived far away. I never saw my Barbie dolls again, and still mourn their loss.
When I see photographs of the dolls, clothes, and accessories I played with as a kid, I feel deeply nostalgic. I love Barbie. And this is a surprising thing to many people who know me, since I am a lesbian, a feminist, and I live
in jeans and t-shirts.
A lot has been said about Barbie’s undue influence upon the self-image of girls who play with her. But I don’t think playing with Barbie influenced mine. I don’t remember ever comparing myself to her, or wishing I was her. I simply loved Barbie dolls because they were fun to play with. And the fun for me was in acquiring more and more of their possessions. If anything, Barbie may have unduly influenced me as a consumer.
I have a specific childhood memory of laying on the floor in the living room and peering into a plastic Barbie doll carrying case. I remember laying there, admiring all my neatly organized Barbie possessions, the dresses all hung on tiny plastic hangers, accessories stored in little cardboard drawers, with a feeling of pleasure and pride. And it’s funny how this memory sticks with me so vividly; I swear I can nearly smell the fresh vinyl scent of that case, and feel the fabrics of those tiny fashions.
I think it’s great that Barbie now comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, but it seems like a desperate act to keep her relevant, and quiet her critics. Barbie has a lot of competition in the fashion-doll aisle these days. There are Bratz, Monster High, Disney, and My Little Pony dolls, to name just a few. Barbie isn’t as special as she once was, that’s for sure. And all the new Barbie doll sizes will make it impossible for the dolls to share clothes, though I doubt they will come with many, if any, extra outfits.