Beauty and the Barbie

It was not long ago that I stood, confused, in the toy aisle of Target searching for a doll for my three year old daughter. I considered Barbie, then after 20 minutes of considering the potential ramifications of a toy on my daughter’s self-esteem, I thought better of it.

I left Barbie on the shelf. In all her make-up, inappropriate clothing, and wholly unrealistic body proportioned glory.

Even though I didn’t choose her that day, I do realize that Barbie is just a toy. A toy. Not real. I understand that and honestly, at age three, my daughter can make that distinction too. Certainly, a Barbie in her hand is not going to make or break her self-esteem.

However, on that day and even now, it is more about what Barbie represents. She is merely one of many symbols that signify a culture bent on propelling our daughters into adolescence much too early. Take the recent Abercrombie and Fitch debacle. Was I appalled that they would market a push up bikini to seven year olds? Yes, but not at all surprised.

Barbie, inappropriate clothing marketed to prepubescent girls, and media glamorizing perfectly toned bodies clad in barely there clothing has been around for decades. This is nothing new. I am simply more aware of it now that I have a daughter of my own.

I question these messages, gimmicks, and toys now. I believe I have to. I’m not saying my daughter will never have a Barbie. I’ve learned early on in my parenting that the cliche never say never rings ever so true. I also know that self-righteousness about these issues is bound to blow up in our faces.

It’s one of the many struggles of parenthood.

Awareness matters. Tempering these messages that our daughters receive on a daily basis with our own message matters. At three, the most profound influence on my daughter regarding beauty and body image is me.


I am now realizing I cannot take this lightly.

What I say, do, and how I treat and regard my body matter more now than ever. I have three year old eyes watching me and she picks up on everything. Even as I dress in the morning and linger a little in the full length mirror in front of me, frowning and poking at my stubborn muffin top. She sees it. She notices even the tiniest of nuances.

With so many avenues of influence coming at my daughter, it is up to me to counter and moderate some of the unhealthy messages sent her way.

All I can hope and strive for is that my daughter will enter those tenuous teen years with a healthy dose of self-esteem and a concept of beauty that is based on the strength of her body and the kindness she exudes simply by smiling.

Barbie or no Barbie seems inconsequential to me when I consider this big picture, for the beauty of Barbie is only plastic deep.

What is your take on Barbie, the media, and marketing to our girls?

25 Responses to Beauty and the Barbie
  1. Adrienne
    May 2, 2011 | 11:13 am

    I remember when I was younger, like 9-12 and my mom and her friend were discussing Barbies and Princesses and my mom's friend was arguing that they were horrible for women and etc. I was always a girl that played with Barbies and dolls and loved Disney princesses. But I never was going to wait around for Prince Charming. I always liked Jasmine, Mulan and the bolder women characters better, but I think that came from my parents. I am engaged to a wonderful man now who has two daughters, and neither of them have ever liked barbies or princesses to my dismay. I am sad, mostly cause I would STILL love to play barbie and princesses with them, but it just is not in their character. They are not all out feminists though, they still like plenty of "stereotypically girly" things. I think these toys are important to keep in context of a larger message you send to girls.

  2. Kasey
    May 2, 2011 | 11:49 am

    I know exactly what you mean about Barbie. There are a number of dolls out there that are heavily made up and dressed way older than the child who will be playing with it. You are 100% right though, we are the most important influences in our daughter's lives. I learned very early, as well, that I can never say never because as soon as I do something changes. Abby doesn't have a Barbie right now but one day she may want one or a family member may give her one. It's our role as parents to make sure that they are surrounded by adults who are positive influences and then the toys won't matter all that much.

  3. Kristin
    May 2, 2011 | 12:42 pm

    Growing up my mom always said she was fat, so I believed it. Little did I know she was a 10 and not at all fat. Now, a larger size, she says 'oh, on that vacation I was skinny. I was a size 10." Finally I told her I had no clue, I always thought you were fat.

