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As a child of the second wave of feminism, I idolized Gloria Steinem, Mary Tyler Moore and Helen Reddy.
That’s what I tell people, anyway.
The truth is my real feminist icon – the woman who inspired me to believe I could do almost anything – was Barbie.
I take a lot of flak for that. Many are quick to dismiss her because of her unrealistic figure, her feet that only fit in high heels, and that unfortunate “math is hard” incident. Some like to point out that if she were real, she wouldn’t be able to walk downstairs without falling over, thanks to her huge breasts.
Let me tell you what I saw as a little girl in the 1970s.
Most of the adult women in my life, my mother included, were housewives or had a “woman’s job” – secretary, teacher, bank teller or hair stylist. They did all the housework and child care, which meant they didn’t have much leisure time. And while some of them had a driver’s licence, most of them were dependent on their husbands, or their husbands’ cars, to get around. My future possibilities, as represented by those women, were limited and not much fun.
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My Barbie, however, had her own car: a bright red convertible. She had her own penthouse apartment, which she lived in alone. And she had fun. Lots of it. Barbie could roller skate, ice skate, ride a horse, scuba dive, windsurf, dance, go camping, swim, pilot a boat, ride a scooter and more.
She was financially independent and successful. Just look at all the careers she held: astronaut, firefighter, doctor, veterinarian, Mountie, chef, airline pilot, flight attendant, Olympic athlete, ballet dancer, pop star, the list goes on.
Most important, Barbie hung out with other Barbies as friends, and not just for Tupperware and Avon parties.
This encouraged little girls to get together. We’d grab our dolls and head to the basement, the backyard or somebody’s bedroom to play act the lives we envisioned for ourselves as Barbie adults. There was no competition, no winners and losers like in Sorry, Monopoly or even at skipping. There were no responsibilities: no babies needing diaper changes, bottles or baths; no houses needing to be vacuumed; no families needing to be fed.
Comic books and TV at the time were ramming the whole female-rivalry thing down our throats. Betty versus Veronica in Archie. Ginger versus Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. Velma versus Daphne on Scooby Doo.
We needed the men to pick us, but we couldn’t be choosy in return. Wilma stayed married to that man-child, Fred. Midge was probably too afraid to leave that violent Moose. And smart, sane women kept falling in love with Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen (let’s not go there) in the movies.
Barbie told us we didn’t need a man to be complete and we didn’t need to compete to get one. She was way ahead of her time in declaring Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
I’m not saying Ken and G.I. Joe weren’t in the picture. I’ll admit to playing dirty Barbie more than once. But for the most part, Ken and Joe were simply friends with benefits and my Barbie never settled down with either one. (Although she did enjoy trying on the dresses. Liking pretty clothes does not make me, or Barbie, less of a feminist.)
I didn’t totally fulfill my Barbie dreams of childhood. Instead of a bright, red convertible, I have a sensible Subaru. Instead of a penthouse apartment all my own, I share a townhouse with my husband. But I do have a career and a circle of close friends which I have lots of fun with.
Something happened in my late 40s that brought me closer to Barbie in a way I didn’t plan. My body changed. Maybe it was menopause, maybe it was my thyroid condition, but for some reason my breasts shot up from a B cup to a DD in just a little over a year.
I grew up in a society that treated women with large breasts as stupid, silly jokes. Comedians Benny Hill and even my beloved Monty Python all used such women as gags, as if their bust measurements exceeded their IQ.
It still goes on. In her book Boobs: A Guide to Your Girls, author Elisabeth Squires cites a workplace study that showed men view large-breasted women as “less personable and less professional than their average-breasted colleagues.”
Barbie and I are not bimbos. We – and the rest of our large-breasted sisters – do not deserve to be defined by, or dismissed because of, these bodies we didn’t ask for. And stop accusing us of flaunting them. You try dressing in a way that minimizes them but doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a boa constrictor for most of the day.
So if you’re worried about your little girl wanting to play with Barbie, lighten up and let her. You aren’t catering to sexist stereotypes. You aren’t risking raising an anti-feminist. Chances are very good she won’t grow up thinking she needs that body to get ahead. Brains and boobs are not sold separately; give your child credit for already knowing that. She just wants to hang out with Barbie – and have fun.
So let’s have a little more respect for the person who showed me the world is full of possibilities for women – breast size be damned.
She is Barbie. Hear her roar.
Margaret MacQuarrie lives in Dartmouth, N.S.