posted April 20, 2009


Photo by Katryna Nields

Today as I was getting into my car in the Whole Foods parking lot, a woman pulled in next to my passenger side, so close that I was afraid she was going to nick my bumper. Now I would have to wait for her to exit her vehicle before I could leave. I was anxious to get home and see my kids and have some lunch and play with Tom who was off for Patriot’s Day. The woman caught my eye and gave me an apologetic look. Then I heard a familiar sound: a determined wail. She opened the door abutting my passenger side and squeezed her way to the door in back of her to reveal a one-year old who had that sort of stunned and dazed look I often see in second children. Over the one-year-old’s shoulder was her three-year-old sister, red-faced, tear-stained and screaming. The woman unbuckled the younger child from her seatbelt; somehow the older child had already unbuckled herself and broken free, which made me think how on EARTH did that happen? This too is in my future? I didn’t know that was possible!

The mother remained calm; she turned back and waved me along kindly. I felt like I should have jumped out of my car and lent a hand. When does a mother of two NOT need a lent hand?

But instead I carried on with my mission of the morning; I was on my way to Marshall’s to buy my almost-three-year old (drum roll, please….) BIG GIRL UNDERPANTS!!!!!

 I am more excited about the underpants than Elle is, so I was disappointed in the limited selection. I was assuming that if I were willing to forego my no-sweat-shop standards and shop in a Big Box store, I would be rewarded by a vastness of choice unsurpassed in the known universe. I had in mind aisles and aisles of options, undies emblazoned with the faces of everyone from Elmo to cartoon Beatles plastered on the bums of tiny panties. Instead there was Dora the Explorer (in size 8 only), a series of Disney princesses…and Barbie.

Many of my readers know how I feel about Barbie, since I wrote and recorded the poem at the end of this post in 1998. I adored Barbie dolls when I was a little girl Elle’s age, and continued to adore her until I was about 12. But by then, I did know they were super uncool, so pretended to hate them, though secretly Katryna and I would continue our intricate dramatic play involving our home-made Barbie townhouse (plastic shelving and a Barbie elevator we’d scored at a tag sale, to which we attached a sturdy string.

They were so tall and pretty. Looking back, I think girls like me liked Barbies because they were just plain better dolls than Raggedy Anns and those cheap dollhouse dolls whose legs wouldn’t move from their hips. Everyone appreciates a good tool, and Barbies were good tools. My mother thought they were horrible and refused to buy me one, but I managed to fill my shelves with Barbies traded in sketchy backyard deals for stuffed animals and 10¢ fake diamond rings from the gum-ball machine. I had a Malibu Barbie, a Ballerina Barbie, a Skipper (including the Growing-Up Skipper with optional breasts) and a PJ doll, each of whom seemed distinguished from one another by the size of their breasts (Barbie’s= biggest; Skipper’s=nonexistent, except in the case of Growing-Up Skipper in which case optional; PJ’s=modest little bumps that weren’t nearly as severe and intimidating as Barbie’s.)

I know I can’t keep Elle from loving Disney princesses or Hannah Montana or Barbie or monster trucks or anything else I find to be outside of my own aesthetic comfort zone. More importantly, and more seriously, I know I can’t keep her from the kind of discomfort with one’s body that so many women in my generation share. Does my own distorted sense of what’s normal for a woman come from playing with Barbies? Maybe, maybe not. Did my mother try to protect me from both Barbies and from the kind of self-hatred that leads to an eating disorder? Absolutely. And it didn’t work.

I am well today. I am a healthy weight and I love food, and I love my body. I am careful never to criticize it or any other woman’s in front of Elle (or at all). I am even careful about looking at myself in a full-length mirror in front of her. But I am not her whole world, and with each year that goes by, I expect to become less and less influential to her experience. I will do my best to keep her from images on TV and in magazines that might feed the madness that makes girls think they have to go on diets before they’re eighteen. And I will do my best to feed her abundant nutritious whole foods and keep the junk to a minimum without being a food nazi. I want her to know from the inside when her body is hungry and when she’s had enough.

But today she is still two, and today I bought her some pink and green  undies with frogs and hearts on them. When I presented them to her, she gasped, and without a word stripped off her pants and plain cotton pull-ups and tried on one of her new pairs. She ran around our backyard with her own characteristic high-stepping gait that speaks of a pure unaffected joy, and I wish for her, almost more than anything, to keep that confidence for the rest of her life. If there is anything I can do in service of this wish, you can be sure I will.

And to that mom in the parking lot: bless you. Thank you for reminding me that there are so many of us in this juggling act, and I hope you noticed the great deal on avocados in the produce section.