    Now with my girls, I never mention the F word. Ellie had a Parents As Teachers screening for her 4th birthday and she didn't know which animal was 'fatter' and lost a point. That was fine with me!

  4. kmcaffee
    May 2, 2011 | 12:54 pm

    Yes, yes, yes!!!! Boys notice, too and it speaks volumes to them as well! Thank you for putting yourself out there!

  5. Liz
    May 2, 2011 | 1:03 pm

    A couple points.

    1. I feel like Mattel taunts its critics because Barbie's "dimensions" are one thing, but them only offering her in trampy clothes is another.

    2. It's parents' money that buys trashy clothes for kids.

    I think both manufacturers AND parents are to be held responsible for this type of thing.

  6. Erica
    May 2, 2011 | 1:28 pm

    I doubt I will buy a Barbie for my daughter but of course, you can't control the gifts you receive so who knows if one will come into our house. I think messages from the media are far more damaging than a doll – especially when it's real women disrespecting themselves like in music videos or something like that.
    I question myself as well though – my daughter watches me put on makeup every day – what does that say? That how I look naturally is not good enough? I'm just not sure.

  7. Laura@OutnumberedMom
    May 2, 2011 | 3:03 pm

    You know I'm a boy mom, Melissa, but I feel a similar tug. I know I'm the primary female influence on my boys. My husband and I are giving them some idea of love and marriage and family. I think about those things as I see my boys choosing girls as friends and dates.

    You're a wise girl mom!

  8. Kimberly
    May 2, 2011 | 3:33 pm

    Yes barbie could use a big Mac deep fried and then refried…with a side of thighs..oy. Toys are way too mature nowadays but it's up to us parents to help foster their good body images.

  9. Katherine
    May 2, 2011 | 6:31 pm

    Raising boys, I don't have to consider whether or not I would buy them Barbies. But even if I had a daughter, I know what the answer would be. No. I didn't have Barbies when I was growing up, and my mother actually talked to me (when I was 6 or 7) about why I didn't have Barbies. I had a doll house and dolls, but no Barbies. For the same type of reason, I don't buy my boys guns and other toys based on weapons. I refuse to cater to the stereotype of male violence.

  10. angela
    May 2, 2011 | 7:24 pm

    This is so tough for me. Abbey is three and doesn't have Barbies, but she has Disney princess dolls that are very similar to Barbies except their clothes aren't revealing. And sometimes she talks about their breasts. But she talks about them "feeding their babies", so that kind of makes me laugh. I didn't have a lot of barbies personally, as a child, but my good friend did, and I just remember liking to dress them up.

    I do try to be a positive role model myself. I struggle with my body, but I am careful not to talk about weight, or dieting, or body dissatisfaction with her around. She knows I run, and I think that's healthy.

    Where is my bubble? I think I need to put her in that for another 20 years at least.

  11. Eat. Live. Laugh. and sometimes shop!
    May 2, 2011 | 7:44 pm

    Oh, Barbie! My little girl only has the Princess versions. The dimensions are still hideous, but at least the hideous clothes are lacking. She also has surfer Barbie (who wears a rash guard) and Sea World Barbie who trains dolphins in a very modest wetsuit.

    I can get past the bullet boobs, but I refuse to glorify trashy clothes.

    And honestly, my little girl prefers dressing her American Girl dolls. She reads the books too which all have wholesome messages.

  12. Cheryl D.
    May 2, 2011 | 9:12 pm

    I have no problem with Barbie. I think you nailed it. We are the biggest influences, so we really need to be careful about our self-esteem!

    Another excellent post!

  13. Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom)
    May 2, 2011 | 9:28 pm

    @Erica I agree with you that the images that are portrayed on TV and in magazines is far more damaging than any toy b/c they are "real" people. I think this is our biggest challenge, how to temper that with realism. And like you, I certainly do not want to be a hypocrite. I hope to just be honest. Yes, I like to put make-up on, I like to wear flattering clothes and exercise. It does boost my self-esteem. I believe in moderation for sure.

