My Barbie story begins on a quiet tree-lined neighborhood in Queens, New York in the late 1970s. My younger sister and I played with the neighborhood girls who had a real Barbie collection with the frills. They might have had the Dream house. I know we did not.
My parents were immigrants from India; at the time, my father was working in textile manufacturing and my mother stayed at home at the time. They would withdraw cash from the bank to cover the week’s expenses; no one used credit cards. Cash was everything and used wisely.
When we accompanied my mother to Alexander’s department store, my sister and I would run to the wall of pink boxes. We would gleefully pull my mother to show her the Barbies we wanted, especially the Barbie styling head with its pretend makeup and brushes. “No, we cannot afford it. I don’t have money for dolls,” she would say over our squeals. Any potential tantrums were extinguished by my mother’s warning glare. We would carefully return the precious dolls to the shelf.
One Christmas, we received two small dolls. These were formal display dolls. Mine had rough orange-red hair, stiff limbs and wore a white lace wedding dress that was securely sewn on; my sister’s doll had a green satin dress. My mother didn’t know Barbie or other fashion dolls in India. To her, these were beautifully gowned dolls, more glamorous than a half-naked swimsuit doll. Although they were not what we wanted, we played with them; no one returned toys.
Please don’t feel sorry for us. Our creativity bloomed. We rummaged through sewing scraps to make gowns, and shoeboxes became cars. Dolls and pretend play gave us life! We come from a tradition of arranged marriage and conservative values. Our dolls had lives that we would not have – getting married in the poofy white dress, chasing an imaginary boyfriend, or wearing skimpy outfits.
One summer, we hit the jackpot at a garage sale – a blonde Barbie with a pink cotton dress and a slinky fuchsia gown. We ran home to get quarters from my mother. My sister and I shared the Barbie, adding her to our hodgepodge group of Holly Hobbie, Honey Hill Bunch, and our display dolls. They were all family.
In our early 20s, my sister bought me an Indian Barbie for Christmas. She had sleek, long black hair, delicate gold earrings, and a pink bindi. She wore a pink blouse, traditional full skirt, and draped scarf with sandals. We were thrilled to finally see ourselves in a Barbie.
Years later, when my daughter was born, my intention was to shield her from uber-feminine stereotypes, and give her dolls that looked like her, embodying independence. However, once the blonde Barbies and princesses arrived as gifts, she was smitten – she thrived in this sparkly fantasy world. I realized that as a feminist mom, I would have to allow her to choose what she liked. When she was five, I asked her what color hair she would want, fearful my dark-haired girl would say blonde. “I want to have pink hair!” (I did not see that coming.)
Even though we have more financial security and privilege than my parents, it did not mean I would buy her everything. She should not take anything for granted. Plus, I wanted to encourage her creativity. She mixed Bratz outfits onto the mermaids, designed new looks on paper, and even decked her plush dog in an American Girl dress. We had Indian village girl Shanti from “Jungle Book 2,” with Princess Jasmine and a Barbie in a green sari that I found in India.
Although my daughter played with the dolls, I held onto an emotional belief that the Indian Barbie was more “valuable” and would rescue her from the toy bin. I was still looking for representation as an adult, while my daughter didn’t question whether it existed. She is in her 20s now, and we’ve both projected our dreams and wishes onto the dolls in different ways. I still treasure our two sari-clad dolls, along with the two garage sale dresses, and the memories.