The Barbie Question
It was a typical hurried morning of making breakfast, preparing lunches and packing backpacks for my two young daughters. But once I finally got them in the car, my eldest started a conversation that I wasn’t quite prepared for. We were heading down our little dirt road, past the new lambs and neighborhood emus, when she asked me: “Mom, why can’t we have Barbie dolls?”
I took a deep breath, adjusted the rear view mirror to better monitor her expression and quieted myself for a moment. For a split second I didn’t feel up to the task. “Because” certainly wouldn’t be a suitable answer. But what would be? Her question was good—it was damn important in fact—and it deserved a clear and thoughtful answer. She is six years old and I wanted to be careful to impart my adult point of view in a way that both honored her curiosity and provided a meaningful lesson for her and her sister.
Earlier that week I had explained why I didn’t want them to watch the animated version of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch anymore. As protective as I’d been in censoring viewing material, this show had apparently slipped by me and there was one episode that sealed that deal. A few characters were discussing the need to lose weight so they could fit into a pair of jeans.
I was cleaning up the living room when I overheard this part, seriously hoping that somehow I’d misunderstood. But the young witch and her friends continued to discuss their weight loss goals. I couldn’t believe the show’s utter recklessness. My husband and I have tried our best to foster a home environment full of real-talk about having a healthy relationship to food and body size. As an outspoken advocate for responsible media and healthy body image-role models for women, I had to intervene.
I turned off the TV and my girls wailed in unison. “No! Don’t! We love this show!” They were devastated. Sitting down on the rug next to them, I explained my rationale and directed them towards some other shows that they could watch instead, ones with a more positive and appropriate message.
As we neared the bottom of our quiet street and headed out on the main road toward their school several days later, I reminded them about this incident, realizing that the Barbie-question was part of the same bigger picture. I knew I had to embrace this important teaching moment.
“We’ve talked about how precious your bodies and minds are, right?”
“Everything in front of you affects you somehow. Right?”
“Yeah,” said my eldest.
“Well, think about how Barbie looks…I mean, do you know any women or girls who look like her?”
They both thought about it for a few seconds.
“No Mom, I don’t,” answered Jade.
“Me neither,” said Kaya.
“Well, that’s just it girls. Barbie doesn’t look like anyone in real life. She’s an inaccurate representation of women. Take my body, and grandma’s and your aunt’s…”
They both went on to name other women they know and love—teachers and family friends. Young, old, black, white, petite and voluptuous.
“They don’t look like Barbie either,” said Jade.
They were starting to get the picture—that no one, at any age, looks even remotely like Barbie.
“Women come in all shapes and sizes,” I said.
“Yep,” said Kaya, in whole-hearted agreement.
“And we’re all awesome!”
“That’s true, Mom,” said Jade.
“What a boring life it would be, if we all looked like Barbie,” I said.
“Can we go swimming this weekend?” asked Kaya.
I took the change of subject as an indication that, for now, their curiosity was satisfied. For now, they understood what they could.
But it’s a conversation I know will continue. It’s a conversation that needs to continue, inside my home and out there in the world. As my girls grow older, they’ll have to deal with a variety of cultural messages, some which will be polar opposite from the ones they’re getting from Mom and Dad.
By the time we arrived at their little school set deep in the redwoods, I turned to look at my girls and made eye contact with both, just checking in. We exchanged smiles and then got out for hugs, kisses and goodbyes. They ran off to greet their friends and teachers and as I watched them leave, I took a moment to check in with myself.
I know my daughters will have their own experiences and make their own choices. So my hope is to give them a strong foundation—one that fuels them with compassion, acceptance and respect for others and themselves.
Banning certain media and denying my girls some of the toys their friends have is meaningless without ongoing discussion about why. It’s a why I need to continue exploring within myself, with my girlfriends, with my husband and with my other male allies. Barbie’s very un-real representation of women is just one conspicuous symbol, iconic as it is—one of many glaring indications of our need to have more real-talk.