Blonde ambition

Observations on Barbie

Barbie. I’ve always had a soft spot for her. Not least because she helps me explain to people how to spell my surname (“Like Barbie but with an RI at the end”: never fails).

This month, Barbie is 50: cue, reams of the usual stuff about how bad she is for little girls, with her anatomically impossible waist and huge knockers. She is now also being blamed for being too flighty, and having “too many jobs”. One psychologist has been quoted as saying: “If you don’t want your child to be affected by this image of the female body, then don’t let her have a Barbie, it’s as simple as that.” Yeah, right – and also stop her ever watching the TV, or reading magazines and newspapers, and ever coming into contact with women who have had plastic surgery. At least, with Barbie, children realise she’s a doll. Far more damaging, I think, is to see real women who have been cut and remodelled through surgery, or elongated, plumped up and touched up through Photoshop.

My aunts in Italy, growing up in the 1940s, had dolls made out of potatoes: but they never actually thought women should look like root vegetables. My daughter has a cloth doll from Habitat with horns for ears, and a whole host of other weird-looking dolls. She doesn’t think women look like that, any more than she thinks Barbie is real. Children aren’t stupid, only their parents are. Barbie is a doll. Let’s not overthink her. Yes, she’s backed by a multimillion-pound marketing campaign, but so is infant milk formula, which is far more of a threat to a young child’s health. At least Barbie is a toy that involves imagination.

I grew up with Sindy and Barbie and Tressy. I played with them for years. I never noticed how high up their breasts were or how small their waists were. But then, I was too busy playing with them to analyse them. I went on to become one of the first, and youngest, women admitted into the British army’s Intelligence Corps. Being allowed to be a child and playing with dolls taught me that anything is possible. What made me want to be thin and fucked me up for a while was the images in French Marie Claire (the English version hadn’t launched yet), which showed real women who were impossibly perfect.

Barbie never left me feeling wanting. I made clothes for her, practising in miniature what I’d do in real-life size later on. But after all, she was just a toy and her hair never looked good for long, no matter how much you brushed it. The past 50 years have been enormously empowering for women; how funny that Barbie is only ever blamed for the negative part of that era. Which is just typical. She’s too good-looking to be given credit for anything other than malevolent distraction.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd