She had blonde hair and a pink dress made of tulle. She was the most composed companion a seven year-old could ask for, and for a season of my childhood the two of us were inseparable.
I took her to the library and read her Where the Wild Things Are, and she listened in placid silence. We ventured to the park and I built her a sand castle fit for a beauty like hers. She intrigued me, with her ideal lines and frozen features. She wore high heels and, for that, I thought she could do anything. We were nothing alike, I was well aware. And it never bothered me.
Until the day it did.
I remember the particular excursion on that Tuesday afternoon. It was winter and snow enfolded the ground like a disheveled down quilt. Tucked beneath mounds of winter wear, I hustled up the backyard hill. My mom had tied my scarf extra tight around my mouth and tucked my gloves beneath my sleeves so the snow wouldn’t intrude. Pulling my red plastic sled by the yellow rope, out of breath and warmer for the hilltop hike, I reached my goal. I plopped myself onto the sled and made my lap her chariot. Wriggling the nose of the sled from side to side, I found the perfect position, told her to hold on, and gave a heel-thrust push. It soon became a cycle: up the hill and down again, all with her in hand. When the sled capsized, I hurriedly gathered her and brushed the snow from her face and hair. And when she had enough, we went inside for hot chocolate.
Walking in the front door was my favorite part of sledding. Face flushed from the winter fight, my cheeks quickly thawed as the heat of home kissed them. I can still remember the smell: part clean laundry and part homemade bread composed everything I knew of the familiar and belonging and the word “home”.
With snow still melting on my hat, I began to shed my layers. I placed her on the counter, facing me, and told her I’d brush her hair when I was done undressing. I kicked at my boots until they fell with a thud. I shook off my coat and began pulling at my snowpants. I pushed them to my ankles and marched in place until my feet were free. I sat down to work on my wool socks and I noticed something: my legs. All curled up on the floor, my legs were not what I expected. They were short and plump and pale from the cold.
I stared at them for a long moment, half in judgment, half in disbelief. They were something I didn’t expect, though I couldn’t say what I did. They were strange and foreign and mine. Slumped in silence on that hardwood floor, I pulled my knees to my chest and let my palms warm my shins.
Looking up, I remembered her. Her, in all her regal ways. Her, the object of my tenderness. Her, unmoved and unmovable.
Her unblinking blue eyes were fixated on me – on me and on my flaws. Her stare penetrated every layer of winter threads. She was cold, like the whipping winter wind that caused my little heart to shiver; yet she blazed at me, concentrated and relentless, rapidly surfacing my insecurities like the water boiling on the stovetop. And I decided I no longer wanted hot chocolate.
That was the day it bothered me. It bothered me that we were different. It bothered me that I was not her. But most of all, it bothered me that for all my affection, for my doting and worship, for all my hair brushing and dressing and redressing, regardless of my efforts to make her like me or the mirror-saturated moments of trying to make my hair like hers, the discrepancy between us would not reconcile.
I grew up a little bit that day. In the years that followed, that newfound insecurity in my legs traveled through my body like disease – to my round belly, flat chest, big feet, and forming hips. As the infection spread, she mutely looked on from her place on the counter. And it would be years before I could tell her, before I could tell myself…
You lied to me, Barbie.
I didn’t know it at the snowpant episode or the summer bikinis became cool; I didn’t know it at any homecoming dance or when my first boyfriend held my hand. But lie to me you did.
I know you cannot speak, and I know you never did. But words are not the measure of your potent presence. Though your eyes are wide in insisted innocence and your red lips purse in seemingly benign silence, every curve of your body and all your painted perfection told me …
That the measure of a woman is the length of her legs.
That beauty is objective and standardized and uniform.
That women must have little waists and big hair.
That the lovely get the love
and that the rest of us are left in longing.
You’re a liar, Barbie. You’re a liar.
And oh, how many shelves you sit on. How many young eyes meet yours.
You’re a relentless little piece of plastic. Your voice reverberates through the years, through the changes, and even through this coffee shop. Even now, at age twenty-six, I don’t quite know how to quit you. Recognizing the lies is different from knowing the truth; knowing your power is different than finding my own. But perhaps it is where I will start.
I thought you could do anything, but I was wrong. I have found something you cannot do:
Your frozen lips cannot tell little girls that they are smart and capable and cherished.
Your icy eyes cannot meet women’s with any ounce of compassionate knowing.
Your fixed tongue cannot tell the marked mother that those are stripes of sacrifice.
And your plastic ears cannot receive the words of truth.
Though your lofty limbs may never change or grow, your heart is fit to match.
You cannot change. You cannot grow.
But I can. And I will.