My son found my Barbie, said she was pretty, and turned her into a space explorer

December 21 2012 | Guest post by Meghann Birks
By: d.loopCC BY 2.0
"Mama, what's this?" my three-year old son asks.

I look up warily knowing full well that, more often than not, when he asks this question he's holding something in his hands that he really shouldn't be. But this time he's got a Barbie doll, which isn't as distressing as, say, a piece of poo. It's still a bit of a shock since I'm not actually sure where he found it.

Well, I know where it came from. It's mine, purchased on an angry, drunken shopping trip to Costco when I was 25 years old, wearing sweatpants and high heels. I was at the height of my drinking and one hot mess. It went a little something like this: "Never allowed to have Barbie dolls." Grumble, grumble. "Yeah, well I'm an ADULT now and I will buy a doll if I want it. SO THERE." And into the cart she went. I got back to my apartment, sobered up, brushed her hair once and shoved her under the bed.

A few years later when I was moving to Australia, I brought her along. Why? I'm not really sure. Maybe as a symbol of my new found sobriety and how it meant letting go of some of that anger. Maybe cause I found the whole situation funny in a sad, kinda desperate way. I'm not really sure why she made the cut of Things I Just Had to Ship to the Other Side of the World but there she was, years later, in my kid's hands.

"What is it?" he asked again, waving her in my face, snapping me back to the present.

"It's a Barbie doll, honey," I replied.

"A garbage doll?" he asks, giving me a funny look.

"Well, yeah, you could call her that sweetie, but she's a Barbie doll."

"Oh." Pause. He stares at her intently. Then, "How do you get Barbie's dress off?"

Good grief! "He's such a boy," I find myself thinking as my hyperactive son — who usually flits around like a hummingbird — becomes completely and utterly absorbed with the task of getting her clothes off for at least five minutes, which is about as long as I've ever seen him do anything.

Finally, she's naked and he's turning her over in his hands, checking her out. A big smile follows as he yells, "She's got boobies!" and rubs those hard little lumps of plastic on her chest.

By: Jason ClappCC BY 2.0

"Yup, boobies." I agree, wondering what I should say, if anything. I'm tense and I don't really know why.

"You know what these are for, mMma? These are for feeding her babies." I breathe a sigh of relief and feel proud that that's the immediate association he makes when he sees breasts.

"Or for feeding her pants, see?" he says, holding her discarded jeans up to her boob. Um, sure. Good imagination, my boy.

He examines her some more and then says, "She's pretty."

This bothers me. A lot. I don't want my son to find a Barbie doll pretty. I want him to understand, even at three, that she is not an accurate representation of a woman's body. This is ridiculous, I know, but it's not stopping from getting all excited about this teachable moment we're having.

Gently, I say, "Most women's bodies don't look like this, baby. We're all different shapes and sizes." Then I stop and think and add hastily, "But some women do look like this, and that's cool too." I bite my tongue to stop from adding, "But only if they've had boob jobs and liposuction" because I know that there are women who's natural body shape is close to the cultural ideal. Me being slightly bitter about that won't change this. Harumph.

There are so many things that I want him to learn and I don't know how to teach him. But then, in a rare flash of clarity, I can see my discomfort for what it is. It's about my issues — with myself, my body, my saggy tennis-balls-in-socks boobs that are pretty much permanently attached to a baby these days and/or leaking milk.

My son just found a new toy. That's all. And he's excited about that. He names her Cinnamon (which is what he names everything) and plays with her for about a nanosecond before chucking her in the toy box. The next time I see her, she's sailing across the room, being a space explorer. The thud she makes when she hits the ground brings me a disproportionate amount of pleasure, and I giggle.

Poor Barbie. She hasn't got a chance.

By: Marcin WicharyCC BY 2.0

  1. I love that he gave her a stripper name, even if that is what he calls everything.

    I never got the big fuss with Barbie. I had plenty of those dolls growing up and all of my body issues came from other girls at school… I know it's a touchy issue though.

    • I knew some girls who weren't allowed to play with barbies when I was a kid because of worries about body issues and it didn't make sense to me at the time. Actually, the whole idea of wanting to look like barbie I thought was pretty ludicrous. I mean, it's a doll! I was obviously never going to look like it anymore than my raggedy anne doll:) It seemed to me that many adults didn't give us kids enough credit to figure this kind of stuff out.

      And I noticed that all the girls I knew with body issues had moms on diets/with their own issues that they passed on to their daughters.

      • And I noticed that all the girls I knew with body issues had moms on diets/with their own issues that they passed on to their daughters.

        YES! Children pick up so quickly on the thing we teach them, whether we mean for them to be taught or not, which is what made this post so important:
        http://offbeatfamilies.com/2012/11/telling-daughters-im-beautiful

        I don't want my son (or my soon to arrive daugther) to see me worry about my body image. I want to impress upon them that being healthy is important, but I'm careful, when my son sees me getting ready in the morning to say "Isn't mama beautiful?" instead of complaining about the fact that hair is stringy and flat. I frequntly ask him if he is beautiful too, to which he usually smiles and runs his hand through his hair (he's 20 months).

      • Agree COMPLETELY to this. I bought one with my own money when I was 12, since it had been disallowed up until then. Stuff You Should Know just did a podcast about Barbie, and the actual science says that ages 2-5 may not be the best time to give a little girl a Barbie, but age 6 and up they aren't negatively influenced in the same way.

  2. I wasn't allowed to have a Barbie doll either. I vaguely remember one from when I was about three or four, but once the outfits sold at stores because skimpier my mother got rid of them. Honestly it never bothered me since I was a huge tomboy and didn't play with dolls much. I mostly played with animal figures. The only doll I had was my American Girl doll, and looking back on it I'm so glad that was the one doll I had. All of those original dolls had great books, and the stories taught you to be strong and independent.

    • …And how to cope when your best friend dies horribly of cholera. (I had Kirsten, and that moment pretty much stuck forever.)

  3. I had several barbies when I was a kid and I'm sure I must have sometimes played typical barbie games with them, but the ones I remember they were explorers or secret agents or bounty hunters (I was also massively into Star Wars), or other mermaids because I had a load of Little Mermaid barbie stuff. I also had a couple of Action Men (UK version of GI Joe) and I often played with both together. It was much easier to send barbie down a zip-wire made of string, probably because she was lighter.

    A lot of my games as a kid were just like Andy in Toy Story, it didn't matter what they were originally for, the toys filled the role I needed them to have in the story I was making. Possibly helped by the fact that I never had a full set of anything so I had to mix and match. (My mum bought the 3 of us 1 Teenage Mutant Turtle each and refused to buy the 4th! She was probably right that we'd only fight over it, but still, 3 Turtles!?)

    Anyway, the point is I don't think I ever saw barbies as any different to my other toys. They weren't something to aspire to any more than Sylvanian Families or Playmobil or any other toy, just something to play with.

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