Dear Barbie | Sarah Bessey

Dear Barbie:

We’ve had a complex relationship, you and me. I adored you when I was a child. My sister and I concocted elaborate scenarios that went for years – years! – wherein we took you through school to university to a career to marriage to adventures to motherhood. You were our favourite pastime, and we loved you. Most of our Barbies were hand-me-downs from my cool older cousins, but you were so much more than dress-up games to us. You were the focus of the hours of my childhood during long prairie winters. We played Barbies from the time we were about six years old until I was nearly thirteen. (One of the saddest days of my little sister’s life was the day I declined to play Barbies on the grounds that I was now a teenager.)

But I grew up. I became a feminist, a staunch defender of the rights and dignity of women, and so of course – of course! – I began to mock you. I made fun of your proportions, of your impossible physique. I accused you of causing eating disorders in women and poor self-image in me. I swore I wouldn’t let any daughter of mine play Barbies! Never! Blonde, blue-eyed unrealistic perfection, impossible standards of beauty and deportment with gowns – gowns! who wears gowns but people who belong to things like junior league? Unrealistic, unhelpful, probably damaging. I mellowed as I got older, but I still had a vague distrust of you, Barbie, a sense that maybe you were harmful to us all.  I would strive for a Barbie-Free Zone.

Then I had a daughter. Two, in fact, but our youngest is a bit too young for Barbies, preferring to toss you about the room. (And a son, but he doesn’t play with Barbies so, you know.) My eldest received her first Barbie at the age of three from her Auntie, that first Barbie was a special rite of passage that meant a lot to my sister. My parents had saved the few Barbies who survived our childhood, and the box of old clothes was pulled out of storage. I was strangely happy to see them. We had a lot of good times, you and me. Now I was torn – of course we had positive associations with Barbie from our own childhood, but I don’t know if I should allow this. So I allowed the Barbie but my husband agreed with me, we should try to keep the Barbie thing to a minimum. It’s hard to completely escape Barbie culture but we would do our best.

Over the years, we steered her natural interests in science and math towards telescopes and bug kits, we taught her ride a two-wheeler, she dominated Lego building, we did every age-appropriate craft kit this side of the Fraser River. She played with her few Barbies now and then but not much, maybe she was still a bit young.

She’s well-rounded: bold, kind, smart, interesting, and creative, truly we’re so proud of our girl. But this summer, the Barbies began to dominate her playtime and it worried me. I thought I might look around for a Barbie alternative. So we walked around the sensory overload toy store together, on a mission to find a possible Barbie alternative, and I was confronted with the “dolls” that my daughter’s friends are playing with: Monster High and Bratz, particularly. I was stunned.

Unrealistic body expectations from Barbie?

Reality check – those dolls are ZOMBIES. With head trauma. And blue skin.

The clothes are appalling, their “careers” are as fashionistas and flirts, and let’s talk about the lollipop heads with gigantic eyes and lips and barely-there bodies. Desensitizing children to horror and gore isn’t my idea of a good time. Marketing fear isn’t a good plan for tinies, in my humble opinion, I like to guard their gates because I tend to think that if I set scary or evil or even just stupid things before their eyes and ears, then I can’t be surprised with the scary or evil or stupid things take up residence in their hearts and minds. Plus I’m old-fashioned enough – even as a feminist – to like doll clothes to look like something one could actually wear to school without ending up in the principal’s office on dress code violations.

All of a sudden, dear Barbie, you looked like the more healthy and age-appropriate choice.

I began to rethink my distrust. After all, the argument could be made that you are a feminist icon: fifty years of careers ranging from doctor to teacher and all points between. You seem to have a lot of friends and interests – my daughter always has her little gang of Barbies working together to solve problems, you see. You’re a big sister, too, and a good friend. I think some part of her also likes that a few of her Barbies look like her – blonde hair and blue eyes – but she has Barbies of different nationalities and appearances, too. There’s a Barbie for every little girl now, and I’ve got my eye on a little dark-haired beauty for my youngest daughter’s third birthday coming up. You’ve changed with the times: maybe your original iterations make me want to throw up a little bit, but today, I think you’re doing a pretty good job at the role model thing.

