Lessons From A Chipboard Barbie House

Lessons From A Chipboard Barbie House

Lessons From A Chipboard Barbie House 1800 1266 Karen J. Weyant

It’s Friday morning and I have just learned that Mattel is making a new Barbie. It’s the talk of my department. Cradling coffee mugs and balancing textbooks, my colleagues and I are standing in the middle of a crowded hall between classes. Students with heavy backpacks and their own drinks veer around us, seemingly uninterested in our conversations. I teach at a small community college in western New York, and while stereotypes of partying college students abound, I know that most of our students are more worried about fitting their course loads into busy work schedules and frantic, sometimes disjointed, home lives.

Apparently, Mattel is planning on releasing dolls that are going to smash the old Barbie doll body stereotype. The new line of dolls includes petite, tall, and curvy.  This line will also include new skin tones and eye colors. My dean is especially interested in this new trend as she is convinced that Barbie ruined her childhood. She doesn’t explain why. Perhaps she, like so many others, thought Barbie’s body dimensions were unattainable.  She wants the new curvy Barbie doll.

Curvy, I think, has to be a euphemism for plump, or maybe even fat. But when she shows me pictures on the Internet of this curvy prototype, I’m a little impressed. With smaller breasts, and wider hips, the new Barbie could indeed be described as curvy.

Growing up I had a huge collection of Barbies. All my dolls were blonde with pale skin, so they looked nothing like me, with my sunburned, freckled face and mud-colored hair.

I had the Malibu Barbie, her tan lines rigid beneath her aqua blue swimsuit that matched her wide blue eyes. I had the Beauty Secrets Barbie, a doll that sported long trestles and wrists that turned so she could blow dry her own hair. I even had the Country Western Barbie Doll, inspired by Dallas, her hair styled in big round waves beneath her Cowboy hat, her slim figure pushed into a silky white Western outfit. This particular Barbie even winked, her blue-eye shadowed eyelid always sticking so that it looked like she was permanently squinting.

Desperate for a Barbie that looked more like me, I took one doll and tried to color her hair with dark shoe polish. Yes, her hair did turn brown, but so did her cheeks and forehead — my dark fingerprints stained on her plastic skin as reminders that I certainly did not have the job of a beautician in my future.


Barbie has been a popular cultural icon ever since her debut in 1959. In spite of her popularity, however, Barbie has been criticized, her unrealistic physical characteristics, including a tiny waist and round, pert breasts, often coming under attack.  Indeed, if Barbie was somehow magically transformed to real life, she would be five foot nine inches tall with the following measurements: 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hip.  She would also wear size three shoes.

I was fascinated by this fact that I picked up in a college class. When I came home over one break and announced that “a real woman could never have the same measurements as Barbie. She would fall over,” my mother was not impressed.

“So that’s what you are learning in college,” was all she had to say.


But as a child playing with Barbie, I didn’t think much about her body.

Instead, I was baffled by her clothes.

Barbie came packaged in original costumes of stiff, sparkly gowns. I saw such wear as extremely impractical: the gold, glittery pants from Golden Dream Barbie and the fake fur lined shawl and shiny top from Pink and Pretty Barbie got stuffed in a bag I kept for my dolls’ clothes. Instead, my Barbies wore T-shirts and jeans – clothes made by my mother who must have realized  what her youngest daughter, who sported hand-me-down shorts and tops from older siblings, would want in her own dolls. My Barbie dolls were also perpetually barefoot: their tiny shoes always went missing, stuck in the corners of plastic bureau drawers or a pink kitchen sink.  I am also convinced that our family dog ate at least some of them. Barbie boots, which were just a bit bigger than the shoes, were favorite toys for my cat who batted them around like they were balls.

I also remembered that Barbie never wore underwear.

I would think that about that fact later in life when women around me were worried about panty lines.


I grew up in a blue-collar home in rural Pennsylvania, so I didn’t know what a town house was.  And I was certain that no one I knew lived in a dream house.

So this is why I never owned the pink Barbie Town House (complete with elevator!) or the Dream House (complete with a balcony); instead, my mother built me a makeshift home out of chipboard. The house was taller than me, and sometimes, leaned a bit to the side, but most of the time, it was a comfortable toy, tucked safely in the corner of my bedroom.

The home was able to store my Barbies’ worlds, so I never minded that I often had to shake a thin layer of sawdust from their clothes or pick wood chips from their hair. The homemade house was the envy of my friends – the big rooms held all kinds of store bought furniture, including a wooden dining room set complete with dishes and goblets painted shiny to mimic real silver, and a bedroom suite that contained a bed with a canopy and a white wardrobe. I even had a pink bathroom, complete with sink, bathtub, and a toilet that could flush!

With homemade clothes and a home practically made of sawdust, my Barbie dolls were far from what toy manufactures probably imagined for the little girls who wanted their products.