Barbi Poem

I think that I shall never see
A woman as lovely as Barbie.
Barbie with her ski jump nose
Standing tall on tiny toes
Impossible boobs that will not droop
(To conquer Ken, she need not stoop)
If she were mortal she would be
Six foot five and a hundred and three
She’s so tall I could not feel shorter
Small wonder I have an eating disorder
She sleeps in her camper next to my bed
With visions of traveling filling her head
She wishes she could sing like me
But she can’t
Her mouth is painted on
And her eyes won’t shut
And she never bleeds
And she never cuts
And she cannot read or count or cry
And she’ll never age
And she’ll never die
And I think that I don’t want to be
Staring straight ahead for all eternity.

The Comments

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  1. Hi Nerissa,

    When my sister and I played with our dolls as children, we always pretended that the Barbie dolls were the stupidest ones among the residents of Doll-town. As an adult, I find it amusing how we, at such an early age, picked up on the stereotype of the beautiful, buxom, blondes as being flakier than Special K cereal. Our mom (who was a baby boomer and part of the feminist movement of the 70’s) taught us that brains are more important than looks, and that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Although her lessons served us well, I still today often look in the mirror and say, “I’m too fat. I need to lose weight. I have too many pimples on my chin. My hair looks gross. I look ugly today.” Unfortunately, I think it’s a part of being a woman in 21-st century America and I think it’s something that all of us think from time to time.
    But as a very wise colleague of mine once said, if someone else were to say to us, “You look ugly and fat,” it would be considered abuse and we wouldn’t put up with it. Yet we frequently criticize and abuse ourselves, and self-abuse can be just as damaging to our self esteem as abuse from others.
    Right now, as I sit and type this, I am listening to the slow version of “Easy People” on your live album and remiscing about the wonderful time I had at your house on Saturday night when we all sat around your living room and sang along with you. It was such a blessing to be able to share such a wonderful experience with you and your family. I thank you for that gift and for the wisdom and knowledge I have gained from you not only on the writing retreat, but since I have started working with you and through your music, books, and blogs.
    God Bless you!

  2. Lila’s probably not old enough to appreciate this yet, but Amy Poehler’s online show, “Smart Girls at the Party,” offers some great examples of young girls who are confident and wise. Only 7 min./episode, too. Originally (and ironically), the show was sponsored by Barbie. When I’ve watched a few episodes recently, though, I haven’t seen the ads.

  3. Actually, almost anything by Cosy Sheridan is probably relevant to this post. I originally had the song “How will the Center Hold” in mind, but couldn’t find it online.

  4. Oh gosh, if I had a nickel for every time I berated myself for being too fat, too short, too ugly, I’d be a wealthy woman. What’s funny is that I don’t know where it all comes from sometimes. I have a husband who loves me, imperfections and cellulite and all, and has found me attractive at a whole myriad of different weights. And yet, the self loathing remains. Are we conditioned from childhood to hate our bodies? Can we protect the young ones from it? I don’t know.

    I did play with Barbies as a kid. I think they indirectly fostered my early skills as a playwright because I’d invent such elaborate plots for their plastic little lives. I suppose that’s one good thing that came out of it, that and the memories I have of me and my friend Bridget sitting on the floor of my room, playing Barbies for hours and hours and hours.

  5. I had one Barbie, Angel Haired Barbie… died blonde and brown hair, a beautiful gown… I think I even broke her arm off once by accident.

  6. Hi!
    I just found your blog and I am enjoying it very much.
    My newly three-year-old bean hasn’t latched on to Barbie or princesses beyond a peripheral awareness that, a.) They show up occasionally on other kid’s sneakers and lunchboxes, and B.) They’re supposed to be “be-yoo-tiful…” While the Bean has a healthy amount of appreciation for bling, she just isn’t as into dolls and frou-frou as I was when I was her age. She’d rather be smooshing up pinecones and trying to feed them to the dogs. I’m not entertaining any fantasies that I’ve dodged this bullet yet- I know that three is just barely the tip of the gender/aesthetics/identity/body image iceberg.
    I do, however, have a secret plan up my sleeve, should Barbie get her little, plastic, flipper-mitts on my girl. I’m thinking of telling the bean that Barbie is a drag queen. As a girly feminist, I loooove drag because it takes glamour and puts it in a transgressive context. Drag highlights the idea that glamour is artifice- an illusion that is temporary.
    Besides, who else would wear stilettos and a pink lamé gown to the grocery store?

    (Congratulations on the big girl underpants, by the way!)

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