I don’t think playing dolls is an inherently ‘girlie’ thing to do but the truth remains that my daughter – who didn’t like playing “mama” to her doll babies in the least – wanted to play Barbies. If I had to choose between Monster High, Bratz, and Barbie, well, sign me up for the Barbie Dream House so I can get ready for the disco after I head off to my career as Palaeontologist Barbie for the day.

A few months into our tentative Barbie experiment now, I have watched my daughter spend the summer with you. Here is what happened: She’s concocting elaborate and empowering imagination stories, and this makes my heart sing.

Her favourite Barbie is her Mars Explorer Barbie because she wants to be an astronaut. At this moment, she’s using her old receiving blankets to create a Mars replica. She’s converted her little Barbie car to a space ship, the Veterinarian Barbie is the controller back at the launch pad. Her Strawberry Shortcake dolls set up a bakery on Mars, the Legos are in use, the telescope is out, too. She plans on teaching school to her classroom of Barbies later. She’s happy, she’s creative, she’s dreaming, she’s having fun.

What more could a mother want for her daughter?

So, dear Barbie, I beg your pardon. You’re not perfect. I still have a few complaints. But overall, compared to everything and all things considered, I’m happy to welcome you back to my home.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am the Official Hair Braider because all of your long hair does get in the way of our planned safari on the moon later today. I hid the scissors, you can thank me later.




In which [love looks like] an empty parking lot
In which I will become more undignified
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  • Well said . We still don’t have Barbie yet in our house but it’s a favorite to play with all the ones grandma saved. I have so many memories of playing Barbies with my sisters…

  • Wonderful perspective. I kind of feel this way about Disney princesses too. One can become too anti-princess in my opinion. I am raising a strong well-rounded daughter who will play with princesses, tinker toys, and bugs (she has a tender spot for creepy crawlers). I will draw the line however at the Bratz and Monster High dolls. I don’t even let my kids go down that aisle at Target. Not a chance.

    • Yes – I’m okay with the Princesses and the Tinkerbells and all that. Actually I really like Tinkerbell from the movies – smart, resourceful, good friends. Love her.

    • Danielle

      YES! My daughter played princess for 30 minutes and then took off the dress and wore it as a super-hero cape for 30 minutes. Balance, right! 🙂

  • Lindsay

    My almost 4 year old doesn’t have any Barbies yet, and I haven’t introduced them yet. She loves dolls and playing mama, and she has a dollhouse that takes hours of her days. I know she’d love them, but I’ve had the same hesitations. It’s so hard to keep those conviction, isn’t it, when we’re faced with their imagination and their joy, knowing we loved it so much when we were little too. Sigh. Good words, Sarah, I’ll be thinking about this for a while. And avoiding creepy zombie dolls (seriously, did not even know that was a thing)

    • It’s hard to remember that they don’t have the baggage I have about this stuff – to her, it’s just a doll and it makes imagination play more fun. Trying ot navigate what’s my convictions and what’s my baggage is a hard line, I think.


    Well said. I love your writing and cannot wait to get my copy of Jesus Feminist. 🙂

  • michelle

    I could have written this 100% as a mom who went through all those same conflicting feelings. We eventually landed on what I thought was the best solution. We outright won’t do Brats or the like. I’m still not a huge fan of Barbie. But SKIPPER. Oh lovely Skipper. She became our “JUST RIGHT” fit for our daughter. 🙂

    • Oh, I forgot about Skipper! I love Skipper. Must hunt her up for Christmas.

      • emmillerwrites

        Do they still make Stacie dolls? She was Barbie and Skipper’s little sister, I think.

  • My daughter is three and just started playing with some of my old Barbies this past week. Aside from the fact that some of them are a little disturbing with their 80’s wardrobe, missing limbs, and outrageously tangled hair, I’ve been enjoying watching her play with them. I especially like that she made the Belle and Jasmine Barbies get married and named their little boy Beauty and their little girl Petey.

