A Personal Essay About Barbie That Will Undoubtedly Be Written in 2046

Photo credit: Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0.

My first Barbies were my mom’s. I never thought of them as mine, not really; I remember my mom bringing a white plastic tub with a blue lid into my bedroom and saying “these are Mommy’s Barbies,” and that’s what we called them.

The first Barbie that was mine came on my birthday, when my grandma bought me what I now know was one of Barbie’s first Curvy Fashionistas. They aren’t called that anymore, but if you do the math, the Project Dawn Fashionistas were released in spring 2016—and my fifth birthday was that October.

Grandma bought me the Curvy Fashionista doll because it looked like me, which is to say it looked like my mother, which is to say it looked like the person I would become. I was small then, the tiniest nub in the nesting doll, but I still carried the wide-hipped shape of the women who surrounded me.

I played with the new doll—my Barbie—for one glorious day before I tried to change her clothes.

Here’s the thing people don’t realize, now that Barbies are 3D-printed to spec: they all used to be able to share outfits. You’d buy the doctor Barbie and yank her clothes off and put them on the ballerina Barbie, and there were a few Barbie outfits in my mother’s box that had been passed down from her mother’s Barbies, and they all sat in the bottom of the plastic tub waiting for me to decide who I wanted Barbie to be that day—which was also about me deciding who I wanted to be that day, of course.

I did not want to be a person who couldn’t get her pants to go over her thighs.

As I pulled at the fabric, trying to get it over my Barbie’s hips, I felt a memory that I had never really thought about before, not carefully: my own mother, in a dressing room, doing the same thing. Or in a public restroom—because in the early 2000's you couldn’t let your kid out of your sight, they’d send you to jail, and so all of us grew up watching our mothers use the toilet long after we had satisfied our toddler-aged curiosity.

My mother would stand up and pull on her jeans and force them into place, and sometimes they wouldn’t go up and she’d have to leave them in a pile on the dressing room floor. If we were at home she’d have to toss them into the closet and pull out a pair of sweatpants, and that’s what I did too, throwing those jeans back into the plastic box with the blue lid and dressing my Barbie in a leotard.

I didn’t like my Barbie after that. She felt like the promise of a future that I didn’t want. A lifetime of not fitting into anything.

At Christmas I got a trio of Fashionistas. They sold them in variety packs, so little girls could have a doll that looked like them without anyone having to clarify which doll that was supposed to be. (Project Dawn introduced male dolls in 2018, so little boys could have dolls that looked like them too. They have yet to release a trans or non-binary Barbie, although there are plenty of ways for today’s parents to print their own.) I also got sets of clothes to fit what 2016 Mattel had decided were the four official body types: tall, petite, curvy, and “original.”

The genius of Mattel’s plan was that they got to do something that felt inclusive and empowering—and believe me, if you had seen the box of Barbies my mother passed down, that first Project Dawn line would have looked like an abundance of diversity—and they also got to sell four times as many Barbies and outfits as a result. More importantly, they ensured that your mother’s Barbies would stay packed away in a storage unit; from this point on, every family would get to start anew, building a line of toys that reflected the values of its generation.

But it worked. That Christmas I started playing with my Barbie again, now that she had clothes that fit and friends that belonged with her. By giving me an abundance of possibility, Mattel allowed me to be comfortable in my own body—which did, in fact, grow curves to match and surpass my Fashionista doll.

I still think of that Barbie every time I pull on a pair of pants that don’t quite fit. I think of my mother, too—and my grandmother. I think of the people who still can’t afford 3D-printed clothes, and how it’s only privilege that allows me to stand in front of a scanner and wait for Amazon to send me a new pair of perfectly tailored jeans.

And I think of all of us who have loved this doll, from the moment she was first created in 1959. Barbie taught us to be like her. Then she taught us to be like ourselves.

Who knows what she’ll teach our children?

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