Barbie will turn 55 on March 9th and this year she’s getting more press than ever. Maybe that’s because the iconic Mattel doll made the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue recently.
Although I wasn’t happy about the magazine cover, I do have wonderful Barbie memories. As a young girl growing up in a large financially-struggling family, there wasn’t any money for Barbie outfits. That’s why I vividly recall the delight I experienced when my mother sewed an entire wardrobe for my blonde Barbie on her old Singer Sewing machine. A silver brocade gown was my favorite.
The timeless doll was originally created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, who along with her husband Elliot founded the Mattel Company in 1945 in their garage. According to www.mattel.com, Barbie quickly propelled Mattel to the “forefront of the toy industry” and by 1965 their sales were more than $100 million. In the meantime, Mattel also created the Ken doll in 1961 to serve as Barbie’s one true love.
The idea for Barbie was birthed through the paper cut-out dolls that Ruth’s daughter, who was named Barbara, enjoyed playing with. Just like Barbie, who was named for the Handler’s daughter, Ken was named for their son. Barbie’s friends, the Midge doll (1963) and Skipper (1965) were also added to the line. In 1968, Christie, Barbie’s African American friend was introduced. The company’s website reports that Christie was the “first of many ethnic friends of Barbie, which …include Theresa (1988) and Kira (1990) Barbie Latina and Asian friends.”
Who would have guessed that fifty-five years after her introduction, Barbie would still be inspiring young girls and adult collectors everywhere? Barbie products have included everything from dolls and accessories to jewelry, eyeglass frames, pillows, backpacks, digital items, and even McDonald’s Happy Meal packaging.
For many of us, Barbie has been part of our own history as women. About five years ago, the Mattel doll became even more personal for me. This was due to an elegant woman named Reggie who I met on a cruise ship. This was my one and only cruise, since I spent the whole time being seasick. The sixty-something female accountant practically gushed when she told me that she once represented Mattel’s Barbie to Toronto stores. I was seated next to the blonde French Canadian every night for supper, a meal which I valiantly tried to keep down. We were from different countries, but Barbie had somehow worked her way into our collective hearts. We giggled like school girls as we discussed the doll’s early days and her unprecedented success in the toy market with both of our husbands looking on in quizzical dismay.
Feeling nostalgic, that Christmas I bought my then four-year-old niece a Barbie to start her own collection. However, when I arrived with the present, I found my little red-haired relative carelessly clutching an already naked Barbie who was having an obviously bad hair day from being drug around.
After all, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Barbie. For example, some folks are deeply concerned about her unrealistic dimensions. The fashion doll’s measurements vary on Internet websites, but would be an approximate 39/36-18/16-33 if she were a real person. Talk about a catalyst for eating disorders and low self-esteem, since young girls and even older females have a difficult enough time accepting their flawed bodies without being faced with Barbie’s unattainable role model.
Adding the plastic doll to the other models being sexually objectified by Sports Illustrated hasn’t helped either. In explanation, “Swimsuits (and unrealistic body images) were never the same after the first doll rolled off the assembly line in 1959 and this is, after all, Sports Illustrated’s 50th anniversary swimsuit issue..,” according to Cindy Boren in a Feb. 18, 2014, Early Lead column in the Washington Post.
After fifty-five years, I do wonder if the female race is better for having known her. For more than five decades, our own body images have been sabotaged by a doll, with an unattainable perfect build that never wrinkles. But we can’t blame Barbie for all of this, or can we?
Apparently, last year’s sales statistics portrayed a decline in Barbie’s popularity, too. In a July 2013 AP article by Mae Anderson for the Associated Press the headline read, “Mattel’s Barbie Sales Plummeting While other Girls Brands Climb.” Maybe that’s why, desperate marketers put her on the cover of a men’s magazine last month.
Well anyway, “Happy 55th Birthday, Barbie! I still love your perfect little self and treasure my memories, but only time will tell, if you’re here to stay.
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and an inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.