  • Katherine

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this. I begged for my first Barbie when I was 3. My mom reluctantly gave in. I think she had some of the same worries you had. Eventually I had a whole troupe of Barbies and Kens and my mom was please to see that my Barbies went to church, had jobs, took care of their kids, and were part of the family of Barbies. My folks even made me a Barbie house out of old moving boxes and decorated it with wallpaper samples and homemade furniture. All my Barbies lived there like a commune and took care of each other as one big happy family. 🙂

  • As a child of the late 80s/early 90s, I (most certainly) played with and longed for Barbies. And then, much similar to your experience Sarah, I became a feminist and bemoaned the unrealistic expectations that Barbie created. But goodness if I wasn’t inspired by teacher Barbie and her talking chalkboard.

    This is such a wonderful post for pre-mothering women like myself to read! Just wonderful.

  • Nicole Resweber

    Love this, Sarah. I had SO MANY BARBIES back in the day, and while I’m right there with their issues, they really did provide lots of fodder for imaginative games. Plus, she’s even an astronaut now! Rock on, Barbie.

  • Megan Westra

    I played with Barbies for YEARS! My Barbies rarely went on shopping sprees or acted out dream boat weddings. They were too busy saving the Pound Puppies from danger, or leading the Treasure Trolls to a magical land where they could be free, or training the Puppy-in-my-Pocket’s to be guide dogs for the blind. Looking back, I absolutely see how my time spent playing with Barbies, acting out these scenarios, helped shape a fierce sense of justice and mercy within my small heart.

    It makes me smile to read about your daughter’s mars landing. It will be lovely to see how her play shapes and informs her adult life.

    And agreed, down with the Bratz. I’m praying that those go out of style by the time my 18 month old daughter is old enough to ask for dolls…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      My Barbies rarely went on shopping sprees or acted out dream boat
      weddings. They were too busy saving the Pound Puppies from danger, or
      leading the Treasure Trolls to a magical land where they could be free,
      or training the Puppy-in-my-Pocket’s to be guide dogs for the blind.

      Just like when in the Eighties, Lauren Faust’s My Little Pony toys didn’t go on shopping sprees or endless frou-frou tea parties. Instead, they were too busy going on world-saving adventures among castles in the mountains (playset atop her dresser) or cities floating in the clouds (quilt on her bed), battling plushie monsters. (Some 20-30 years later, Hasbro/Hub Network tapped that same Lauren Faust to reboot My Little Pony into its present version.)

  • Bev Murrill


  • Sarah Covey

    I swore against Barbies and hoped for my only daughter to play with the original Strawberry Shortcake collection that I had so fastidiously saved from my childhood; alas, she did not. I am pleased, however, to see that Barbies in our house do not exclude other toys from being a part of their clique. Barbies play with My Little Ponies, Polly Pockets, Lego Friends, The Little Mermaid and EVEN the occasional Strawberry Shortcake doll. I’ve let Barbie infiltrate my home as well, as long as it is promoting the imaginative play that I so desire for my girl.

  • Bev Murrill

    I still hate that Barbie’s had a boob job though.

  • oh, yes, PREACH!

  • Jen

    I was exactly like this with princesses. But people buy princess toys and books for my daughter and she loves them–dearly. So we tell her this princess loves to read and this princess loves her dad and this princess likes to sing. They make her so happy, and she loves other things as well. It’s a little strange when I’m shopping with my husband and he gets all excited about princess stickers on sale, but *somebody* has to enjoy them with her! Thanks for the reminder that Barbie dolls are probably going to be in our near future.

  • Oh, gosh, I love this. Such fond memories of playing with Barbie back in the day. My cousin and I used to make casts for Barbie’s “broken leg” out of toilet paper, water, and baby powder. We’d concoct elaborate stories about her career and love life. It turns out, playing with dolls and Lincoln Logs and reading books did a great deal of good for my creativity and it sounds like the same is true of Anne. It’s all about balance, isn’t it?

