The other day my 9-year-old was reluctant to have a classmate come over to play and she eventually confessed it was because she didn't want her new friend to know she still plays with Barbies.
I felt her doll-induced distress.
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I, too, kept my Barbie playing in the closet for years after it was deemed babyish by all my pals. I, too, know what it's like to run around my bedroom, hiding every tell-tale miniature high heel. And, oh, how I still sometimes miss that Barbie Malibu Camper.
Say what you will about Barbie – she has unrealistic, porn-sized proportions, she's too blonde and too white, she's to blame for screwing up the sexual identity of generations of girls – but I still dread the day my daughter puts her down for good.
In the Barbie World my daughter has created, there are balls and parties and happy endings and high dramas in which nobody gets hurt (except for a few Ken dolls who have lost some limbs, but I don't ask). This imaginary play goes on for hours. And hours. And hours. My daughter is never happier than when she is alone with her Barbies, acting out a skit that seems to run continually in her mind.
I get why people don't like Barbie. I have friends whose mothers refused to buy them Barbies when they were little. Last year, a lawmaker in West Virginia proposed a bill to ban sales of dolls like Barbie because they influence girls to place too much importance on physical beauty.
Lest you think I'm pushing Barbie on my kids or have some warped attachment to this doll, let me tell you that my oldest daughter has never touched Barbie or any other doll. She was more interested in bugs. Nurture or nature? You tell me.
I know Barbie isn't the ideal playmate. I am not happy that there still aren't many Barbies of color. And, yes, the doll's breasts, waist and hips are freakish. But I do plenty to make sure my daughter has a healthy self-image and she's just as passionate on the soccer field and track, so I think she'll be OK. What I know for sure is that when she's playing with those dolls, SHE is the one in control. And, speaking from experience, I know she's having the time of her life.
Oh, how I remember all those miniature clothes and those cunning little shoes. How I would take them off and on, off and on. How my brother would scream bloody murder when he found his GI Joe clinging to Barbie in the same sleeping bag. How I would wrap scarves around their bodies and pile their stiff hair on their heads. How I would play for hours on rainy afternoons. Just playing and playing and playing.
When my husband came back from Haiti recently, he told me about walking through a tent city and recognizing Barbie clothes hanging from one of the ropes holding up a tent. A little girl had carefully washed the clothes and hung them out to dry. He spotted her walking with dolls in her hands, some slung over her shoulders. There were Barbies and baby dolls, their hair disheveled, their bodies naked. The girl was so engrossed that she never noticed him taking her photograph. I think about that little girl a lot lately, but especially when I overhear my 9-year-old playing with her Barbies. Somewhere in Haiti, I know there is another little girl who is just as absorbed in her play. And I hope she keeps playing and playing and playing.