Like thousands of girls for the past 57 years, Erica Paluck played with Barbie dolls when she was younger.
Like me, she didn’t think anything of the doll’s long blond tresses or unnaturally proportionate figure. Sure, Barbie is a bit curvier – and skinnier – than most of us. But it’s just one of those things you accept when you play Barbies with your friends and dress her up in those very spangly outfits. That’s how Barbie always has looked.
Fast forward to 2016, and Paluck’s 4-year-old daughter, Skylar Williams, has started asking questions. “What color am I”? she asked her mother one day. Paluck, who is 28, is white. Skylar’s dad is black.
“She does say that she’s not white like Mommy and she wants her skin to be like Mommy’s,” said Paluck, who was surprised to hear her daughter ask such things. “I tell her her skin is beautiful the way she is.”
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But those kind of questions may be partially responsible for Mattel’s latest overhaul of its line of Barbie dolls. In January, Mattel announced with much fanfare, including a splashy Time magazine cover, that new dolls would join the popular “Fashionistas” line. The new dolls, according to Time, are an extension of Mattel’s efforts from 2015 that introduced additional skin tones and hair textures. With the additional dolls, which are slowly appearing in toy stores, Barbies now come in four body types (curvy, tall, petite and original); seven skin tones; 22 eye colors; and 24 hairstyles.
It’s all part of “The Evolution of Barbie,” the company boasts, or #TheDollEvolves. And in this era of #OscarsSoWhite controversies and Sports Illustrated making history by putting the first plus-size model on the cover of its Swimsuit Issue, maybe Mattel’s timing is just right.
A friend of Paluck’s recently gave Skylar a biracial Barbie as a present because she wanted Skylar to relate to a doll that shares the same skin color, Paluck said. Paluck emphasizes that she doubts her daughter considers whether her doll, which is thrown into a basket filled with Elsas and other Disney princesses, accurately reflects her skin tone. But Paluck appreciates its intent.
“I like this doll because my daughter likes it, and she knows it looks like her,” she says.
A history of Barbie
It seems like Barbie always has been playing defense for one reason or another. It’s enough to make her run off with Ken and hide on a deserted island, if only Ken weren’t so bland. (Speaking of makeovers, Ken could use a bit more edge, too.)
The adults I spoke with say we adults, and to an extent the media, have created this notion that Barbie should change to better reflect society.
“I never knew a single person who wanted to be Barbie,” said Linda Levine, who is president of the Central Carolina Fashion Doll Club and owns thousands of Barbie dolls. “No one says it’s realistic. ... It’s play. It’s imagination.”
The beauty of Barbie is that she can be anything the player imagines, Levine and others say. Mattel, which has faced years of declining Barbie sales, can label the box whatever it wants, Levine says. When it comes down to it, she says kids like pretty dolls with beautiful clothes.
“That’s what the kids are looking for,” she said. “They’re all looking for fun. They’re not looking to make a statement.”
Levine founded the Raleigh-based doll club in 2009, when Barbie turned 50 years old. The group, which calls itself the Pink Heels, regularly meets to talk about the dolls and has an occasional doll show. On Saturday, they’ll celebrate Barbie’s 57th birthday, complete with a cake topped with a picture of a retro-looking Barbie.
The topic of the new Barbie line has launched extensive chatter among the club’s members, Levine said. They’re certainly intrigued, and some have bought the dolls.
Levine, 43, is a virtual encyclopedia of Barbie trivia and once served on a collectors advisory panel for Mattel. She said Mattel has introduced dolls of different races for years, including a Hispanic doll in 1980, followed by an African-American doll. A line of Barbie friends also showcased diversity, such as Christie, a black doll, in the late ’60s.
Levine agrees that it’s important to have toys that are representative of society but thinks these new dolls might be fleeting.
“This is more about appealing to the naysayers,” she said.
As I walked through the Barbie aisle of the Cary Toys R Us, I noticed some diversity on the shelves filled with blondes. Even a newer Ken appears to be biracial, or he’s at least got darker hair and skin coloring than the traditional Ken.
I had flashbacks to toting my dolls to my friends’ homes, where there were dream houses and dream cars. One of my dolls came from the Barbie and the Rockers collection and was dressed in a midriff-baring pink-and-silver outfit with teased bangs – the requisite style of the day. You could bend her at the waist to make her arms move back and forth – or flail – in a move that I’m certain preceded vogueing and Madonna. My younger sister had a more age appropriate, and perhaps body appropriate, Skipper doll. After we did our homework and had afternoon snacks, the dolls entertained us until it was time for dinner.
Those memories became more vivid after I talked to Brooke Silveira, a 13-year-old who regularly plays Barbie with her 7-year-old sister, Hope, at their Holly Springs home. Their mother, Dina Silveira, bought them some dolls at a yard sale a few years ago, even though she, herself, didn’t play with them growing up. The girls were hooked. Or as Silveira describes it: “It’s a big deal in our house.”
“It’s kind of my happy place,” said Brooke, a seventh-grader at Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex. She explains that she uses Barbies to work through problems, like if she got a bad grade on a test.
“There are imaginary worlds where everything goes right,” she says.
Brooke, whose father is Portuguese, says she thinks having Barbies with diverse skin tones and body shapes is a good idea. Now, she says, everyone can find a doll who looks like them.
“Some people who are African-American have to pick the dolls who are white, and they may not feel good about themselves,” she said.
She takes it one step further when talking about the new body shapes, which stirred debate among the adults I talked to. The adults wondered whether a doll labeled “curvy” might encourage girls to stay that way. Brooke doesn’t think so, and in fact thinks a more normal shaped doll will reassure those girls that their body is just fine.
“Maybe some people have bigger waists than others,” she said. “They’ll think Barbie was the perfect size and the perfect shape and model. They’ll get plastic surgery for that. They don’t need it.”
Brooke makes me realize that Barbie will continue to reinvent herself, whether it’s to meet society’s expectations or just to generate new inspiration for playtime.
“They don’t have to fit the perfect American guidelines,” Brooke said. “Everyone is different in a way. There’s no such thing as perfect.”
Certainly Barbie knows that.