Like so many other little girls, I dreamed of owning a Barbie doll – the ultimate beauty and fashion statement for young girls.
But it was the late 1970s, a time of women’s liberation in Sweden where I grew up and Barbie, my mother was convinced, was a bad, bad influence on a young girl.
You only had to look at Barbie’s impossibly long and skinny limbs, her tiny waist and absurdly disproportionate bust, not to mention her make-up heavy face, to understand my mother’s refusal to indulge my desire. Or so she believed.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t fathom why my mother was so vehemently against Barbie dolls. Everyone had them.
But no matter how much I begged, my mother wouldn’t give in. Instead she gave me a Sindy doll, the slightly more wholesome alternative. If Barbie was the naughty girl, Sindy was definitely more of a good girl. Her cheeks were chubbier, her hair not as long and glossy as Barbie’s and her clothes were nowhere near as fashionable as Barbie’s.
I nearly lost my faith in God over a Barbie doll. I’d sent my name and address to a children’s magazine that was giving away a limited number of Barbie dolls. For weeks I prayed that I’d be one of the lucky winners of a Barbie.
Every day I would wait anxiously for the postman, hoping against all hope that he’d bring a parcel with my name on. But there was no parcel, and no Barbie doll. Disappointment cut like a knife through my small, Barbie-obsessed heart.
As I grew older (and a little bit wiser), the longing for a busty Barbie with pink mini skirts and sky-high heels, was gradually replaced by other obsessions, such as boys, unrequited love, Madonna and Culture Club.
Over the years that followed, I watched from the sidelines as new versions of Barbie emerged on the market: black Barbies, IT-savvy Barbies and the omnipresent Disney Barbie princesses. The bust size remained the same, of course, as did the absurdly long and skinny legs. Barbie, despite her makeover, still looked like a tart.
By the time I’d reached my thirties and my first daughter, Elisabeth, was born I had all but forgotten my childhood longing for a Barbie doll and vowed that Elisabeth would not be sucked into the pink world of Barbie.
My husband agreed and for the first couple of years we persistently encouraged our offspring to play with unisex toys like Lego and Playmobil. It worked for a while, until she started nursery shortly after her second birthday.
Within months Elisabeth had become obsessed with dressing up as Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Before I’d had a chance to pause and reflect on what was happening, someone had gifted my daughter her first set of Disney princess dolls and by the time she started school two years later we were facing the inevitable: our Barbie-free home was no more.
Ironically, it was my own mother who gave Elisabeth her first real Barbie doll, a hideously tacky blonde with a sequined-embellished evening gown befitting a seedy nightclub singer. Had my mother really forgotten how strongly she’d been against her own daughter playing with Barbies?
‘Oh, times have changed,’ was all she said when I confronted her about her blatant double standards.
I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable about my daughter’s growing Barbie collection. What did she see when she looked at her dolls? Did she think they represented the way real women are supposed to look or were they just fanciful dolls to her?
In a futile effort to show my mixed race daughter that Barbie doesn’t need to be blonde and that beauty doesn’t equal white skin and straight, glossy hair, I bought her an African American ‘Presidential’ Barbie from the US. Elisabeth was not impressed.
‘That’s not a real Barbie,’ she sneered and left it languishing at the bottom of an overflowing basket of dolls.
At the tender age of six, Elisabeth already seemed to have a fixed view of what represented beauty: straight hair and pale skin – neither of which she possessed. At the hairdressers she’d begun to ask for her gorgeously curly hair to be blow- dried straight and the hairdresser was only too happy to oblige.
Elisabeth will soon turn nine and though she still likes to have her hair done straight from time to time, she’s finally begun to accept and appreciate her natural, curly look. Sometimes we talk about her mixed heritage, and she’s also curious about my experience growing up with a face that didn’t conform to society’s norms of beauty. Together we are slowly but surely working to redefine what beauty is.
Beautifully expressed and brought a smile to my face Jenny! Thank you for sharing this story with a message 🙂
This is wonderfully inspiring – the generational connection especially! Thank you for sharing this reminder about moms and daughters and moms and daughters. Rae