“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.
“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.