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"Before I met Holly, I wouldn’t have imagined that what I perceived as an example of a physically compromised, materialistic, sexist toy for girls could ever come with such a different story, let alone one so powerful." (Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

"Before I met Holly, I wouldn’t have imagined that what I perceived as an example of a physically compromised, materialistic, sexist toy for girls could ever come with such a different story, let alone one so powerful." (Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

How Barbie Changed a Black Girl's Life

Holly's mother made sure that Barbie, a doll her daughter adored, would not convey the persistent sexist and racist messages of the time. She turned Barbie into the key to empowering her impressionable daughter.

Zoe Weil

 by Psychology Today

As a child, I loved Barbie dolls and crafting Barbie stories with my friends. Getting a new outfit for Barbie—especially when I could pick it out myself at the nearby toy store—filled me with joy. But I grew up on Marlo Thomas' "Free to Be You and Me" and Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman, hear me roar ..." so it didn't take long for me to start questioning Barbie's absurd high-heel-ready feet, disproportionately large breasts, and long legs, and her astonishing materialism that had subtly impacted both my self-image and my desires.

As a tween and teen during the 1970s' second-wave feminist and nascent environmental movements, I felt as if I was waking up from the 1950s' values of my parents. When my mother wanted to teach me to cook, I refused. She'd never taught my brother, four years older than I, so I sure wasn't going to buy into the sexism inherent in her desire to prepare me to be a good wife who would cook the family meals. (Ironically, I wound up being the designated cook in our household, but my husband is the designated dishwasher and housecleaner, so I call it good.)

By the time I graduated from college, I'd gotten rid of the high-heeled shoes I'd worn to boost both my 5'1" height and my self-image, despite my mother's objections. "But they make you taller," she'd implored. I stopped wearing make-up, too, ignoring my mother's comment, "But it makes you prettier." By the time I was in graduate school, and a full-fledged second-wave feminist and environmentalist, I was busy deconstructing the sexist, consumerist messages conveyed by Barbie.

My colleague, Holly Rodriguez, 13 years younger than I, also loved Barbie dolls as a child, but the message she gleaned was quite different. Barbie changed her life.

Reframing Barbie

Holly's mother entered college in 1964 with dreams of becoming a teacher. Two years later, rheumatic fever nearly killed her, and instead of returning to college after she recovered from her lengthy illness, she got engaged to Holly's father. Not finishing her degree was one of the biggest regrets of her life, so when she had Holly, she was adamant that her daughter graduate from college.

She perceived her Black Barbies as independent, career-oriented, self-sufficient, kickass examples of what Black women could accomplish. Holly's mom wanted to make sure her children had a sense of love and appreciation for their brown skin, so she painted any kind of figurine that came into the house brown. Growing up in the south, Black dolls—especially Black Barbie dolls—were uncommon, and Holly's original Barbies were white, so Holly's mom asked Holly's dad, a jazz musician, to buy Black Barbies whenever he performed in Washington, DC. While her friends had white Barbies, Holly's collection of Black Barbies grew.

When Holly was six, her mother called her into the family room. She had a pink Barbie Corvette convertible on her lap and a Ken doll in her hand. (For those who don't know, Ken is Barbie's boyfriend.)

"I want to show you something," Holly's mom said as she attempted to put the Ken doll in the driver's side of Barbie's car. "You see this?"

"He doesn't fit, Mommy," answered Holly.

"That's right," she said, putting the car and the Ken doll down. "He doesn't fit into the driver's side of Barbie's car because it's her car, not Ken's."

She pointed to all of Holly's Barbie toys. "And you see how Barbie's name is on everything?" she continued. "That's because all of these things belong to Barbie. She owns them. You know why?"

"No," Holly answered.

"Barbie owns all of her own things because she went to college, and because she went to college, she has had many careers—teacher, model, businesswoman, and much more."

Holly remembers her mom looking at her intently and saying, "One day, you are going to grow up and go to college, and when you do, you'll be able to have any career you want, just like Barbie. And then you will be able to get whatever you want on your own, by yourself, and not have to depend on anybody else to get you what you want."

And that's exactly what happened. Holly's mother made sure that Barbie, a doll her daughter adored, would not convey the persistent sexist and racist messages of the time. She turned Barbie into the key to empowering her impressionable daughter.

Holly continues to love Barbie dolls because Barbie was her role model. She perceived her Black Barbies as independent, career-oriented, self-sufficient, kickass examples of what Black women could accomplish.

The importance of our stories

Before I met Holly, I wouldn't have imagined that what I perceived as an example of a physically compromised, materialistic, sexist toy for girls could ever come with such a different story, let alone one so powerful.

I'm reminded that the stories we are told (and that we tell ourselves), and the ways in which realities are framed and perceived, can diverge profoundly. I came to see Barbie as a woman who couldn't even stand on her own two feet. Thanks to the story Holly's mother told her, Holly saw Barbie as a woman who could not only stand on her own two feet but who also represented a mother's faith in her daughter's ability to achieve her own dreams and aspirations.

While Barbie may not have been my role model, Holly's late mom now is.


© 2021 Psychology Today

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), where she created the first graduate programs in comprehensive Humane Education linking human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection offered online through an affiliation with Antioch University. She has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed TEDx, “The World Becomes What You Teach," and is the author of seven books including "The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries" and "Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life" (2009).

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