“Are we doing the right thing?” I asked my husband the night before our daughter’s sixth birthday, as I wrapped her present. “Or is this doll going to give her an eating disorder?”
“You know it’s not that simple,” my husband replied, for the third or fourth time that night.
“She’s just so skinny,” I complained, frowning at the doll in the box. “And I don’t like the way she sticks her butt out so suggestively.”
“We’ve given this a lot of thought, and at the end of the day, it’s just a doll,” he assured me.
I’ve never had a problem with my daughter playing with dolls; she’s been playing with Barbies since she entered the princess phase in preschool. Sure, I wondered what kind of impact playing with such impossibly perfect-looking dolls would have on her body image. I tried to throw an “I can be President” Barbie into the mix when I could, but I was a hard-core Barbie-lover myself as a kid, and really, dolls are supposed to be perfect-looking. After all, I wouldn’t take issue with a baby doll for not having cradle cap or newborn acne.
The doll I was wrapping, though, took whatever tiny, nagging concerns I had about Barbie to a whole new level. My daughter had been introduced to the line of dolls when visiting her older cousin, and from the moment she laid eyes on their perfect plastic faces, she was smitten. With the dolls’ huge eyes, colorful hair and eye-catching outfits, there’s no way a little girl could ever resist. The trouble is, the dolls, like so many, are ridiculously sexy. It’s not just their pointy breasts, pouty lips, shapely legs and arched backs that make their rear-ends stick out. The dolls are styled like streetwalkers, in platform heels and micro-minis. One doll — and I did a double take when I saw this — even wears garters.
I’m the first to admit that there was a time I dressed like a streetwalker myself. In my early 20s, my closet was full of animal prints, faux leather, and daisy dukes. I was, however, an adult (technically, at least) — a distinction I feel is important. I wouldn’t be a big fan of my daughter playing with sexy dolls in general, but the fact that these dolls are explicitly teens, not grown-ups like their Barbie counterparts, makes it doubly troubling. All it takes is a stroll down the tween girls’ aisle in a Halloween pop-up store to see how sexualized clothing is becoming for even the youngest girls; it’s a trend that disturbs me, and one I don’t want to support.
Besides the stripper outfits, there’s the weight problem. These dolls are practically skeletal. They make Barbie look obese.
All of this makes me seriously question whether these dolls are appropriate for my six-year-old. But I bought her one for her birthday, anyway.
I see what my daughter loves about the dolls, and honestly, I share her attraction to them. When I was her age, I spent all day every summer playing Barbies with my little sister. If these dolls had been around when I was six, I wouldn’t have rested ’til I clutched one in my hand. And now that I’m grown, I may not play Barbies anymore, but I am hooked on Barbie-type TV shows like Mad Men and Real Housewives of Orange County, and I read fashion magazines full of Barbie-esque models. It’s fantasy, an escape.
Of course, that’s not why I bought her the doll. My daughter wants all sorts of things that aren’t good for her — like soda and violent movies and a later bedtime and those teen sitcoms she begs to watch— and in those cases, I’ve drawn a hard line and just told her no, period. I could’ve banned these dolls in a similar way, but I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I know my daughter. She is strong-willed and tenacious and as such, I’ve found it critical to pick my battles with her. When she was three and I told her, “No nail polish allowed,” she sneaked into my bathroom, filched the polish, and applied it herself. I weighed the matter again and decided there was nothing wrong with nail polish as a special treat, as long as I helped. This worked better than I expected because as soon as the nail polish wasn’t verboten anymore, she quickly lost interest in it.
If I banned the dolls, she’d only want them more, and chances are she’d find a way to play with them at her friends’ houses or her cousin’s — just not with me. If that happened, I’d lose the chance to have a dialogue with her about them, the kind of dialogue we had the other day when we were playing with another of her dolls and my daughter observed, “Look what long hair she has!”
“In real life, almost no one has hair that long,” I told her. “Have you ever seen a girl with hair that long?”
“No,” she replied, “but I want to grow my hair like that.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I did, too.”
Then I pointed out that most people don’t have eyes that big and legs that thin and skin that smooth and that the reason her doll looks the way she does is because she’s a fictional character. In the real world, women come in all shapes and sizes: some have big noses or furry eyebrows or warts or beauty marks or jiggly bellies. Some have big or little breasts, long or short legs. In the real world, there are a lot of different ways to be beautiful.
She didn’t say much at the time, but a few days later when regarding the packaging of a curling iron in my bathroom, she remarked: “When we curled my hair, it wasn’t as curly as this woman’s is in the picture. Sometimes these pictures don’t tell the truth.”
I’m not naive enough to think that my lip service will negate the implicit message of the doll’s tiny waist or perfect makeup. They are just words, and I realize that. Still, they mean something, especially if I can get her to tell me what she thinks too, and if we can keep talking about it.
So after much browsing at the store, I found a doll from the line she’s so obsessed with, that I thought was pretty unobjectionable and decidedly perfect for my daughter: a curly haired girl donning capri pants and sneakers. The sneakers have heels, and she’s got the same impossible body shape as the others, but there are no garters, no hooker boots. She even plays the guitar. Rock on.
As I’d secretly hoped, within a week of getting the doll, my daughter’s fascination with it was fully extinguished. There was a day or two of passionate, rapturous play, another few days where she kept it handy and regarded it with satisfaction, and now, it’s all but abandoned, tossed in the toy chest along with fairy dress-up and my old Barbies.
But I don’t regret buying it for her. Like everything in parenting, it’s a balancing act. The doll gives me a way in and is not so egregious that the cost is too high for what I am getting in return: an open dialogue with my daughter about her feelings and thoughts — not just about her body but about what it means to be a girl in today’s world. Though I could ban them from our house, I can’t ban the billboards and commercials and product packaging that my daughter sees every day, which depict images of women in ways I think are damaging and negative. I can’t make all of that go away. All I can do is talk to her about it, tell her what I think, and listen to what she’s thinking, too. Hopefully, that’ll be good enough.