March 20, 2011

The "B" Word

Like every well-intentioned mother, I made grand declarations in the early days of pregnancy and motherhood, back when books and magazines seemed like acceptable substitutes for wisdom and experience. I'll make my own baby food! I'll be calm and consistent in all matters of discipline! I'll never buy my children toy guns or Barbie dolls!

Reality had a way of softening my firmest intentions, as "I'll make all my own baby food!" subsided to "I'll buy prepackaged food, but only if it's organic," which gave way to "A Fruit Roll-Up is practically a fruit, right?"

But Barbie, well, Barbie was about something else. She wasn't just a doll, she was a loaded metaphor.

From the moment I found out I was having a daughter, I was afraid for her. I knew she was facing a world that would judge her by outward appearance. If she was not beautiful enough, she'd be a social outcast. If she was too beautiful, people wouldn't respect her for the things that really mattered, such as her character and intelligence. The ideal of feminine beauty is oppressively narrow, epitomized by the image of Barbie.

Barbie dolls may have evolved a little bit over the years, but they're still basically the same: Very long, very thin legs. Tiny waist, enormous chest. Shimmery blond hair, dainty Anglo features, feet shaped especially for high heels.

I never liked playing with Barbies when I was a kid, but I do remember wishing I looked more like one. I spent my childhood chubby, mousy-haired, and bespectacled. It wasn't great. As a teenager, I embraced extreme dieting and self-loathing perfectionism. It was worse.

Hoping to spare Evie some of this heartache, I steered her toward gender-neutral toys and cartoons. I wanted her to be a kid first, not just a girl.

And yet, they found us.

First, it was the Disney princesses. A hand-me-down book from a friend quickly became Evie's storytime favorite. Soon, she was talking about Belle and Cinderella as if they were friends from school. Never mind the fact that these princesses don't actually do anything in their respective stories, short of looking pretty and winning the hearts of equally unaccomplished men.

I could have intervened, I suppose, and banished the princesses. Three years ago, I might have thought this was a good idea. But seeing Evie's face light up when we'd read about those silly girls dancing in their ball gowns, it was inconceivable that I might take something so special away from her. There was also the good chance that this was just a passing phase, like the couple months when every car on the road was Lightning McQueen. I reminded myself of another promise I had made when I was a new mother and all of this was an abstraction: I wasn't going to tell my children who they should be; I was going to support them in discovering who they were.

About a month ago, Evie decided that Barbies were her favorite toy. She had never played with one, there weren't any in her classroom at school, and yet she loved them. Perhaps it was peer pressure, perhaps it was something innate, but, just like the princesses, Barbies found her. She told everyone who would listen. She insisted that we list Barbie as her favorite toy on the "star of the month" form at school, a survey that's posted on the wall outside her classroom. This ensured she'd get at least one for her birthday; we invited her whole class to the party, and if a parent checked the survey for gift ideas...

She got 5 Barbies for her birthday.

I'm telling myself that it's going to be OK. I'm telling myself that a doll can't do all that much damage.

Evie is being raised by a mom and dad who share household responsibilities equally. She's being raised with strong female role models in her grandmothers and aunts. She's being raised with Legos and dinosaurs and a train set. She's being raised with assurance that she's smart, kind, polite, and thoughtful - and we talk about those things much more than we do appearance.

Barbie is too skinny, wears too much makeup, and has her priorities all out of whack.

But we're going to be OK, because Barbie isn't raising my daughter. I am.

1 comment:

robyn said...

Monica, that weighs heavily on my mind as well. I want my daughter to be happy as herself and not think she needs to be thinner, cuter etc. Ske is turning one, but Barbie will be here sooner than I care for it.