  14. Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom)
    May 2, 2011 | 9:30 pm

    @Katherine I actually thought the same thing about boys and gun/weapon toys being comparable to Barbie type toys for girls. I think boys and girls will get that influence from the outside world anyway…no need to purposefully bring it into our home.

  15. Rebecca @ Unexplained X2
    May 3, 2011 | 4:01 am

    Well said…my 2.5 year old daughter calls her "Garbie" and I don't correct her.

    I also question myself when I dye my hair, get mani/pedis, and put on makeup, but I consider that a part of taking care of myself rather than focusing on my imperfections. I guess one could see it as covering up what is really me, but I see it as self-preservation!

  16. Making It Work Mom
    May 3, 2011 | 4:14 am

    With two girls this is something that I think about EVERY DAY. I am really kind of obsessive/anxious about it. My oldest was never interested in Barbies and I never encouraged. My youngest, recently, was interested so I caved in (because it is only a toy) and bought her some for Christmas -she hasn't touched them since. I don't encourage her play with them and instead encourage her growth as a young strong athlete and dancer.
    I also am very strict with clothes. Which has prompted many mega meltdowns when my 11 year old wanted a(bikini- absolutely not) or a short skirt. Now though my 11 year is used to my rules and doesn't question them.
    So hard to find the balance.

  17. Ameena
    May 3, 2011 | 8:42 am

    I don't consider myself a feminist by any means, but I try my very best to steer my daughter away from all things Barbie and Princess related. She needs to know that SHE can control her destiny and doesn't need a handsome prince to come save the day.

    I poke and prod at my muffin top too…sigh…

  18. parenting ad absurdum
    May 3, 2011 | 9:47 am

    Hi Melissa – I just left a long, thoughtful comment on the state of girls' AND boys' toys…but my computer ate it. Sigh. Never buy a computer just because it's pink. Anyway, great and balanced post, my friend.

  19. Sherri
    May 3, 2011 | 11:09 am

    I struggle with this now having a 12 year old daughter, who is very observant of my comments about myself (or others) and about the images society pushes on women and girls every day. I have always tried to show her the "other" side of magazine articles or pictures, like pointing out how they have airbrushed things or that a healthy body has curves and dimples here and there.

    But it just keeps getting harder, Melissa. I hear you.

  20. flyrish
    May 3, 2011 | 12:03 pm

    Thought-provoking post and I think you make an excellent point. We really are the primary role models in our kids' lives.

    I was fortunate enough to have a mom that indulged my Barbie and girly-girl fantasies, but she also relayed a healthy body image. I know she wasn't exactly thrilled with her slightly overweight body, but she never talked about it in front of me until I was grown up. She never obsessed over dieting and food. And I therefore never expected to look like Barbie or obsessed over my figure. Well, today it's more of a struggle since I had an amazing metabolism back then, but she was a wonderful example for me.

  21. Hello! I'm Kate.
    May 3, 2011 | 9:13 pm

    I absolutely LOVE this post & Liz's points about it in her comment!

    It's my money as a parent that keeps them in business!

  22. Arline
    May 4, 2011 | 3:06 pm

    I so agree that our daughters are being made to grow up too soon. Sadly, I see it happening all around me. A friend recently took her 7-year-old daughter and daughter's friend to see the movie Prom. I just don't see the point of that. Why can't little girls just be allowed to be little girls? We have to make them so aware at that age about dating and boyfriends??

  23. Arline
    May 5, 2011 | 9:13 am

    This blogger wrote a great post about this topic, titled "What About Our Girls? Childhood Cut Short":

  24. Shelli
    May 8, 2011 | 7:31 pm

    So many inappropriate toys are marketed to children these days. However, Barbie seems kinda harmless to me. I never grew up wanting to be her. Though I wanted her clothes and penthouse for sure. It's harmless fun pretending to be a princess, movie star or career woman. Girls love glitter and glam! Don't you think it's too "grown Up" to lecture them about their choice of toys when all they really want to do is play?

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