I was at my mother’s house yesterday sorting through the stuff I’ve stored there over the years. Being reunited with so many past selves was an enjoyable, if slightly unsettling, experience and the contents of one dusty box were particularly poignant. When I opened it I found, to my surprise, my favourite Barbie and Sindy dolls carefully packed away in there, most of them wearing their now rather tatty original outfits. I’d assumed they’d all been given away years ago.
I’m not the sort of feminist who never played with dolls. My Barbies and Sindys were very important to me and extravagantly loved. I would pick out the one I wanted months in advance of Christmas or my birthday. My mother would then buy it with her Brian Mills home shopping catalogue credits and hide it on top of the wardrobe until the date came around. My parents were the sort of back-to-the-land hippies who probably didn’t approve of Barbie, but having both experienced tremendous neglect in their own childhoods, they wanted to try and give us the toys we asked for and didn’t interfere very much.
Left to choose for myself, I did not pick the more sensible looking models, such as astronaut or vet Barbie. No, I always asked for the most fabulous Barbies available, the high femmes with with the biggest, shiniest dresses. I even had glow-in-the-dark Barbie. You might not believe it to look at me now, but I’ve always had an interest in glamour and a liking for shiny things and the Barbies and the Sindys of the 1980s more than satisfied this desire. As I opened each new doll and carefully removed her from her box, I would swear to myself that I’d keep this one in pristine condition, a resolution that never lasted more than a couple of weeks.
My only noticeable break with convention was my insistence that the dolls lived in a woman-only commune to which Ken dolls were refused admittance (someone did eventually buy me one, of which more in a moment). We had friends who lived in communes and there was womens’ land in existence near to where I grew up, which may have been the inspiration. I remember that the womens’ land was viewed with much suspicion in the local community. I didn’t understand the reasons for this suspicion at the time, but it gave it a thrilling whiff of transgression.
The all-time favourite – Crystal Barbie (1983)
Her stoll is in quite good condition, but the dress is sadly worn and should be shiny all over. I’ve lost her jewelry, which I thought one of the most special things about her. Imaginatively renamed ‘Christina’, Crystal Barbie went on to become one of the leaders of my commune, along with ballet dancer Sindy (who later died tragically in a dog attack). I gave Christina a “daughter” (an appropriately sized Pippa doll), which made her into a single mum because she never had a husband or a boyfriend. I think this was quite daring for a Catholic child.
The second favourite – Masquerade Sindy (1984)
Words cannot describe just how much I desired this Sindy. I got her for Christmas and wouldn’t put her down for days. I’m sorry I didn’t photograph her with her opera mask because I do still have it. The hairdo has collapsed and that red and white flower thing is not exactly original (This is how she’s supposed to look). Her outfit was apparently designed by the Emmanuels (remember them 80s kids?), the same people who did Lady Di’s wedding dress and I found that very impressive. Masquerade was renamed ‘Elizabeth’ and was always a bit full of herself.
Jewel Secrets Barbie (1986)
Another extremely fabulous Barbie, Jewel Secrets came with a weird skirt that could double as a bag – for jewelry, I presume. I now think it makes her look a bit like one of those dolls my Nan used to cover up spare toilet rolls in the bathroom. She did have a second outfit underneath the bag, as demonstrated here. I was very pleased with Jewel Secrets because she had extra long hair, which I was obviously having fun styling right up until the day she went into the box. Jewel Secrets did however lead to someone giving me ‘Jewel Secrets Ken’, who was a slightly creepy looking individual. My mother insists that I asked for this Ken, but I have a feeling it was more the case that someone in my family, concerned about the obvious lack of Ken dolls, persuaded me to accept him. We ended up making him into someone’s brother and, eventually, the on-again-off-again boyfriend of one of my sister’s Barbies.
If anyone can identify this Sindy doll, please let me know in the comments. I can’t remember what she was called, but I can see why I wanted her – great fishtail dress, feather boa and diamante necklace. I think she may have been created to compete with Barbie and the fact that she’s still wearing her necklace shows her treasured she was.
Day to Night Barbie – 1984
Day to Night Barbie is the only one of my dolls to make the Muse’s approved feminist Barbie list. She may have spent all night partying, but she at least appeared to have a job in the daytime. I called her Samantha (very Sex in the City, eh?) and loved her so much that her original outfits have completely disintegrated. I obviously still cared about her enough to dress her in what looks like one of Jewel Secrets’s spare outfits (it has one of the weird bag skirts and that’s the sort of necklace Jewel would sport). Andy is jealous because she wanted this Barbie and never got it.
I’m not attempting to defend what these toys represent because it’s reprehensible. Their existence is symptomatic of sexism, capitalism, consumerism and racism, and that’s just for starters. But finding my old dolls did make me pause and think about the ways in which children will work with what they’ve got, attach meaning to toys and create narratives around them that make sense in the context of their own lives – hence my Barbie commune. Nobody plays with Barbie in a cultural vacuum and I’m troubled by the unacknowledged classism that often crops up in feminist discussions about these toys (“I didn’t play with Barbie because I was too busy out in the back garden building a telescope out of old lolly pop sticks with my Dad etc.”). You can also end up playing not very helpful games of “more-feminist-than-thou” or “not-like-the-other-girls” which don’t really get to the root of why children like these toys, or why they might be problematic.
Did my Barbie habit do me any harm? She’s often blamed for causing body-image problems and, while I think my own eating disorder had more obvious causes, I’m sure they did give me bad messages about femininity, sexuality and value of women: “beauty” equals whiteness, wealth and an unachievable body type. I think children should have access to toys that help them explore adult femaleness and femininity, but it would have been better for me to have had dolls that represent adult female bodies more realistically and with more diversity.
Why was I so fixated on these fabulous dolls? I think they were so enticing, partly because their appearance was so different to anything I experienced in my daily life. We lived in a very poor rural area and the women I knew impressed me as sensible, hardworking types who always seemed to be digging up swedes or plucking chickens. People had to be very thrifty and makeup and dresses were strictly for special occasions, if ever. I admired these women and identified with them far more than I did with my dolls, but I also wanted the fantasy escape offered by Barbie. So my Barbies did their farm work and them came home and sat around drinking tea in their ball gowns.
I think were was another more profound and uncomfortable reason. My world often seemed chaotic and frightening and I experienced the regular gift of the Christmas or birthday Barbie doll as extremely reassuring. No matter how bad things got, the dolls appeared reliably every year. They meant that my stressed our parents still cared for me. This reminds me of a little girl who was friends with my sister. She lived with her mum in a tiny house in the village. Her father had been killed in a freak accident and they had very little money. I’ll never forget how proudly she showed us her My Little Pony collection and how she treasured those toys. The ponies are comforting because they are a group of friends, but for this little girl I think they were also a sign of love, because her mother must have really struggled to buy them for her. Even as my parents were going bankrupt, my mother continued to save up her catalogue credits to buy us those dolls.
More food for thought: Gabriel Galimberti, Toy Stories, photographs of children from around the world with their favourite toys (thanks @infamy_infamy)