I was born in the 1980s, which came with certain privileges. I got to wander my neighborhood with absolutely no supervision. I got to witness in real time the hilarious futility of the D.A.R.E. program. And I got to live through the first serious backlash against the Barbie doll. Her waist was smaller than her head! Her feet were too small to carry her weight! Parents and psychologists were suddenly concerned that they’d all been unknowingly messing up their children for decades.

My dad loves to recall how, as a precocious young wutzit, I apparently heard a news broadcast summarizing these grave concerns and guffawed, “But it’s just pretend!” And hey, I may have had a point. But so did the concerned parents and social psychologists. And not much has changed since then. Every decade or so, a new line of dolls is released and gets some hackles up, but in the end, everybody buys it anyway.

For a long time, I shrugged when it came to this issue and thought, hey man, I played with Barbies and I was still a nerdy weirdo. I didn’t start dressing sexy super early or stop trying in school. I did start fixating on my weight before I was out of my tweens, but my mom (who was otherwise a hero of a parent) was constantly nursing a Nestle Sweet Success during dinner in pursuit of losing an invisible four pounds, so I won’t make Barbie take the hit for that one. Honestly, when I looked at a Barbie laying on the carpet in heroic nudity because her outfit was urgently needed by another doll, I didn’t see anything aspirational in her mortally small waist and hips. She didn’t even look like she was supposed to appear human; she seemed more like a nutcracker or a bendy Santa toy or some other abstractly humanoid plaything.

Similar levels of verisimilitude.

But you can’t extrapolate much from my example, partly because I was (and am) white and tall, with a slim build and blondish hair. If Barbie’s rotating smorgasbord of identities from model to doctor to commercial airline pilot markets her with an unspoken message that exclaims, “Barbie can do anything!” then the most natural unspoken conclusion in any still-growing mind is, “Tall, blonde, white women can do anything!” So I wasn’t exactly on the frontline of girls who were destined to feel the brunt of Barbie’s lofty standards. But there have been numerous studies and books detailing how kids of all stripes — but especially children of color — experience lower self-esteem when they’re exposed to dolls that fit a narrow idea of beauty.

Barbie’s only serious competitor (because, let’s be real, Mattel was never sweating Jem or Maxi) was the Bratz doll, which showed up in 2001. If Barbie “raised questions,” then Bratz gave concerned parents nosebleeds. The dolls’ exaggerated features were lacquered with frosted cream eyeshadow and lipstick (ah, the early aughts) and the smarmy facial expressions that manufacturer MGA Entertainment described as “sassy” read to a lot of grownups as “sexy.”

First Y2K and now this. Photo: Ian West — PA Images/Getty

To be fair, for all the hand-wringing Bratz caused, they also kicked so much ass on the inclusion front that they swallowed up almost half of Barbie’s market share. Unlike the ladies of color who made up Barbie’s fictional entourage like token backup singers, the four Bratz characters, who had four different skin tones, were presented together as an ensemble. Bratz fashions were also inspired by hip-hop culture — a look Barbie could never pull off after her decades of suburban dream house backstory. For a lot of kids, Bratz offered a much more relatable version of big sister coolness.

This happened.
This also happened.

But inclusivity aside, there were still those pouty lips and fuck-me eyes. A lot of parents worried that the Bratz look was just way too sexual for little girls to aspire to in a healthy way. This leads us to Mattel’s answer to all this sassiness, the Monster High dolls. Released in 2010 and still going strong, the characters from this line are presented as the teenage daughters of famous Hollywood monsters. And with their ultra-thin bodies, platform heels, intense makeup, and ass-grazing micro-minis, they evoke all the same concerns times a thousand.

Very curious about the dress code at Monster High. Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty

I think I’ve made it overwhelmingly clear in my writing that I’m very, very sex positive. I do believe the giant constellation of people and forces that we shorten for convenience to the term “the patriarchy” does have an interest in enforcing gender norms and promoting the sexual objectification of women. But I also believe that sexiness and sexuality are the right of any woman to identify with and participate in without judgment. Feminists don’t hate sex. Feminists don’t even hate sexiness. (Friend, I wish you could see how many pairs of heels I own.) Sexiness isn’t the problem. All the punishment that surrounds sexiness is the problem.

What kind of punishment? Pressuring a woman to try to look “hot” if she wants positive attention, then slamming her for dressing “slutty” when she complies. Using the provocativeness of a woman’s outfit as a justification for assaulting her. Making sexiness the first and most important thing about a woman and considering her worthless without it. Acting as though a woman who presents herself as sexy has forfeited her right to have everything else about her taken seriously. As with organized religion, it’s not the sexiness itself, it’s the stuff carried out in its name.

