Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 27, 2009

50 years of Barbies

The big-busted, wasp-waisted, long-legged Barbie doll turned 50 earlier this month. She's just five years younger than I, yet she still looks like a 20-something gal. How in the world does she keep that figure?

Some news stories marked the big day by describing her as a commercial and cultural icon. Others included viewpoints from detractors who claim that Barbie sends harmful messages about body image and consumerism to impressionable young girls.

I suppose these latter folks have some good points, but sometimes I think adults take toys way too seriously.

I was thrilled when I received a Barbie AND Ken set on my 10th birthday. Barbie had red hair formed into a pony-tail and was dressed in a red swimming suit. Blond fuzzy-headed Ken wore red swimming trunks with a striped red and white top. Each had two other outfits with accessories. I still have them, along with many other clothes, hats, shoes and purses, tucked away on the top shelf of my closet.

Sister Gaila received a dark-haired bubble-coiffed Barbie and Alan doll a bit later. We set up a card table and made a two-story house, creating furniture out of shoe boxes. We eventually received a cardboard Barbie Dream House with cardboard furniture, but we used it as an addition to - not a replacement for - the card table house and furniture we made ourselves.

We played with our dolls for hours on end. We'd "pretend this" or "pretend that" as our dolls changed roles from teachers to business people to health care workers to parents.

But the main attraction was to dress the dolls in their multiple outfits.

"Their clothes were so well-made then," Gaila said. "They had buttons and zippers and snaps that really worked."

College roommate Deb said she still has her Barbie in her memory treasure box.

"I had saved my allowance for weeks to be able to buy my Barbie and I wanted to be sure I bought the most perfect one," Deb said. " . . . I chose the bubble blond. I got a blond Ken to match. His fuzzy hair sure rubbed off easily - or maybe he was just prematurely balding!"

I laughed when I read Deb's account of her Ken balding. My Ken's fuzzy blond hair rubbed off, too. I don't remember if it was Mom or me who colored his head with a black magic marker to cover the baldness.

Deb is amazed at the Barbie choices children have now.

"There is a Barbie for anything and everything you can think of," she said, after receiving a Barbie Collector Catalog in the mail recently. "A Hershey's Barbie (her outfit is brown and is shaped like a Hershey's Kiss), a Marilyn Monroe Barbie, a Wizard of Oz Barbie. These are all in addition to the thousands that are out there now. It was SO much simpler in our day - you got to choose from red, brown or blonde hair, ponytail or bubble hair style. Then when you wanted your Barbie to have a different job or activity, you just bought an outfit for that - you didn't buy an entire new Barbie . . ."

Youngest daughter Katie collected a few Barbies from the "Dolls of the World" series, including princesses of China, India, the Nile and the Incas. She had them on her shelf and occasionally played with them, but eventually put them back in their boxes and now has them in her closet.

But it was the ordinary dolls that really got a work-out. Just a few years ago, Katie and her cousin Larisa amused themselves for entire afternoons playing with their assorted collection of "regular" Barbies and Kens. Some of the dolls ended up legless or with practically no hair because the girls changed their clothes frequently, experimented with different hair-dos and placed them in various contortionist poses.

Thinking about all of us girls - some still young and some not so young now - with our Barbies, I believe the fun was in the inventive situations we put them in.

As husband Art commented, "As a youngster I played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. But I never seriously considered emulating any of those people."

So at least for me, I'm not too worried that Barbie will ruin future generations of women. And I'm ready to say, "Happy birthday, Barbie! May you have many more good years!"

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