Barbie—with her sumptuous breasts, inconceivable waist, and made-up face—was banned from my house. No matter that she resided at all my friends’ houses, my mother, an ex–social worker and former goal keeper for her high school field hockey team, didn’t approve of Barbie’s values.
“She’s too adult. You’re a little girl, and you shouldn’t worry about growing up too fast. And you should especially not worry about looking like her. She’s not real. I want you to be proud of your muscles.”
I was what they used to call a tomboy who played rumble and kill-the-guy-with-the-ball with my brother and the neighborhood boys. I didn't play with dolls much—but when a child hears “no”...
To make matters worse, my best friend had three Barbie dolls. When I slept overnight at her house, she would try to drag me away from Barbie. “Come on, let’s play hide-n-seek,” she’d whine, while I stroked Barbie’s beautiful, soft blond hair. (Mine was wavy and brown.)
I guess my mother felt guilty after a while. (However, if she’d known that Barbie was modeled after the 1950s German sex toy Bild Lilly, as reported by AntiBarbie.com, she may never have compromised.) I ripped open wrapping paper on my tenth birthday to find “Dawn” smiling out at me from behind plastic casing. To this day, I only know of one other woman who had a Dawn doll growing up. For those of you who were blessed with Barbie (who in her original box is now worth $3,000), Dawn was a Barbie imposter—about half the size, with smaller breasts, larger buttocks, and thicker legs. She still had the long silky blond hair, some makeup, tiny waist, and those well-known deformities for feet (though the angle was less severe.)
I liked my blond Dawn doll, later joined by a brunette. Her clothing was hippie-like in appearance, more funky than Barbie’s, though her size was a problem. She had a lot of trouble getting physical with my brother’s much taller GI Joe. (Needless to say, my parents weren’t happy having Joe in his army fatigues under our roof, but it was a gift from my grandparents.) Dawn and Joe finally became a good match for each other when Joe lost his legs below the knee (pulled off by my brother for some reason I can’t recall). They now had the correct relative proportions to be an active sexual couple, even if they didn’t have the equipment.
Today I wonder if people, like goldfish that grow to the size of their tank, grow to the proportions of their imagination. I certainly grew into the Dawn body—petite, athletic, a little conscious of my muscularity, a little made-up, hungry for men over six feet tall. And I wonder, if my mother hadn’t let Barbie’s imposter sneak in under our roof, if she’d let the real Barbie in, whether or not I’d now have long legs and be spending hours on my hair and clothes, chasing after every simple sunny “Ken” I could find in a fancy car, instead of the darker, emotionally crippled bad boy “GIs” I have chased after.
These thoughts made me pursue an interview with a Barbara (“Barbie”) Bell after I saw a blurb on her in Omni magazine. Apparently doll Barbie, whose pink-petal mouth has been sealed closed for years, finally has a voice in Bell. Bell, who has changed careers as often as girls change their Barbies’ clothes, channels the doll who has played a large role in developing the childhood imagination of herself and her four daughters. Her story has appeared in The Glove, Life, and The New Yorker.
Excited to have the chance to find out what the blond icon herself would say about life, her fame, and men, I spoke to Bell in her California home. I wanted to get to know Bell as well, so while she sipped her morning coffee and dealt with the family and phone interruptions that are a part of all mothers’ lives, I learned that Barbie’s human spokesperson is complex in her pursuits.
Bell was born in Illinois and grew up in Connecticut, attending Southern Connecticut State University where she majored in art. Upon graduating she became a flight attendant, enjoying her travels. As in Barbie-land, Bell married her high school sweetheart, packed up the Volkswagen, and drove to California where they’ve lived for twenty years. Returning to her family roots, she became an editor (her father owned a small publishing company in Connecticut). This led to her recent job, managing editor and artistic director for a New Age quarterly, Common Ground. She considers this full-time job a side job, however, to her true vocation as a textile artist. And that’s not all. She publishes the Barbie Channeling Newsletter, in which Barbie answers questions posed by readers.
If you read Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and believe that these dolls have a large impact on children (Iran agrees—they’ve had a ten-year ban on Barbie, though she is still smuggled in), then you could easily explain Bell’s artistic interest in textiles as stemming from her childhood with Barbie. “I started playing with Barbies as soon as they came out. I had two little sisters, and we used to play gang wars with the dolls, right around the time of West Side Story. We did terrible things to our dolls. I also learned how to sew by making little clothes for them. I used to run around to the upholstery and fabric stores in my town asking for teeny, tiny pieces of exotic fabric.... Fabric is my first love, and I think that is a large part of learning how to design on [Barbie].”
