Cleveland hosted the National Barbie Convention this weekend. Who knew there was an entire convention dedicated to this doll? The convention included a Barbie fashion show, advice on how to style your Barbie's hair, a workshop on knitting for your Barbie and vintage Barbie T-shirts. Until recently, I would have had quite a few things to say about this over-the-top homage this doll. But I read an incredible book this year that helped me see Barbie in a new light.
Barbie, as beautiful as she is, has had a tough life. She's not well liked by everyone. In fact, Barbie has taken a lot of heat for damaging women's body images, or at least being a symbol for it.
While I've never been a big fan of Barbie due to the casual link between body image issues and this blonde bombshell, my perception of Barbie recently changed after reading Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber. This is a biography of Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie.
The book seemed to point to this conclusion (warning: book spoiler). The development of Barbie was not intended to damage women's self image but appeared to pump of the self-esteem of one woman, Ruth Handler. Her own self-esteem hinged on being a successful business woman and Barbie is simply how she got to the top.
The book begins with an overview of Ruth Handler early life. This is important to the story. She was the youngest of ten children and raised by her oldest sister. Ruth never lived with her biological, immigrant parents. Instead, her older sister, a business woman, was her surrogate parent.
Prior to manufacturing Barbie, Ruth and her husband, an artist, had a number of different businesses that eventually landed on toy making. Ruth modeled Barbie after a doll she found in Germany while on vacation. The German doll was actually fashioned after a prostitute and was a toy for men. Until this time, dolls were baby dolls and did not have the body of an adult woman.
When Ruth proposed the idea of Barbie, the people around her were clearly not in favor of it. In fact, they seemed a little shocked and appalled. They did not think that mothers would want their daughters playing with a doll that had a mature, sexualized body. Ruth was aware of this objection but was not deterred by it.
What was she thinking? She claims that she had no idea this doll would be linked with feminism or body image issues. As you read the book, you get the idea that her mind really was elsewhere. She didn't seem to grasp or be thinking about the big picture. Nor did she have real connections with friends, other mothers or children. True relationships may have helped her to understand that toys do impact kids' social development. To her, they were dollars and cents.
On the other hand, Ruth indicated that girls projected themselves into their fantasy play with dolls. Girls want to be older girls. They could project who they wanted to be onto adult dolls they played with. So, in some ways, she may have actually helped women to start practicing other roles, besides being a mother, earlier in their life. Barbie could do anything-travel, work, or play. Girls were not trapped into one role as a mother as was the case when they played with baby dolls.
Why did Ruth disregard baby dolls? She probably did so because she didn't have a strong bond with her own biological mother. She wasn't familiar with the roll of mother, as was later evident with her own two children. She struggled to have a close relationship with her children, Barbie and Ken (who she later named the dolls after).
Ruth was no stranger to controversial toys. Her company released the Burp Gun. She was aware that it was a controversial toy and hired a marketing psychologist to try to explain away the possible negative impact on children. The psychologist indicated that both the gun and Barbie doll could have some psychologically negative impacts on children. It's interesting that the Burp Gun has faded but Barbie is still around. Perhaps there were more objections to children playing with guns than possible body image disturbances?
Ruth's life was riddled by hardship. Throughout her life, she was constantly borrowing money, taking huge risks, hiring and firing people left and right. Sadly, she loses her homosexual son, Ken, to AIDS. She is charged with a crime and almost goes to jail. Again, the need to be successful and bolster her own self-esteem in superficial ways may have been Ruth's greatest downfall.
What is ironic is that Ruth, the person who introduced the word to dolls with breasts, lost her own due to breast cancer. What she took away from women's body image via Barbie, she redeemed herself a bit with women struggling with breast cancer. Ruth developed the first breast prosthetic created by a woman. Prior to this, the prosthetics were developed by men, uncomfortable and not life like. Her invention was remarkable and she changed the lives of women everywhere. Letters poured in from breast cancer survivors around the world thanking Ruth for helping their self-esteem after losing a breast. It was her first taste of a real connection with other women.
Barbie's negative symbolism and impact on body image clearly overshadows the rest of the story. Ruth was one of the first female entrepreneurs, was a woman who took risks, and someone who help women with breast cancer recover their self-esteem.
The Lesson: We all have to be mindful of how we build and nurture our own self-esteem. Enduring self-esteem comes from positive, genuine relationships, not success, in business or academics, that comes and goes. What keeps us grounded? Real connections with others. Thank you to the author of this interesting, well-written book. It's likely that I may not be in love with Barbie. But, I don't hate her anymore.
By Dr. Susan Albers, clinical psychologist and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Eating Mindfully.
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