What Barbie Taught Me
By Mary Daily
I couldn’t believe my parents let me get the original Barbie in 1959, the one with the blonde ponytail, who wore a stretch, strapless, striped swimsuit and sexy shoes. Even her blue sunglasses were modern and cool. I was over the moon.
I lived in small-town Alabama, where my dad was a conservative Christian minister with very strict views on modesty and acceptable roles for women. So the fact that he let me have this very adult, very well-endowed and scantily clad doll astounded me. Maybe he didn’t really notice. I’ll never know. But I do know I was happy. I felt that for this once, I could be part of the mainstream of girls my age.
We didn’t buy the Barbie outfits the stores sold. I did get one for Christmas— a very cute, bright red, slim-cut dress with tiny brass buttons. It came with a black patent leather handbag and the most adorable white gloves I’d ever seen. For the rest, my mother made beautiful original outfits that fit Barbie perfectly. Mother made all my clothes and most of hers, so we had a big supply of fabric remnants, which she turned into works of art. Sometimes I’d just wrap a piece of cloth around Barbie to fashion a sari. With the handmade clothes, I learned all about mix and match.
I never had any of the Barbie accessories, like a house or car, but I improvised. I created elaborate habitats on the living room floor. I even upholstered small blocks of wood that I found in the garage with scraps of heavy fabric to make sofas and chairs. Beds were easy, just the right-size book covered in my mother’s fancy hankies. A friend and I even made a grand, curving staircase out of white, pebbly leather encyclopedias. Nothing was too magnificent for Barbie.
One Sunday afternoon, I played in the living room for hours, and when I disassembled the “house,” discovered that the box I had used as a table had a full bottle of permanent ink inside that left a black stain on our room-size, wool rug. The spot never came out, and I felt guilty for years whenever I saw it. At one point, we got a little area rug to cover it, but that was awkward because the eyesore was right in the middle of the room.
A few years after my first Barbie, I got another, the one with the blonde bubble hairdo. She seemed so chic and sophisticated, more like a career girl than the playful ponytail Barbie. On some days, I let the two be sisters. At other times they were apartment mates or best friends. I never had a Ken. My Barbies were on their own.
Now — more than 60 years after the debut of that first Barbie — comes the movie, a huge hit that’s drawing sensational response in Hollywood and far beyond. It’s a whole different Barbie experience than my two had. Mine never wore pink because I thought it was too childish for them. They never drove a convertible because they didn’t have one, and they weren’t particularly socially conscious. It was just the dawn of the ‘60s.
Still, they had rich, full lives, created in my dreams and imagination. They thrived. They supported themselves, dressed well, and had cute, artful houses and apartments. To me, they had fantasy lives in New York or California, lives that I envied but could only imagine.
But then I grew up to spend decades in Los Angeles, with an apartment near the beach and a career I loved. Like my Barbies, I was independent, standing on my own feet.
Now it occurs to me that all along, I was buoyed and empowered by the hours I had spent with my Barbies. All the buzz about the movie has made me think back to those afternoons in the living room in Alabama. If Barbie could have that life, maybe I could, too. Amid all the Hollywood hoopla about Barbie, I see now just how much I learned from her.
Mary Daily is a writer in Los Angeles and Wake Forest, NC.