As a middle-class kid in the 90s, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Barbie Doll was more than a toy created for girls. Or a rage. It was a raw emotion. Pretty much across the globe. Even today, according to Mattel (the company behind this iconic toy), over 100 dolls are sold every minute, with a total of 58 million sold annually.
Barbie represented a window—of perhaps what the first steps into being a grown up truly felt like. Despite being a window to a world that I probably didn’t even know existed. One where girls had skin tones so much lighter than mine, blue eyes that shined, an hourglass figure that I was told was pretty, and an entire wardrobe of stylish outfits that would put my skirts and frocks to shame.
From my first Barbie doll, I received as a birthday present on my seventh birthday, to the times I pleaded and cajoled my mother to allow me to add more to my collection of Barbie dolls. Occasionally she resisted, and sometimes she gave in to my innocent pleas. Whether it was getting full marks on a class test, or a festival, or sometimes as a rare act of indulgence, I would come home to find a new Barbie doll in its signature fuchsia pink packaging.
And like most girls of my time, a collection of Barbies would mean several hours of self-entertainment. I’d comb their hair, change their outfits, occasionally even give them a bath. I’d call over my girlfriends and have Barbie playdates. Each one of them would get their Barbies along. When my mother complained to my father that I was perhaps playing with dolls a little too much, my father would simply laugh. And assure my mother that it wasn’t as bad as she imagined. Afterall, it’s just a doll. She should be glad she’s not playing with toy guns like her brother.
Now, here’s the catch. Perhaps these dolls didn’t change my behaviour. And like most girls, I outgrew playing with dolls the moment I touched my teenage years. But what Barbie did was start making me feel conscious about my body and physical looks, at an age where ideally this shouldn’t have been on my list of worries. I always worried that I wasn’t thin enough like my Barbie. Or that my skin was darker than hers, one that I had come to accept as the so-called standard for beauty. Or that my outfits were not stylish enough. In a nutshell, while seemingly innocent, the Barbie doll built unrealistic expectations for how girls should look like, stereotyping beauty. It has been estimated that a life-size Barbie would be two feet taller than the average U.S. woman, have a neck three inches longer, have a chest four inches larger, and be six inches smaller in the waist. Basically, even by American standards (considering the Barbie originated in the US), the doll set unreal expectations.
And this has been happening for generations. Perhaps an act that most women struggle with well into their adult years, learning to accept and love their bodies starts in childhood. And while we may stop playing with these dolls, what does not go away is the obsession with having a body that has absolutely zero fat. Or clear and blemish-free skin. And in most cases, these insecurities and obsessions with the stereotypical ‘perfect body’ stay for life.
The makers of the Barbie doll tried their best to combat the criticism that came their way. By giving Barbie dolls costumes of different career roles – doctors, firefighters, and more. But that wasn’t enough, because under the clothes, every doll looked the same. To me, Barbie looked like the characters in the American movies I saw my parents watching. Not like me, or any of my friends.
More than Barbie’s clothes, what perhaps needs to change is the narrative. It’s time we can rethink our toys, and understand the impact they have on our children and their long-term psyche. I’m not saying we need to do away with dolls. But if dolls are truly supposed to mirror what humans look like, we can give them ones that they can relate to. Ones that look like them. Ones that set a more well-rounded and realistic idea for the physical, mental and emotional development of impressionable kids.
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