Then, there were the family dynamics.

This, I would learn, is where I really got it all wrong.

In my world, Barbie wasn’t an especially young woman – she was an adult, in her mid 30’s, old in the eyes of a child. Skipper was not Barbie’s little sister. Instead, she was her young daughter. No, Barbie was not married to Ken. In my Barbie world, Ken wasn’t even in the picture. Yes, I had a Ken doll, but he was buried in my old toy box somewhere, beneath boxes of puzzles that were missing pieces, stuffed animals that I no longer placed on my bed but I couldn’t bear to part with, and stray Lego pieces.

I didn’t learn the supposed truth about Barbie’s world until the day that I had a trusted friend over to my house for play. This friend was three years older than I was and had once showed me a book titled Where Babies Come From complete with cartoon characters twisted into cozy shapes and sporting lumpy bellies, breasts and bottoms. For a long time, I thought sex equated cartoon hearts in the air.

“You got it all wrong,” she said.  “Skipper is Barbie’s little sister. She’s not Barbie’s daughter.” She was scornful, frowning the way older children do in their superior knowledge of the world.

I stared at the two dolls I had in my hands. It had never occurred to me that Barbie would have a younger sister. I was the youngest of eight siblings, and my older sisters had kids of their own, and many of them looked about the same age as Skipper. So, why couldn’t Barbie have children? I knew that a man technically was needed for a woman to have children, but then, the woman could be on her own. Why not? I saw single women and single mothers in my life all the time.

As for the many married couples I knew, including members of my own family, the men seemed to be pushed into the background: disappearing into third shifts at factories so they were absent during the days or vanishing on mysterious hunting and fishing trips during the weekends. In many ways, it seemed that the women in my lives were on their own. Financially, this wasn’t true. I knew that the men worked and brought home the much needed paychecks. Still, I saw that the women were in charge – after all, my mother worked part time but in a time before automatic deposits, she collected my father’s pay check every other Friday so she could pay bills and buy groceries.  In rural Pennsylvania, women’s balancing act of raising families, holding down part-time jobs, and keeping a household intact was a source of pride.


Ruth Handler, the woman who created Barbie, said this about her toy:  “Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

According to Barbie & Ruth by Robin Gerber, Handler came up with the idea of an adult doll after watching her daughter and her daughter’s friends play with paper dolls. The girls played with the flimsy dolls until they ripped. It was apparent to her that young girls wanted more than just baby dolls – they wanted to play as adult women in an adult world.  Perhaps they wanted to emulate the world of little boys, who always seemed to have more adult toys, such as toy cars.

I avoided playing with baby dolls. I had no interest in pretending to be a mother to the hard plastic figures with clear soulless eyes and gaping mouths.  I was much more intrigued by the neighborhood boys who got to play with GI Joe figures and Matchbox cars – both toys that seemed to be much more part of the adult world.

My Barbie dolls gave me a world of choices. Barbie could have spent most of her time in the toy kitchen (complete with a handheld mixer that really worked before the batteries died). But she made her way through the plywood dollhouse, sometimes cleaning the bathroom and making her bed, but more often not bothering, leaving blankets in tangled messes. Clothes fell from their plastic hangers and jeans spilled out from dresser drawers.

My Barbie was hardly the perfect housekeeper.

In fact, she often walked out the door of  her cozy home to the outside world. Sometimes, she rode her plastic horse. Sometimes, she walked her plastic dogs. More often than not, however, especially in the summer months, she made her way to the front lawn outside.

She could have spent time dressing up in fancy dresses and shoes; instead, she mostly sported plain shirts and homemade jeans. She could have worn the flimsy plastic high heels that fit her feet; instead, she mostly went barefoot.  Ken could have been her constant companion, or he could have stayed in the plywood house or be dismissed to the bottom of a toy box.

He was dismissed to the bottom of the toy box.

Unaware of what she was supposed to be, my Barbie was clearly independent.


That day in the hallway, while my colleagues discuss the history of Barbies’ impossible bodies, I thought back to my days of play. I am as sure now, as I was then, that my Barbie could stand on her own. She could hold any number of jobs, and indeed in my afternoon play, she became many things.  Sometimes, she was a dog groomer or a veterinarian. Other times, she was a doctor or a lawyer. Still other times, she was a newspaper reporter or a writer of Nancy Drew mysteries.

I even remember that one Saturday, after watching my brothers work on their vehicles, I hoisted Barbie’s pink convertible up into the air with a makeshift jack made out of pipe cleaners. I then spent a busy afternoon with a Barbie doll fixing the convertible, which in this case meant reattaching the loose wheel.

I even had the perfect doll for the job: my shoe polish smudged Barbie, her face already grubby and her small hands soiled. But she was still beautiful.

And she was ready to go.

Header photograph © Jason D. Ramsey.

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