Grandparent problem of the day: Who's a better role model for little girls? Barbie or the Disney Princesses?
We are bombarded in stores with grandma-eye-level bright, shiny pink things we know our granddaughters will adore; but our daughters and daughters-in-law might abhor. Twenty-first Century moms want positive role models for their daughters. They're not raising girls to be bimbos, to feel bad about their normal bodies, to lie around doing nothing until they're picked for "happily ever after."
Since 1959, Barbie (blonde, brunette, redhead, African-American and Hispanic) has been a part of our lives. Way before Indiana moms were making the pilgrimage to the American Girl doll store in Chicago, Barbie was notching up more than 100 different careers. Complete with costumes and props, she has been a doctor, dentist, nurse, surgeon, veterinarian, gym coach, aerobics instructor, astronaut, chef, NASCAR driver, cat burglar, lifeguard, Spanish teacher, ambassador, and even a motorcycle moll. She has also appeared as the proverbial dumb blonde with closets full of designer clothes, weird feet, and odd hair.
The problem is her body: it's a fantasy body. No girls grow up to look like that. But when you're a little girl, Barbie is what you think you'll someday look like, even though you won't, and that makes some teen girls very sad.
There are even a couple of scientific studies that demonstrate the destructiveness to self-image associated with Barbie: Body Dimorphic Disorder and/or Barbie Syndrome. Recently a young woman used plastic surgery and a near-liquid diet to transform herself into a "Living Barbie doll." Very scary. Photographs show that she reached her goal: too plastic to hug.
Nick Lamm, an artist/designer, recently made a 3-D mold using measurements of a healthy 19-year-old girl to create a version of what Barbie would look like if she was real. She looks good. She has a larger waist, a rounder bottom, a prettier face. We can only hope that dolls will look like that one day.
Meanwhile men are also affected by the unreasonable female images promoted by Barbie, Playboy foldouts, etc. Dustin Hoffman recently talked about his role in "Tootsie," 17 years ago. He played a male actor dressing up like a woman in order to get a job. After the hair and make-up people did their magic and Hoffman saw he looked just like a woman, he wanted more. "Now make me a beautiful woman," he said. "And they said to me, 'That's as good as it gets. That's as beautiful as we can get ya, Charlie.'" Then Hoffman said he had an epiphany.
"…I think I'm an interesting woman when I look at myself onscreen. And I know if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn't fulfill physically the demands that we're brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out. There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed."
Well, like, duh. Forty years ago I was epiphanized, too, reading Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer—you know, the "women are people too" and "equal-pay-for-equal work" gals. Although Ms. Greer reminded us that we all had a responsibility to "delight each other's eye," I grew into womanhood with a firm notion that authenticity was beautiful; artifice was not.
My generation rebelled against ratted spray-glued hairdos, uncomfortable clothes (girdles, bras, shoes) and lives that were designed around serving men. We studied hard so that we could take care of ourselves no matter what. We might become dependent on men for other reasons, but money would not be one of them. We wanted to break the "sex-for-food" bond that may have defined marriages in the past.
Dustin Hoffman was probably one of the guys who ignored me and my pals. If he ever passed through Chicago in those years, he wouldn't have given us a second look. None of us looked like Barbie or a Playboy foldout. We thought if we worked real hard and established ourselves, the most interesting men would admire us, respect us, like to talk with us, fall in love with us, and yeah, probably…want to marry us.
Sometimes this strategy worked out; sometimes it didn't. But many of us are cheerful survivors of our own bad judgment. And none of us ever looked a bit like Barbie—well, maybe one of us, but that was just for a while.
My friend Mary, one of the most straight-ahead gals I know, said she swore off Barbie decades ago. "I didn't want a single one in my house," she said. "Nobody looks like that. Nobody grows up to look like that." Three little girls later, Mary said she looked around, "and we had literally buckets of Barbies. Buckets of them." Her girls loved dressing them, undressing them, fixing their hair, making up all kinds of stories about their lives. But Barbie was only a tiny part of their real lives. Many years later they graduated from first-class colleges and continue to enjoy fabulous careers, husbands, and children. Role-model or model-model, it doesn't look like Barbie cramped their style.
In the meantime, are princesses better? When commoner Kate Middleton married British Prince William and became the proud mum of a brand new prince, princess power landed a spinning jab, smack into Barbie's kisser. Princesses rock!
Next week we'll take an in-depth look at princess power, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, Ariel, and "What's-Her-Name" with the harem pants.