This year is Barbie’s fiftieth anniversary. Talk about a role model! As a girl, I assumed that when I developed breasts, I would also develop a 10-inch waist to match. Didn’t happen. At fifty, her breasts remain upright and perky while mine started heading south two minutes after I hit the half century mark.
I was never a doll girl. My mother tried. She bought me all kinds of dolls. We found them moldy and rotting in the back room of our old store when mom died. Some had heads. Some didn’t. Some had odd pieces of clothing clinging to them as though they somehow could use those few pieces of cloth to retain a little of their dignity.
Amidst the dolls was a plastic case that, when opened, revealed Barbie’s first closet, filled with clothes my sister carefully arranged for her. This made sense as Judy was always more of a clothes person than I was. Barbie was where my sister sharpened her wardrobe expertise. I often think her passion for beige comes from her horror at the number of Barbie outfits that began with a layer of glitter. To this day I firmly believe that Barbie started the whole idea latched onto by countless generations of little princesses that a dress without sequins is a dress without purpose.
But as much as my sister was enamored of Barbie and her style, I was equally as bored and eventually very resentful. Why would God give me such an overabundance of development without a concomitant reduction of waist size? Why was God treating Barbie better than me? And why was this happening to me at a time when most of my classmates could still only dream of its eventuality?
When summer arrived in Atlantic City the same year my breasts arrived, the fact that over the winter I had blossomed a good two years earlier than most of my peers meant that I had to move into that category of 50’s bathing suit that involved enough metal wiring to set off every security alarm at JFK. I went back to Barbie to do a closer inspection of her bathing suit. She didn’t have any wires. God apparently built hers in so there was no need for external controls. Once again I felt shorted.
But the worse moment of all came when I realized that boys were no longer looking at my face. Not that I’d been that thrilled when they did. I was a painfully shy Catholic schoolgirl of the 1950s, decked out in my little uniform while deciding whether God wanted me to be Joan of Arc or St. Agnes. Boys were a scary distraction. But at least when they looked me in the eye, it wasn’t as discombobulating as when they never raised their eyes above my chest level. Ken never did that to Barbie. Ken always looked straight ahead into Barbie’s eyes, never once dropping them or that frozen grin.
Suddenly my world was all askew. Up was down. Black was white. Good was bad. And Barbie had lied to me again and again and again. Is it any wonder that I quickly relegated her to the same space at the back of the closet where my Betsy Wetsy was deposited? I didn’t want to change a doll’s diaper and I didn’t want to compete with one for perkiest breasts in the 5th grade.
Now here we are, celebrating Barbie’s 50th birthday. Long after her early followers learned the sad facts of gravity, she walks tall and proud on impossibly arched feet. She continues to do at fifty what she started to do for me so many years ago – make me feel lumpy, inadequate and unaccountably saggy without the help of steel girders inserted coyly into my undergarments.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel like saying “Happy Birthday, Barbie.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out how old she’ll have to be for her perk to go poof.