She dragged her new Barbie doll on the floor, at the age of three. I buried mine in the backyard, just ‘to see what happens’. I was six in my defence.
My colleague Maria Botros relates her only experience with a Barbie doll with much relish. I asked tentatively whether she ever played with one, and if the perfect doll ever gave her body image issues. “Oh no, I just dragged her around on the floor, the moment I got her. My parents still relate this story to everyone. I was too much of a tomboy; I never cared for dolls,” she explains. Needless to say, no one gifted her a Barbie after that. She was more into GI Joe action figures; they were far more exciting.
On the other hand, my macabre tendencies with the doll occurred much later. At the age of four, I found them all rather beautiful, and enjoyed brushing their silky hair. There were all kinds of Barbies, including the ‘Play-time’ Barbie, the fashionable Hollywood Barbie who had several glam outfits, though my parents refused to buy that one. Perhaps I was too young to verbalise it at the time, but looking back, I too, was fascinated by Barbie’s impeccable beauty. It was my first understanding of what beauty really meant, even if I couldn’t explain it at the time.
At the age of five, I saw them as entirely perfect beings, whom I could dress up and play with. When I turned six, I grew rather restless, and scribbled all over their faces, and buried one in the backyard. Their heads kept falling off, and I think I scared the living daylights out of my parents when they saw me staring rather confused in the middle of broken dolls. I swiftly moved to stuffed toys, perhaps because they felt more real to me. And later, GI Joe action figures, because there was now a shift in my interests. Fighting, rather than tea-time with dolls, was the norm now.
As it turns out, Barbie dolls have been a looming presence in most children’s lives. At least in some point of our lives, most of us have a memory of playing with this perfectly formed doll, and enjoyed dressing her up, or brushing her hair. However, in light of the new Barbie film that will release in UAE at the end of August, there has been much discussion on whether the doll gave unrealistic body image expectations to children.
Recently, in the US, a nationwide survey was conducted. Out of 1000 women, the survey found 69 per cent think Barbie dolls can lead to body image issues. Beyond that, 82 per cent said Barbie portrays unrealistic body expectations to girls and women. Fifty three per cent of Gen Z women think Barbie represents the “ideal” body type, and nearly 1 in 2 women admit to comparing their own appearance to a Barbie doll.
So, the question is, did our toys define us subconsciously, and we didn’t know about it? We spoke to several women across the UAE, who shared different memories and perceptions of playing with the doll.
‘Barbie is just a plastic doll. Nothing more, and nothing less.’
People take things too seriously these days and musing too much about something that doesn’t need so much introspection, believes 52-year-old Claudia Becks, a Dutch receptionist, based in Abu Dhabi. For a girl who grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s, Becks says she never thought that she was influenced by Barbie or any other toy. “Barbie is just a plastic doll. Nothing more, nothing less,” says Beck. “I am not sure if anyone in those days had that issue. Barbie and other toys were just toys,” she says. “They were for our imagination, as it should be for any child. It is part of a child’s development, and is important, whether it is Barbie, or a plastic bucket with a paper boat.”
Barbie dolls were for our imagination, as it should be for any child. It is part of a child’s development, and is important, whether it is Barbie, or a plastic bucket with a paper boat.
Beck feels the recent discourse regarding Barbie creating body image issues is a result of much ‘over-thinking’, and people being overtly sensitive. “There was no social media during my time,” she says, asserting that the constant flood of information is killing the spirit of many children. The real issue comes from fashion brands that argue for the ‘perfect body image’ and a lot of what is shown on television. Barbie is least of the problems, she feels.
“That’s where the problem lies, not with dolls. I think parents need to educate their children in a realistic way about life. Children understand more than what parents think, if explained correctly,” she says.
We really had it easier back then, agrees 55-year-old Nicola Gardini, an American senior financial controller living in Abu Dhabi. “I didn’t feel defined by Barbie dolls. When I think back to 1970s, it was not important what kind of body shape someone had, as long as they could run through fields, or climb trees. I don’t think Barbie is the one who makes girls defined by a body type, she says. These issues come from listening to many influencers.”
‘A medium for storytelling’
Ellie James, a 37-year-old American psychologist based in Dubai, fondly recalls the ‘tea parties’ she used to throw with her dolls. A child needs to participate in the fun world of make-believe, as it stimulates their imagination and storytelling abilities. “Aren’t toys meant to encourage imagination? It helps children craft this world of make-believe. It helps them to feel safe and comfortable. I used to have so much fun planning tea parties with the dolls and making a house for them in my cupboard. I loved pretending to be a part of this imaginary world, and planning professions for them. And my parents encouraged it,” she says. “My body image issues came from my classmates, who used to bully me for being overweight. It also came from watching television soaps, films where all the women were thin, and plus-sized women were treated as some sort of comic relief and mocked. That’s where my problem lay. It wasn’t with the Barbie dolls,” she says.
James believes that most toys do not define a child; it all comes down to what they absorb from their environment and the flood of information that comes from social media. “It depends on what the parents tell them. If the parents, teachers, or friends keep telling them that they need to be in shape like Barbie, or keep emphasising some unattainable standards of beauty, then the child will grow up thinking that they need to be like Barbie,” she says. She asserts that if a child indeed starts believing that Barbie is a standard of perfection and beauty, the parents should step in and correct this idea. “The parents need to be a lot more observant. If the child starts doing make-up and dressing up like a Barbie, you have a problem, right there. If the child is just innocently playing with the doll, without excess thoughts of beauty and figure, you’re okay,” she says.
