When he was about three years old, my son asked me to buy him a Barbie. We were in the supermarket at the time and there she was, or her off-brand, trademark-defying, equally preposterous equivalent, on a low shelf, in a cheery outfit, strategically positioned to pitch woo to any knee-high human who passed her way. She caught my son’s gaze and held it in that way only painted-on eyes can.
I said no, because she was plastic and fake and represents an unrealistic fantasy of what a woman should be but also because my bedrock parental value is to be as cheap as possible.
But later, I agonized over that decision. On the one hand, I didn’t want to suggest to my son that it was wrong for him to play with dolls. On the other, I didn’t want to set up any kind of image for what women are supposed to look like in his developing brain. Then again, I feared preemptively squelching any dreams he might have had of a career in the beauty industry. On the fourth hand I also suspected he thought she was some kind of lady-shaped adjustable pistol.
Read TIME’s Cover Story: Barbie and Body Image
In the end, he dropped it. He probably spent less time wanting a Barbie than I did arguing with myself over whether I should buy it.
My mother never bought me a Barbie. She was no bra-burning feminist (it was never a great option for women of her build, frankly), and she usually erred on the side of indulgence. But she knew a raw deal for women when she saw one. My father had an elderly aunt with bad arthritis who hand-made clothes for my boring dolls with boring names like Jenny, Charlotte and Anne, and boringly human proportions. Mom probably thought the va-va-voom Barbie clothes would send Aunty Nell into an early grave.
So I had a more or less Barbie-free childhood. I survived. And I planned the same for my little family.
Then I had a daughter. Trying to avoid oncoming Barbies when you have a daughter is like trying to avoid defensive ends when you are a Peyton Manning. You need a whole team and a game plan with diagrams. It’s an onslaught.
Even if you manage to skip all toy stores, most kids TV show commercial breaks and the whole internet, there are still play dates. And even if you host all the play dates and declare your house a Barbie-free zone, there are still birthday parties, where well-meaning, idea-starved parents are just dying to give your child an easy-to-find $20 doll they know she will love. I thought about developing a “No Barbies Please!” logo for any party invitations, but that kind of thing costs extra.
And even if you never have birthday parties, or go to any birthday parties, there is still pre-school or daycare or a neighbor or a cousin. Wherever you go, Barbie got there before you and is already working the room. As TIME’s story points out, Mattel sells a new Barbie every three seconds.
So no matter what you do, eventually your daughter will ask for a Barbie. She will beg and wheedle and pout. I’m usually pretty good at no, but after the sixteenth round, the doubts began to plague me again. By being so anti-Barbie, was I making a bigger deal of something than it should be? Was I transforming a hunk of leggy plastic into an exotic forbidden fruit? Wouldn’t it be smarter to get my daughter the darn doll and then, as with most things I bought her, she could move onto something else?
Then again, I thought, that waist! That blonde hair and perfect smile and fused ankle! All those studies about why young women have eating disorders! History is littered with products almost everybody used, which later proved to be disastrous: Cigarettes, laudanum, and the sea as a garbage pail. Ubiquity does not equal healthiness. Also, remember lawn darts? Supposed to be fun; actually lethal.
As I canvassed my friends, however, they told me that their daughters mostly just cut their Barbies’ hair and ripped off various limbs. Seemed pretty standard. Was I seeing a threat that wasn’t there, while stunting her potential as a surgeon?
My daughter already had a doll, a gorgeous round baby doll with a brown plastic head and a soft body. She took Kissy everywhere, dressed and undressed her, fed her, cuddled her at night. I was worried that Barbie would supplant Kissy in my daughter’s affections. Instead of having a daughter who cherished an African American doll baby, I would have one that carried around a pneumatic white stick figure.
I mean, come on. I live in New York City. I might get my cool liberal mom privileges revoked.
In the end, I caved. Paramount gave out Elle Woods Barbies to promote Legally Blonde 2, and following my bedrock principle of always choosing the cheapest possible solution, I gave it to her. Also, Elle is a lawyer! She goes to Washington! Who cares that in the real world she’d need to wear a size of bra that nobody makes?
Alas, by that stage, Bratz had arrived. Bratz were like Barbie’s less wholesome cousin. Or in my case, they were the new school bully who really made you yearn for the old school bully. My daughter wanted Bratz. Elle Woods Barbie, in her estimation, was a day late and about three coats of mascara short.
We are long past Barbies in my house, but now that Mattel has released a spate of new Barbies with a diversity of body sizes (three new shapes) and ethnicities, I may buy one. It could finally put a rest to my Barbie-related anguish. Today’s crew of moms have no idea how good they have it. They can devote all the time and anxiety I devoted to avoiding the Bar-word to something useful. Like whether organic string cheese is better than the calcium-enriched.
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