The new Barbie film has transported me to my childhood. Barbara Millicent Roberts arrived at my house on December 25, 1963.
Barbie was gorgeous in her gold and white bathing suit and matching headscarf. The new doll was a grown-up girl, but many of my friends looked like her, All-American little girls with blue eyes, straight part-in-the-middle, yellow-white hair, and Coppertone-tanned skin.
I didn’t look like Barbie. I had wild, thick dark hair, five cowlicks, and eyebrows like Broderick Crawford. My mom managed with home permanents, but her attempts often made my coiffure look worse.
I wore braces with rubber bands attached to the upper and lower bands. Sometimes, I wore the nightmarish facebow, with a black strap circling my head and metal hooks on the sides of my mouth. I wore orthopedic shoes, having ruined pair after pair of Buster Browns by dragging my feet. In fourth grade, I got cat-eye glasses, which made me look like the bespeckled church lady I am today. I never tanned, only broiled, even with copious amounts of lotion, which left me reddish-pink in the summer and pasty-white the rest of the year.
By contrast, Barbie was perfect in every way.
I can’t overstate the popularity of Barbie in my world as a child. Every play date involved Barbies. And I could play with Barbie for hours alone, having adventures and imagining her life and mine. She was open to new experiences, despite having no internal organs or the ability to bend her arms or legs.
Time wasn’t a problem in Barbie’s world; she didn’t need to spend early mornings putting on make-up like my mom did. I admired that Barbie could choose a wig and an outfit from the bright blue carrying case that doubled as a closet and dressing room. She came with three wigs, ala Marilyn Monroe, Tina Louise as Ginger Grant on “Gilligan’s Island,” and Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie on “That Girl.” The quintessential California girl, Barbie, had a high center of gravity and feet shaped for those ubiquitous plastic heels.
Barbie was welcomed by a little family of my play toys, all my dearest friends. Barbie joined Tammy (a less sophisticated competitor from Ideal Toys) and a Mary Poppins doll who more resembled Maggie Smith than Julie Andrews. Mary had only one outfit, the British nanny clothing she wore when she flew to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, in the film. The outfit featured an awful blue coat and a striped jumper underneath. Mary Poppins looked the most like me of all my dolls with her black hair and pale skin.
My brother preferred Tonka trucks and John Deere toy tractors to his dolls, which gave me free rein for Barbie’s male companionship in a Johnny West doll, and Johnny’s horse, Thunderbolt. An original GI Joe with uniform, rifle, and dog tags also joined our little play family.
I learned important life lessons from Barbie and her eclectic friends, which remain with me today.
Toys, not brand names, brought enjoyment when coupled with my imagination. I was too thrilled with Barbie’s amazing accessories to notice whether they were the official Mattel brand. Barbie got a new bed with a red velvet spread, which, not being pink, was generic. I also loved her extensive wardrobe, from a pink satin number with a white fur collar, a copy of which Margo Robbie wore at the Mexican premiere of the film. To my delight, Barbie had a wardrobe of clothing, including a nurse’s uniform and a velvet dress, made by my maternal grandmother, an RN who loved purple.
Shapely, beautiful Barbie taught me to be open to others and experiences. She played with everyone, even if they differed from what she knew. Barbie sometimes assisted the manly and muscled GI Joe in his military campaigns, imagining travel to a dangerous Vietnam. Barbie and weathered cowboy Johnny West often rode Thunderbolt out west though Barbie’s unbendable legs forced her to ride side-saddle.
Barbie didn’t notice that Tammy’s head was oddly larger than the others in the family. She shared her clothes with Mary Poppins and replaced the ugly, priggish nanny apparel. I felt comfortable and secure with my little doll family. Barbie’s eclectic group made me feel better about myself over time.
Dad built me a little three-sided plywood box, my version of the Dreamhouse, where I placed Barbie’s red and white single bed. As I grew into adolescence, Barbie romantically entertained GI Joe and Johnny. I wasn’t quite progressive enough for Barbie to date Tammy or Mary Poppins. Barbie and friends were relegated to my parent’s attic when I reached junior high.
It’s been sixty years since Barbie arrived. Unfortunately, she met with a horrible fate, the same as my Chatty Cathy. I gave my dolls in mint condition to my four-year-old son, and he destroyed them. That was bad judgment on my part. Barbie lost her limbs and head, and no one from her little family was left to save her. I’m sorry I was so reckless with her.
Barbie was an icon to many little girls, and I loved her. I became a strong and secure adult, in part by my positive relationship with my Barbie. I no longer have her or my other dolls, but I still feel Barbie’s vivacious spirit. Barbie’s lessons for me were not about her fashion sense or looks but acceptance.