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In (modest) praise of Barbie

A Christian Science perspective: A mother gives a second thought to the influence Barbie might have on her daughter. After all, over the years Barbie has had more than 100 careers, along with a variety of cultural backgrounds.

By Helen Stevermer / August 21, 2012



Like other parents, I’ve been concerned with the choice of toys and role models as they relate to my kids’ perspective on life. Whether it has been a princess in a ball gown or a nunchucking ninja turtle, I encouraged my kids’ gravitation toward honest characters who made good choices.

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My own experience with role models began at the age of 7, when my sister ripped open a colorfully wrapped present on Christmas morning. Inside was the prettiest doll I could imagine, and a model that I would come to love and try to emulate for decades. It was Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as Barbie.

I was immediately awed by Barbie’s pretty face, tiny waist, and winning smile. With that combination, she was sure to win the heart of handsome Ken, her steady companion. Of course Barbie was only one of many dolls available in those days, and today there are scores more.

During my preteen years, I cherished Barbie’s beauty and celebrated her accomplishments. But after my teenage years, it seemed that I was struggling to match strides with the model of the woman who “had it all.” After all, who could compete favorably with the bombshell who conquered law school, Capitol Hill, and was launched in space, all in 5-inch heels?

My own daughter, Julia, was 5 when she received a complete doll ensemble – several bejeweled dolls, a doll condo, and a car. I was amazed at how quickly she discovered that same magical connection that I remembered with my sister’s Barbie.

Years later I observed body image comparisons and self-doubt among my daughter’s peer group. It was apparent that girls and boys were idolizing celebrities and judging themselves and others based on comparisons with popular models. Julia’s school began to stress the importance of diet, which can of course be helpful; but when taken to an extreme, it perpetuates the worship of a so-called perfect body.

I thought of Bible stories that tell of the challenges of the children of Israel, who clung to, or even merely tolerated, idol worship. In every account of regeneration, it took a cleansing rejection of these false images to experience harmony. I compared that with a message from Mary Baker Eddy, the author of “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” who wrote, “The recipe for beauty is to have less illusion and more Soul...” (p. 247). This beauty results not from worshiping body proportions, but from recognizing spiritual comeliness.

In searching for a solution, short of calling for an outright ban on dolls, or at least on Barbie (I know a mother who did call for such a ban), I considered another idea. I, as most parents who want the best for their children, carefully consider the value of my kids’ activities and the influence they might have on my children’s development. The kinds of toys they play with are included in this. Considering what to do, I turned to another insight from Mrs. Eddy that has helped me in other areas of life. She wrote, “Metaphysics resolves things into thoughts, and exchanges the objects of sense for the ideas of Soul” (Science and Health, p. 269). I thought that perhaps I needed to take a fresh look to see if there were any “ideas of Soul” that Barbie represented.

In other words, I felt my concept of Barbie might need a make-over!

In taking stock of what Barbie symbolized, I considered the qualities of resilience and fearlessness – an unabashed welcome of a challenge! In half a century, Barbie has experienced over 100 careers, ranging from Canadian Mountie to NASCAR driver. I realized that Barbie’s wide range of careers exemplifies how we can claim unlimited abundance of spiritual qualities, as well as opportunities for expressing them, to meet the needs of ourselves and others.

I also loved the fact that although the original Barbie had the hairstyle and clothes of an American teenager, today’s Barbie dolls are designed to represent many cultures. This idea of multiculturalism and inclusiveness represents an embrace of all humanity and is a good example for children. 

Decades after Barbie kept my first secret and I helped her choose her first prom dress, it was refreshing to gain a new view of what Barbie might have to offer to the kids who enjoy playing with her. While I don’t fully resonate with my daughter’s sentiment – “Barbie rocks!” – I do recognize that there may be more value to the bedazzling Barbara Millicent Roberts than meets the eye.

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