Swear to God, this Barbie looks like me about 30 years ago.
I’m a little older than Barbie, but not much. And let’s face it: when you turn 50, like Barbie does on March 9th, a few years more or less doesn’t make as much difference anymore. So, for the sake of this post, we’ll say Barbie and I are about the same age.
When I was a kid, Barbie was a big hit with the age 7 through 11 set. I didn’t get one till I was in the third grade, and I only ever got one. Mattel only came out with perhaps one version of Barbie a year anyway. It wasn’t the way it is now, when Barbie and her clones have taken on every conceivable appearance, from Lucille Ball to Geishas to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. You got one Barbie, if you were lucky, and that was it. You might get the other members of her little troupe, but not in my house. I never did get a Skipper or a Ken or a Midge. My Barbie, however, came with three different wigs, blond, redhead and brunette, in different styles, so she could have three different personnas. Or I could leave her bald and put a kerchief on her head and play “Housecleaning Barbie.” And in the fourth grade, I got what I think was the first iteration of the Barbie Dream House. It was made mostly of cardboard that was colored with windows and doors and so forth to look more house-like. Most of the furniture was also cardboard, and the whole thing came with those chilling instructions: “Some assembly required.”
We girls used to use our Barbies as stand-ins to enact adult scenarios that we weren’t old enough to participate in, like making out at the drive-in, going to the prom, things like that. The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show the same year I got my Barbie Dream House, so after that, a lot of the romantic scenarios my chums and I set up involved Paul or John or George or Ringo as the male lead.
But far more interesting for me than Barbie herself were the accessory packets you could get for her. Even then, I was a shoe maniac. I couldn’t do much about it for myself at the age of 9 or 10, but Barbie could and did own fashionable high heels in every color of the rainbow, plus tennis shoes, bathroom slippers, boots, and satin ballet slippers. She also had purses to match all of her shoes, naturally. And she had a gray standard Poodle, which came with a rhinestone collar, a leash, food & water bowls, dog food and a box of biscuits. Plus a tennis outfit, with racket, balls, sweater and headband; an ice-skating set; a bath and boudoir set with a terrycloth bathrobe, a brush, comb and mirror, towels, soap, dusting powder and the aforementioned slippers. This, for me, was much more interesting than pretending that Barbie visited Paul’s mum in Liverpool. However much I may have wanted Paul to take me home to his mum, I figured I didn’t have a prayer in hell of that happening, mostly due to our age difference. But I might someday have all those shoes and things myself. I most definitely did not have them then and wouldn’t until I grew up or traded in my parents for a pair that had not grown up during the Depression of 1929. Well, okay, we did get a dog when I was 10, but it wasn’t a Poodle and it didn’t have a rhinestone collar.
I also enjoyed practicing my fashion design skills on Barbie. Her clothes were fairly costly to buy off the rack, so I would lobby at Christmas and my birthday for an accessory set to get all those little Barbie-sized pot-holders and pots and pans and so forth, then make the really fancy clothes myself. I was allowed to use a sewing machine when I was seven, so by age 9, I was a regular Vera Wang. My Barbie had a fabulous handmade wardrobe, which included a faux-fur coat with matching fur hat and muff, a Swedish folk costume (during my ‘roots’ phase), and a Swan Lake ballet costume that I would dress her in while playing Tchaikovsky’s ballet on my record player.
When I got the Dream House, I moved out of my fashionista phase and entered my Sixty-Minute Makeover phase. I redecorated the Dream House, added drapes and new rooms, and took all the furniture apart so I could trace it and make it over again to suit my own taste. I made slipcovers and throw pillows and scatter rugs. I remember making Barbie a patio set out of those white plastic lattice trays that tomatoes used to come in, four to a tray. And when I did the bathroom over, I gave her a new medicine cabinet made out of a metal Sucrets box with a small mirror glued on. Let me tell you, Martha Stewart had nothing on me or my Barbie.
By the end of the fifth grade, Barbie and her life got packed away in the attic, because we got the dog and I was busy teaching myself to be the greatest dog trainer that ever lived. Decades later, I thought about selling all my Barbie stuff to a collector, but instead, I gave it to a young woman who was like a daughter to me. I knew I’d made the right decision when she pawed, entranced, through the little chest of drawers (made of stacked kitchen match boxes, covered with wallpaper, with brass paper-fastener knobs) that held all Barbie’s high heels and lined them all up by style and color. Then, a few years ago, I came upon, I swear to god, a Retro Hippie-Chick Barbie, who was dressed like I used to dress when I was about 20, right down to the denim mini-skirt and the pair of glasses I always had perched on my head. Not only that, but she had smallish breasts like me, instead of those unnatural melons she had when she and I were both a lot younger. I was stunned. A small-breasted Barbie with glasses??? I may have craved and identified with Barbie’s accessories all those years ago, but Barbie never, ever looked like me in any way shape or form, except that we were both female and Caucasian, nor did I ever expect to look like her. Unnaturally long legs aside, this hippie-chick Barbie actually looked kinda normal! I have to admit, it was a little spooky, but I decided to take her home, to prove to myself that I wasn’t imagining things, and I swear when I stand her next to pictures of me in high school, you can hardly tell the difference between us.
And now the ol’ girl is 50. Well, well. And now, instead of imagining what I would do if I were her, I want to know if she’s going to go through a few of the things I’ve gone through in midlife, like night sweats and mortgage refinancing and having an affair with a much younger man and buying a motorcycle. (Okay, I didn’t actually buy the motorcycle.) I think Mattel should consider making a few more mature Barbies to reflect her advancing age, who could have more mature adventures, like the rest of us have. In fact, I’d like to see a Breast Cancer Barbie, who comes with a bald head, like my old Barbie, and a set of wigs which she could wear after chemo. She should come with only one breast and a teeny prosthesis for her pocket-bra, as well as a barf bag and a miniature bottle of Zofran, little radiation tattoos and tubes of Aquaphor, and a prescription for Arimidex. All right, all right. So, I have a noir sense of humor. So, sue me. Hey, if Kitchenaid can make flippin’ pink cake mixers for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I see no reason why Mattel can’t make a Breast Cancer Barbie. I mean, come on. I’d buy one.
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