When I asked Bell why she thought Barbie chose her to speak through, she was quick to say, “I don’t know why, but on the other hand, why not? Somebody eventually was going to have to say something. I mean, her mouth doesn’t even open. Her eyes don’t open and shut. The poor woman is trapped in a sterile body, and she really has deep emotions and feelings.” She recounts that one night, two years ago, when her daughters’ eighteen dolls were left scattered across the living room, she stepped on one and a voice came into her head: “I need more respect.”
I suggested maybe her name had something to do with her being the channel. She said it was possible. “I was Barbie growing up.”
I especially wanted to know if Bell thought Barbie was a bad influence on American girls. (Later on she informed me that Barbie is popular all over the world, especially in Italy.) She said no, and explained, “There was this doll named after me, so I looked at her and I was about 5'3'' and 105 pounds ... and I realized I was not going to look like this when I grew up. And it took some working through this to really understand this is a very idealized version of the fifties Marilyn Monroe hourglass ideal. I think a lot of girls growing up had an interesting juxtaposition of their bodies and this cookie-cutter kind of a doll.” But Bell sees this as leading to an acceptance, rather than a denial, of a girl’s physical self-image.
If you’re wondering what kinds of questions Barbie gets asked, just think of a Dear Abby to men and women, gay and straight. When Bell receives a letter, she goes into a “lite” [sic] trance, and thoughts come to her that she records with a pink (“the color of the divine feminine”) pen. “Answers just come out of me. I’m not conscious while I’m doing it. I sort of step aside.”
I was finally prepared to interview the Barbie doll. Bell took a few silent moments to channel her, and I began asking questions. “Barbie” answered each one quickly, alternating between eloquence and humor in a tiny, high-pitched voice:
TM: I was curious what Barbie’s self-image is. We’ve been talking about what we think about her body and how she’s affected people, but how does she feel about her own body and having her arms and head ripped off and her hair cut off, as is often the case?
BARBIE: I’ve had to look really deep into myself. There’s a lot of depth to me. People think I’m kind of hollow, shallow, but I realize that everybody has a handicap to deal with and I’ve had some real obvious ones once you look past the veneer they’ve put on me. Not being able to sleep ever I’ve had a lot of time to meditate and I know that we all have to accept our pluses and minuses if we want to grow.
TM: How does Barbie feel about the growing pop interest in her—such as the recent book about her [Mondo Barbie]—this new sort of celebrity status given her?
BARBIE: I think that people are always going to be looking for a symbol of what is good in their lives and if I can be that, I’m happy. I don’t expect that to last because a lot of people also misuse me, laugh at me, but I’m here as a pure essence. I’m not trying to be anyone but who I am. I like the celebrity part but there’re so many of me that it’s kind of like fifteen minutes rather than ... I’m happy to share—I’m here to share.
TM: Does Barbie have any kind of love life? I understand she’s platonic with Ken. Are there any other men in her life?
BARBIE: Well, I’d like to go out with Jamal, but in my current blond state I don’t think they’re going to have me be in a relationship with him. He’s definitely ... a little bit too burly for me. I did date Ken for a while when we started being produced. But he was always more interested in himself, and GI Joe is a very nice man but I think he’s suffering from post stress or something. And he’s another one of those guys with his underwear stamped on. I think I’m doomed to have a chaste, demure life. People want me to be a lot more flirtatious than I really feel I have to be, but those poor guy dolls are limited in what they’re interested in or able to do, so I guess it’s just me and the human public.
TM: What sort of all-important message would you like to say to your admirers and playmates? Is there any one particular message that Barbie has and wants to get across?
BARBIE: Be happy to be able to play and use your imagination, because it is a gift to have one. And be happy with the gift of the life you actually have, to live and breathe, rather than being a little plastic doll.
Every parent, perhaps also those in Iran, can approve of this message, even if they don’t approve of the doll. And Bell will continue to speak out in her girlish feministic philosophies, despite angry letters from Mattel Inc. and scribbled messages from anonymous readers urging her to read scriptures. There has to be some sort of power in any object that if gathered en masse and laid down and lined up would stretch completely around the circumference of this world.
Tara L. Masih has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, Red River Review, and The Caribbean Writer). Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web nomination. She judges the intercultural essay prize for the annual Soul-Making Literary Contest, and is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (forthcoming). Her Web site is www.taramasih.com