By Julie D. Andrews
Barbie's back...and making headlines. She's got a hot new Twitter feed boasting 200K-plus followers. She's "unapologetic" about scoring the cover of Sports Illustrated's famous (or infamous, depending) swimsuit issue. And she has a new cousin: Entrepreneur Barbie (pink-yet-sophisticated shift dress, check; smartphone, check; tablet, check).
Modern makeover or not, Barbie still evokes body-image controversies, making us unsure about coughing up 20 bucks so our girls can tote around the hot-to-trot miss.
Confession: I played with Barbies. And I liked it. A lot. (I also loved pink and still do, but now I call it fuchsia.) I didn't know Barbie's body proportions weren't realistic. I also didn't realize most men were not Ken—without six-pack abs, towering height and billowing ascots.
It's not fair to ascribe adult hangups to kids, to burden their playful little hearts with body-image stressors. Dolls, by nature, are aspirational. They wear stylish clothes and inhabit lavish dollhouses. My Barbies had it all, sans regret: hot-rod convertible, flashy mansion, steamy boyfriend, runway wardrobe. But they also drove Tonkas (thanks to my brother), zoomed to important meetings and fraternized with G.I. Joe operatives on secret-spy missions.
Some researchers say it's this mix that's important for girls. A recent study concluded that playing with only Barbies could limit girls' career choices. Take-home? "The most important thing is to make sure there is a wide variety of toys to play with,” said researcher Aurora Sherman.
But maybe it was something else that "saved me." Maybe I was just who I was no matter what I played with. I was me, playing Barbies. Or me, climbing trees, jumping off rocks (once nearly chomping off my tongue), leaping into pools not knowing how to swim (a story my mother still tells) or refusing to part with my Wonder Woman slippers. I boldly went—and, by extension, so did my Barbies—jumping off buildings and kung-fu kicking too-fresh boys. Perhaps I saw Barbie as just like me, not the reverse.
Not everyone agrees (some screens are likely iced in steely stares). Artist Nickolay Lamm's recent online crowdfunding campaign to manufacture Average Barbie, officially named Lammily, raised $95K within days.
That's cool; I get it. But I can't help but wonder if girls would know the difference if we didn't point it out to them. I don't want girls to settle for "good enough" but to go for gold and dream up lives they can aspire to. As comfortable as they are, sweatpants don't fly in the corporate world.
So, secret's out: I can't wait for my niece to get her first Barbie and to rekindle my glory days of inventing story lines. For good measure, I'll ask about Barbie's board meeting and whether her startup's secured expansion funding.
Julie D. Andrews is a writer living in New York City. Her new book, Real Is the New Natural, dismantles the negative, destructive messaging about body image and beauty bombarding us daily under the guise of health. Moms are calling it an excellent vehicle for propelling discussions about tough topics with their daughters.