The only thing bigger than their breasts was their smiles. The women lived in a large pink house, shared a pink convertible and ran their own clothing shop where they sold – you guessed it – little pink dresses. There was no need for men in their world: when the ladies felt like a little romance, they had each other. When they weren’t in the shop, you could probably find them in little striped bikinis, lounging by the pool which doubled as my parent’s bathroom sink.
Yep, I was a Barbie girl and this was my Barbie’s world.
I didn’t know back then that Barbie’s figure – with its itty-bitty waist, huge perky boobs and tippy-toed feet – made her a controversial role model and I definitely had no idea of the origins of that sexy figure; that Barbie owed her bodacious bod to an ancestor named Lilli, an adult toy based on Bild Lilli, a popular comic strip about a high-end call girl.
Sold at bars and cigar shops, the Lilli doll was meant as a stag gift for adult men. On a 1956 vacation in Switzerland, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler was inspired by Lilli to create a similar doll – but this one for little girls, who up until then were expected to play with baby dolls. Back home, male toy buyers scoffed at her idea.
“Each said ‘Ruth, you’ve made a major mistake with this doll. Little girls want cutesy, cuddly baby dolls. They all want to pretend to be mommies.’ No, little girls want to pretend to be bigger girls.” – Ruth Handler
Sixty years later, Barbie is still here and Handler is still right. Personally, I love that Barbie liberated herself from the trappings of a misogynist joke, morphing from sex object to independent woman. No longer just an object of male fantasy, Barbie became a conduit for girlhood dreams and ambitions. Over the years, Barbie has been a teacher, a rock star, an astronaut and – most importantly – whatever the little girl holding her in her hand wants to be.
“My whole philosophy was that through the doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be. She became not just a doll. She became part of that child through those growing up years. Many of those children set their life’s dreams, their goals, through Barbie. Many of them said Barbie helped them achieve those dreams. That’s a pretty heavy thing, but it’s true”. – Ruth Handler
I’ve always loved experimenting with fashion and when I was in my 20s, I went deliciously overboard: wigs, PVC dresses, NSFW miniskirts, tiaras – you name it. Back then, people would sometimes call me a “Barbie doll”. It’s interesting: when women called me this, it was always with affection and good humor. However when men said it, it was with a sneer: using the doll’s name as a dismissive put-down.
Too bad for them I took it as a compliment.