Learning to Live in Barbie World

-Mar 24, 2006

Of late, I have been revisiting a moral high ground I have held for a very long time. And I wonder if readers of this journal can help me figure this one out.

Here are some of the questions I have been puzzling over.

Have I been wrong to consciously avoid the purchase, all these years, of toys such as Barbie dolls and related accessories, for my four and a half year old daughter Indira? How many fairy and princess costumes does one little girl really need? Should I make sure she has nice hair accessories to match all her clothes? Should I buy trinkets such as necklaces and bracelets quite often, so that she too has boxes full of these things like some of her friends, though to my mind a couple of each is enough already? And most important of all – how many pairs of shoes is enough? (I could write a whole another essay about that vexed question alone.)

Before the kids came along, it was so easy in my naiveté to decide my position on the whole Barbie thing, based on the bashing that this doll receives from “thinking” types. I remember reading that someone worked out once that if Barbie were a real woman, she would probably be very unhealthy, based on her body measurements. I was obviously never therefore going to introduce such a bad role model as a toy to my children. Of course, having been a teenager myself, I recognize the power of peer pressure. But I suppose my husband – who has similar views – and I thought we would just need to explain, as we went along, lovingly but firmly that we were just not the type of parents who were going to spend a lot of money on unrealistically proportioned dolls, fancy dresses, etcetera. So I hadn’t expected that it would be me, not the children, who would begin questioning whether my attitude isn’t perhaps too high-minded for the real world.

I suppose I cherished the hope that Indira would always be pleased and satisfied enough with the sort of toys her father and I believe in and tend to buy, that she wouldn’t really miss -or at least a surfeit thereof – the more frippery items. A globe that doubles as a room lamp, books to help her learn to read and do basic math, jigsaw puzzles, craft sets, kites that we fly together on the beach – these are the things that we tend to think of, when her father and I go shopping for our kids. To her credit, Indira most enthusiastically worked on a DIY kit to make a stained glass frame for a clock that I hang proudly in my kitchen. And yesterday, we worked together to make a letter holder for the mail that otherwise clutters up the dining table.

But lately the requests for the girly stuff have grown each time she comes back from visits to the homes of some of her friends. She always seems to have had the time of her life playing pretend princesses with them, as they try on all the different dresses and accessories at hand – and most of these girls seem to have loads of the stuff.

Luckily for Indira, she has indulgent and loving aunts and uncles thanks to whom she possesses most of these objects of desire. But I confess that her father and I have not added to her little collection in any big way, so that her pretend stuff tends to be limited, at any given point in time, to perhaps one princess dress, a few pieces of jewelry, a couple of pretty hand bags.

In my defense, I point out to her that whereas Emilie has eight pairs of shoes and Indira has only five (even counting her wellies) and Indira has only one princess dress while Candice has three, she –Indira, that is – has a large collection of books already while her current role model friends have far fewer. What I am trying to explain to my daughter here is that people can make different choices; that all of us buy and collect different things, depending on what we consider more interesting and important. This line of reasoning, I am gratified to note, seems to convince, but only until the next visit to the house of one of her girl friends.

(Note to self – am I taking refuge in a type of reverse snobbery?)

How do I satisfy this interest that has grown to the point of obsession perhaps in part due to me own failure until now to not give in as much as or as often as she wants? If I continue to impose my bias against such icons as Barbie and the Disney Princesses on the choices she wants to make, I worry that I will end up with a child who will be rebellious and sulky because she thinks I am unreasonably strict.

I was further scared of what road I might push my children on, when another mother told me that upon returning home after a shopping trip she discovered that her daughter had walked out of one of the stores with a hair band hidden in her pocket. It seems she decided to take it away in that fashion because she was sure her mother would refuse to buy it for her!

The other thing that struck me some time ago is that perhaps children here have a little more by way of life’s little luxuries because they receive some of these things as gifts from fond grandparents and relatives on occasions such as Christmas and birthdays. So maybe I ought to be making up for that lack in my children’s’ life, living as they do so far away from their own Nani and Dada?

I have decided therefore to go with the flow for a while and indulge her a little.

(Though I am certain that I WILL NOT indulge her mad desire for pink or red – since she promises to be very good and not insist on both – stilettos, as in, “Oh Mama, please buy me noisy shoes!” She would even have me come to school wearing fancy high-heeled shoes…for I find that these little competitions between young girls even extend to whose mother looks smarter. But more about that another day.)

So today, from the children’s section at the supermarket I picked up for Indira things like a necklace making kit, which is bound to bring a furrow of disapproval to my husband’s brow.

I tell myself that a man can never understand the appeal of brightly colored stones to women anyway. For instance, do I not envy my friend Aparna her new rubies and diamonds earrings and pendant set? And doesn’t my husband think that such a purchase by me would be a waste of money?!

I just hope to convince him that making her own trinkets will hopefully teach her, just like the other little projects we do with her, something about the rewards of concentrating on an activity, working towards a goal and pride in her work.

I have also picked up some very pretty hair clips and a pack of three dresses for her beloved only Barbie. The pack even includes little hangers for the dresses – don’t they think of just everything to delight the little misses! She loves to dress up her soft toys – I often see Winnie and Romeo, a snowman doll, sleeping in her bed wearing her baby sister’s pajamas – so I suspect this last item will go down a treat.

This whole affair will of course only get more complicated as the girls get older. For as time goes on, we will also need to create a greater appreciation for the fact that some of these choices are not just about principles which can be debated, but also about making the best (a definition that will surely be debated as well) use of limited resources, be they time or money. Today I am wondering whether to buy or not a fairy dress. Some years from now, it will be about far more significant matters; perhaps an expensive accessory or hobby that they may covet. Or one that the choice of which my husband and I may disagree with on grounds of our values.

Such as – how many pairs of shoes is enough…..?

I wish they sold crystal balls too, along with all those magic wands. I so want sometimes to be able to look ahead to see how we will get through it all.

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