Barbie: Her Figure Isn't Everything

As a journalist who frequently writes about women's issues, I've lost patience with people who accuse Mattel's Barbie doll of being a bad influence on growing girls. Worst of all, Mattel is melting under pressure, promising to deliver a new Barbie with more realistic proportions next year.

It all amounts to a tempest in a Barbie-size teacup. And besides, why pick on Barbie when we have bigger, real-life offenders to fry?

Growing up, I never thought Barbie's statistics (38-18-34, according to one estimate) were a threat to my self-esteem, although my own body was vastly different. In fact, I've gotten a kick out of Barbie since I first played with her in the 1960s, when the feminist movement was gaining momentum. And I think Gloria Steinem would have approved of the way my Barbie and her best friend Midge carved out their futures.

In the fantasy world I crafted for them, both dolls went to college. (They packed wardrobes they'd earned working part time in their cardboard clothing boutique.) Even then, their career options weren't limited to what were considered female professions; Barbie and Midge studied math and medicine as well as fashion design. Barbie had plans to be an astronaut, Midge a veterinarian. Both were prepared to "sequence" their careers if they decided to marry and have children.

My Barbie and Midge also were well versed in the fine arts. They performed in several plays, including "Camelot," staged on the Little Theater I had been given for my 10th birthday. Midge earned standing ovations as Little Red Riding Hood, while Ken took on the dubious role of Big Bad Wolf.

I HAVE other happy memories of playing with Mattel's fold-up Dream House, which Barbie had mortgaged herself and kept clean while holding down several part-time jobs (in addition to her college classes). And I recall watching her navigate her own pink convertible along the highways she forged in my parents' living room carpet.

Yes, the road was wide open for Barbie. She was the first to have it all - and the first to dress for success. More than any other doll on toy-store shelves, Barbie had choices beyond the home. If nothing else, she showed us a woman could do anything she wanted to, and looking fabulous was just another bonus. Examining the doll and her wardrobe today, I don't see that this has changed.

For today's parents, the big dilemma seems to be Barbie's current figure - long legs, skinny waist, narrow hips, ample bosom. They insist that her stiff plastic body flaunts impossible standards for young girls to emulate. But are little girls really that gullible? Most kids I know understand that toys aren't supposed to be fully realistic. Pretending is the whole point. After all, Barbie always has been touted as a fashion doll, and half the fun of a fashion doll is the sheer fantasy of dressing her in all kinds of uniforms and costumes, from tiny space suits to jazzy evening gowns.

As long as Barbie's new body is just as much fun to dress, I suppose there's no harm in rearranging her parts. But I knew many girls who enjoyed Barbie in her original form, and soared to adulthood undamaged by their favorite doll's controversial figure.

Even now, many of us secretly admire Barbie for being exactly what she is - a gal with options who never takes herself too seriously.

* Cynthia G. La Ferle is a Royal Oak, Mich., essayist and columnist whose work is published nationally.

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