My body image as a teen and even as a child, was hardly influenced by toys. They were companions, imaginary friends, and helped my storytelling abilities.
Thirty-five-year-old Dina Maaty, an Egyptian expat and media professional based in Dubai, agrees with this point of view. “My body image as a teen and even as a child, was hardly influenced by toys. They were companions, imaginary friends, and helped my storytelling abilities.” Like James, her body image was also influenced by her peers, celebrities and magazines. Mina Liccione, a Dubai-based comedian, says she also never thought about 'body image issues' back then, and for her, it was all about fashion. "It was all about creating voices for the dolls, playing out different scenes and scenarios," she says. Devina Pandey, a Thai national and marketing professional in Dubai echoes similar sentiments. "We would create similar storylines that would keep us engrossed for hours," she says. Each doll had its own name and personality, and Pandey thoroughly enjoyed this world of make-believe."I admired a barbie's hair and make-up, but I never compared myself to her, or felt defined by one," she says.
I never thought about body image when playing with Barbie dolls. It was all about fashion, creating voices for the dolls and playing out different scenes and scenarios.
A mother and daughter’s view…
Barbie has been around for years, and she doesn’t plan to go anywhere soon. The film Barbie has brought about the ‘Barbie-mania’, which sees many nostalgically remembering their childhood memories with their dolls.
The doll has passed through generations, as in the case of 36-year-old Kerry Farla, a South African expat, part-time administrator and home-maker based in Dubai. She indulges her daughter in this fun world, where they cover the bedroom floor with a dream house, shop and make-over center. “We are constantly redecorating Barbie’s house, brushing her hair and dressing her nicely. We have a great time and bond so much over these moments,” she says.
We would just focus on their outfits, shoe-wear and doing their hair, ensuring we have a good variety of dolls in our collection for the number of stories we could create. We would give them names and each doll would have its personality that would blossom as the stories we create would progress.
Thinking back to her childhood, Farla says that as she would have no siblings, she played with Barbie dolls for hours. “I never thought that Barbie was too thin, or had a huge head. I adored that she was so immaculately presented, always looking good, with painted nails, makeup and finely brushed hair,” she says. Farla says that toys are just inanimate objects that can only come to life, by virtue of a person’s imagination. “If you perceive them as negative, then they will take on these negative characteristics.” She says that most of these negative connotations come from adults. “Children are not aware of such issues, unless it is communicated to them,” she says. Her daughter doesn’t comment on Barbie’s figure or looks. “She’s seven years old. It does not even cross her mind. As a kid, you just want to play. You are not worried about these issues,” she says.
‘I wanted to dress like her’
Nevertheless, while many were not so troubled with Barbie and her body-image, there were those who were subconsciously influenced by it. Tazeen Jafri, a PR consultant based in Sharjah, was deeply impacted by Barbie’s pristine beauty, long legs and immaculate figure. “I wanted to be like her, and have those sleek, thin and long legs,” says Jafri. “I wanted to dress like her too. It made me believe that the skimpier clothes were, the more attractive or beautiful you were,” she adds. Jafri adds that she started wearing make-up at an early age, inspired by Barbie’s glowing looks. She even tried wearing more tightly fitted clothes.
However, as she grew older, she gradually changed her philosophy and realised that ‘beauty is in the soul’, rather than the dolls. “I realised it is beyond the skin. So I packed up all my Barbie dolls, and stopped playing with them completely,” she says. Thirty-nine-year-old Sajda, a British expat echoes similar sentiments and says that she felt Barbie dolls feed a 'false' narrative of beauty, as she felt they did not have real figures. "It's a false perception of beauty that is being shoved down our throats," she says.
Barbie does hold fascination for most children in different ways, even if they cannot verbalise it. There’s something enchanting about dressing them with glamorous outfits, and brushing their silky hair. Sonia Abbas Shah, a Pakistani and visual senior journalist based in Dubai, recalls how she and her two sisters were entranced by the different editions of Barbie dolls. “Each of them had a different hair colour and texture. It was so smooth and silky, just like in shampoo ads. We were obsessed, and wondered why we didn’t have such hair. I remember asking our mum to do something so that it could be like Barbie’s hair. I wanted the same colour,” she says.
Each Barbie doll had a different hair colour and texture. It was so smooth and silky, just like in shampoo ads. We were obsessed, and wondered why we didn’t have such hair. I remember asking our mum to do something so that it could be like Barbie’s hair. I wanted the same colour...
As evident, Barbie dolls bring out different emotions in different people. Some saw it as a visual for storytelling, a tool to further their imagination. Some saw it as just as a toy that they played with; something that was important once and doesn’t deserve so much discourse now. Others, however, did see it as a beauty standard that they should aspire to. “After all, these are formative experiences for a child. They are easily impressionable, and it does affect them subconsciously and can possibly form their first ideas of conventional beauty, even if they cannot say it. They might not feel defined by it, but the impact is there. It is beneficial for their imagination for sure, but also can make them believe in unrealistic beauty expectations,” adds American Diana Reid, a wellness expert and life-coach based in Dubai.