    • YES!! We have a few Barbies that have lost their legs. So now they go to the Barbie hospital and the other dolls, or ponies or stuffies take care of them. Toilet paper casts are big in our house 🙂

  • I get you. Spent my entire childhood playing Barbies, then swore my daughters would never own one. Then got over it. They own 25 or so (thanks to grandmas with no conflicts) and guess what – they don’t like Barbie. Have even told me to chunk them all. So now I find myself ENCOURAGING my daughters to play them, sadly unsuccessfully.

  • Jane Halton

    What a breath of fresh air. I love this perspective. We don’t have any Barbie players in our house but I’m trying to reconcile the pretend guns that are pervading the “good guys and the bad guys” in our house. “Don’t worry Mom, they are pretend guns.” At least he knows the real ones can hurt people.

  • Brett FISH Anderson

    i appreciate this post [and i’m a dude]. there are so many things with regards to children’s toys, television, movies etc where we have tended to go too extreme and just get rid of it completely where sometimes teaching a child to use something well is in the long run going to be a whole lot more beneficial than banning something completely. Your post articulates that journey well which excites me.

    As does this series just started on my blog which would relate to a lot of your readers i imagine [and i’d be super amped if you had a post to offer to the pile] looking at creative ways of teaching your young children how to be world changers through simple activities []

    keep on – this is super great stuff!

  • Sarah Silvester

    I played with Barbies for years as a kid, alone mostly due to a kid brother who was not interested and being lonely – we had the heart family, remember them? Mom, dad and the boy and girl babies. I loved them but now having 2 daughters, like you, I had become quite NO BARBIE and this post helps me realise I can relax and I’m not betraying all my important beliefs. My girl Lauren loves dolls and at the moment the fascination is Ponys, which is great, but she got given a couple of Barbies and adored them, and I just don’t want to fight her on stuff she loves. I loved the descriptions of Anne’s Mars Astronaut Barbie and the Strawberry Shortcake cafe 🙂 What a beautiful family you have. xo

  • Jada

    While I was in college, my mom asked me if I wanted to keep my Barbies for ‘one day, some day’. I said, “Nah, just get rid of them.” Unbeknownst to me, my mom kept all of my Barbies (and a bag of their clothes) from my childhood. A few days before my daughters 3rd birthday, she mailed them to me. Many memories came back. I began to clean them up. On the morning of her 3rd Birthday, my girl woke up to a roomful of Barbies waving at her. Some perched on her bed, others on her chest of drawers. It was magical; she couldn’t believe it! Seven years later, she still plays with those dolls (and other pieces she’s collected or received from others). Definitely, it’s sparked her imagination and some sweet talks between the two of us about my childhood.

  • Lana

    My mom sold our barbies and threw our cabbage patch dolls away when I was a little, little girl as we entered Christian fundamentalism. If someone gave us one, they went to the garbage. I still shudder at this, and whenever I hear parents say they will not allow their kids to play barbies even if they get one for a gift, I am reminded that sometimes feminist parenting is an awful lot like fundamentalist parent.

    • Adele Chapman

      SO true. And so heartbreaking.

  • Adele Chapman

    I love this, Sarah. I have many happy memories of hours spent playing Barbies with my sister too. I remember we always played families/sisters/friends; no boyfriend/girlfriend scenarios that parents seem so worried about with Barbie. When I watch the kids playing today, I wonder if it’s not so much WHAT they play with as HOW they play.
    Also, when I was older, I did struggle with an eating disorder for many years; but I don’t think it was Barbie’s fault! 😉 Great post. xo

  • Wonderful perspective. After having a son first, I really don’t know how to address the issue of princesses or barbies! I played with them and loved them — and have since scorned them — but why?! Love this.

  • I think you should be declared a national treasure. Not just for your example in recognizing and correcting mistakes, and not just for the brilliant way you approach and write things, but they’re a big part of why.

  • Candace Smith

    Loved this! Thank you for sharing!