A woman has every right to be sexy, because a woman is an adult. Women have adult brains and adult bodies and fully formed sexualities. Children, however, do not. Children have a little seed of what will one day become their fully formed sexuality, which mainly manifests during kidhood in the form of curiosity. Toy manufacturers insist that only adults see the dolls as sexy, that kids merely see them as pretty. I actually agree — that’s kind of the point. Kids don’t even know what it is they’re ingesting.

Do I literally think playing with Bratz or Monster High dolls will encourage an 11-year-old to sneak out of the house in fishnets and a pushup bra? Or single-handedly lower the age she’ll become sexually active? Of course not. What I think dolls like this can do is take an image that kids will later understand as “sexual” and install it in their brain in the spot marked “beautiful.” So now, being pretty and being demonstrably sexual are the same thing. What should have been natural and organic and developed from within becomes external, affected, something you put on to be cool or fabulous, something that exists to please or impress other people. That sucks.

What I think dolls like this can do is take an image that kids will later understand as sexual and install it in their brain in the spot marked “beautiful.”

But hey, that’s just how I feel. Of course, developmental psychologists have opinions too. Studies show that if you offer young girls paper dolls dressed in a variety of clothing styles and ask them to choose one as their “ideal, popular self,” the girls will overwhelmingly pick a doll dressed in provocative clothes. Follow where the path of this phenomenon takes you and you’ll end up at the studies on self-objectification, which show that not just women but people in general report so much body shame when they’re wearing a swimsuit that it’s literally distracting: People perform significantly worse on a math quiz while wearing a swimsuit than they do while wearing a sweater.

(Also, and this is just a pet peeve compared to all that hard data, but it really bums me out that the Monster High characters are literally supposed to be teenagers. Is Dracula seriously letting his daughter warp her still-growing feet wearing those six-inch heels every day?)

In case you’re wondering, my husband and I did get our daughter Barbies when she was little and asking for them. The catch was that they were all superhero Barbies. You know, Barbie as Batgirl, Barbie as Supergirl. I even tracked down a set of 11-inch vintage X-Men dolls when she tore into the ’90s cartoon. But her dad and I wouldn’t cave on Monster High dolls. We might have eventually had a conversation about some nonheroic Barbies if she hadn’t ended up moving on to some different dolls for enacting her little melodramas — LPS Blythe dolls and Petite Blythe, which didn’t come with most of this baggage.

My own reasons for allowing only superhero Barbies came down to Barbie’s original bustline. Before Mattel gave her an overall chest reduction in 1998, Barbie’s unfathomable bra size was one of the attributes that concerned parents thought would give girls body-image issues. How many young Barbie lovers would ingest this doll’s measurements as the ideal, only to grow up and feel like their own cup size didn’t measure up? Not everybody is destined to be busty, after all.

But the funny thing is, I totally was. I started growing breasts when I was nine, and I had fully developed into my adult C-cup by the time I was 12. And then, of course, I somehow spent all of my teens and some of my twenties feeling bummed about it. Instead of being pumped that I was blessed with Barbie-like big boobs and using their powers to rule a girl clique with an iron fist (as so much TV had promised), I just felt like I lacked a different, better kind of body. Having big breasts meant I didn’t have the dainty, waiflike, small-boobed figure of Gwyneth Paltrow, Keri Russell, or Audrey Hepburn. (How’s that for a window into my teenage viewing preferences?) I felt this way despite living in the same media hurricane we all do — the one that totally hypes ample breasts.

So I fit this as well as the other (tall, white, blonde) attributes of Barbie’s ideal but I still felt unworthy? Ugh, ridiculous. What this tells me today is that what might hurt girls even more than the pressure to fit a specific body type (which already hurts a lot) is the pressure to look perfect in general. The suggestion that beauty is the most important thing about you. That kind of pressure will always convince you that something is wrong with you. The reason I was okay with giving my daughter those superhero Barbies was because they represent characters who are defined by actual stories, not strictly by their appearance, perhaps in concert with a short, interchangeable blurb printed on the back of the box. I guess according to those blurbs, the Monster High dolls technically have identities too, but those identities are mostly wrapped up in interests like wearing platforms to school. But hey, if my daughter is interested in exploring that identity as an adult, she can borrow a pair from me. I have plenty.