  • pastordt

    Indeed. I was never sure about Barbie – I think it was all that PINK, but my middle girl loved hers and as your Anne is doing, made up elaborate story lines and thoroughly enjoyed her dream house and car. So I gave our eldest grandgirl a whole mixed-up mash full of Barbie stuff (again with the PINK!!) when she turned 5, and now she and her sister and their friends are playing with a whole slew of Barbie things. And you are so right about those dreadful Bratz and other dolls making the rounds these days. Barbie comes off in a saintly (and sane) light compared to those. (Another thing I’m very glad I did? I bought the original Polly Pocket stuff way before I had any granddaughters at all – maybe twelve years ago? The new ones are not nearly as fun – they’re big and there isn’t as much variety. If you ever see the little ones in a thrift store, they are gold. My grandsons enjoyed them, too. I waited a long time for the girls to come along – six boys in a row over 14 years – so I got them out for the boys when they were the right ages and most of them had fun with ’em, too.)

  • This post makes me happy.
    It’s so easy for me to get down on things like this, and I forget about the joy and beauty that can be found through such things.
    I remember playing with “Olympic Barbie” after a summer games and she could flip!
    I enjoyed my time playing with her, bringing her through stories, and (occasionally) washing her hair in the tub (!).

  • OurMuddyBoots

    Thank you for this piece. Everything changes when we have children, and the assumption is that it is because we are pushovers. Really, it is because we are able to see things differently.

  • This is why I feel comfortable in letting of the staunch objection I had to Barbie when Abigail was younger. She fell in love with her first one, which I think was a mermaid only because I am pretty sure Abigail is half mermaid 🙂 I digress. My wild girl doesn’t see barbies the way those so strictly opposed to them do. She see her horseback riders and her veterinarians. She see’s the girls that help her work through her trauma and dammit I am sooooooooo OK with that.
    I refused to allow Bratz into my home. They are glossed over and scare me actually. Then she got one for her 7th birthday a few weeks ago and I was so angry and afraid of what would happen if I let her keep it. She loved that doll and I let it go. I really think that the way she sees these dolls and the rest of things she plays with, like My Little Ponies is so different from the perspective of a mom (me) who is terrified of her thinking that what the dolls look like or act like is real.
    The way I have seen it work with us is that it’s how I have approached it with her. I haven’t made a big deal out of it. She also likes to play with so many other things and usually she is so lost in her imagination that she’ll use anything as part of the story she’s working out in her mind.

  • Dr. Kim Eckert

    Yes, ma’am. “I made fun of your proportions, of your impossible physique. I accused you of causing eating disorders in women and poor self-image in me. I swore I wouldn’t let any daughter of mine play Barbies! Never!”

  • Krystal Erb

    You should try Ginny doll, they are more expensive than barbie but they look like little girls and instead of buying like a barbie house you can make your own house out of things that you buy. It much more fun and creative also you can make your own dresses which can teach sewing. My daughter will not play with barbies she will play with Ginny I think its much better for a child to have a doll who looks more like her than some super model which is unrelastic.

  • Deb

    Have you seen the “Only Hearts Club” dolls? My 9-year-old daughter loves them. They are similar in size to Barbie, but are young girls.
    Available on-line, and in specialty stores.
    Great post!

  • DanielleD

    Hmm, I wonder if barbie, with her blond hair and blue eyes is sort of a blank slate upon which little girls project their own stories, ideas, adventures, and “fantasies” about life as a woman. It’s almost a disservice to have so many versions of her, though I understand the impetus. She’s kinda like the non-hippy, public schooling, makeup-wearing mama’s version of Waldorf’s wooden no-face dolls for her kids. [My former english teacher is turning over in her grave at that travesty of a sentence. sorry mrs. drake]

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  • Everly Pleasant

    Barbies are quite possibly the reason I became a writer. They were my first “characters” and some of their stories are still floating around in my mind. Our barbies usually faced huge obstacles (our favorite was “flash flood”) and always ended up saving the world. Yeah, they have super long legs and children who come up to their knee (babies being even smaller) but I think they’re great fun.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Barbie fanfic?

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  • D L

    Three years ago when my foster daughter, then 9 came to live with me she had nothing. No clothing and certainly no toys. Our first night together we went to Walmart… for underwear, socks, and a Barbie. Two in fact. I gulped. For all the reasons you listed I gulped. But I said yes and in short order we became a Barbie family of 10.

    Hours were spent in the living room, creating houses with blankets and offices with the coffee table. This girl had few toys when she was younger. In her playtime with her Barbies she was able to safely regress. The Barbie family has played an important part of her progress in dealing with early childhood trauma and loss.

    Yes she loves the teddy bear and the pillow pet. Yes the iPod is cherished. But Barbie holds that special, safe place where she plays through her pain and plays into her future. I never would have thunk it!

  • Vanessa

    Mattel made a wonderful Barbie alternative a few years back.
    Wee Three Friends can in sets of three with different themes and were proportioned
    like a Skipper doll. They had Stacie, a blond Caucasian, then a red-haired
    Caucasian and an African-American doll. I have no idea why they stopped making them,
    but you can find them on Ebay if you’re curious to see how they look. Fortunately,
    I was able to collect these when my oldest was small. Now her little sister
    gets to enjoy them.

  • Kimberly

    Here is an alternative to Barbies that we are using, called Groovy Girls: They have a few boy dolls as well and are MUCH easier to dress than Barbies! I just could not handle having naked dolls all around the house if I didn’t have time to constantly dress them! Never mind the temptation for the dogs to chew them up!! 🙂 They are slightly taller than barbies, but the houses and cars and whatnot that are made for Barbies work just fine with them.

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  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “Bratz” should be called “Skankz”.

    And there are spinoffs and knockoffs of the “Bratz” line.

    Like “Strutz”, AKA imagine an anorexic skank version of My Little Pony.
    And “Petz” (which I think is actually a “Bratz” spinoff). I saw a “Petz” fox plushie once — a vixen cosmeticized and blinged-out like a Bratz, posed forequarters low/hindquarters high/tail up and “presenting”. My reaction (which has not changed over the years) was “That is the SKANKIEST vixen I have ever seen.” (And I’m a veteran of 20+ years in Furry Fandom, which is VERY porn culture-saturated.)

  • Pam

    I am writing from deep in the Barbie dark ages – but my sensible mom would only let us have the younger sisters of Barbie – Skipper & Francie, because they had more reasonable body proportions. My sisters and I wonder if there is a correlation to our more Francie-like bodies and the dolls we played with. 🙂

    I somewhat grudgingly let my daughter play with the dolls she was given as gifts – and in hindsight, wish I’d just been more gracious. They’re just things.

  • An excellent post, Sarah.

    I’m slowly learning to “never say never” when it comes to parenting. Each child is different. Each parent is different. Each season is different.

    P.S. As you know, we have three little girls (ages 6, 4, and 1) and, surprisingly, we have no Barbies in our house. Not because we’ve objected outright…but we’ve never particularly encouraged them either.

  • Stephen Murphy

    c’mon – you’re not looking hard enough, and you’re not being imaginative. There are so many more alternatives than Bratz and Barbie. Allowing the miss perfection, miss materialistic Barbie is going to give your girl an inferiority complex like so many women have. Let her play with a couple of the blue skinned bratz as well. Give her a GI Joe, a Wonder Woman, and an Incredible Hulk. Princess Leia and the star wars crew can be fun as well. What about these: ?

    Mixing and matching will take the imagination much further than the kitted, fitted, matched, and oh so perfect world of Barbie.

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  • guest

    bratz is clearly an even worse version of barbie, but you won’t convince me that a doll that says “math is hard” and insists on carrying pink stuff around is he.althy.
    monsters are about understanding creepy sides of one’s personality. the monsters are any kid that has ever been singled out for being different.
    barbie is just the opposite: in which it doesn’t matter what is the color of your skin or hair, you can always look the same.
    NONE of my friends who played with barbies went on to know how creepy they are.
    The only healthy way to play with a barbie is changing its body parts so it looks more realistic.