Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Buh-bye, bimbo

Forget the fashion dolls. Real women write about fat, hair and skin color.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 11, 1999 at 12:00 AM

It’s easy to find a scapegoat for the dysfunctional relationship American women have with their bodies. Whenever your favorite woman asks, "Do these jeans make me look fat?" all you have to do is shrug and point: The Media (capital M, which is an upside down W, which stands for Women’s magazines). Society (as a whole, patriarchal if possible). Barbie (yes, that doll).

Or instead of taking petty potshots at such usual targets, you might spend a few hours reading the essays contained in Adiós Barbie. The young women who wrote them could tell you a thing or two about looking too fat, too thin, too-whatever-isn’t-the-prevailing-beauty-standard. They could also tell you a thing or two about learning to live with, and like, whatever body you’ve got, even if it isn’t tall, thin and blond.

But let’s put ol’ Barbie back into her Dreamhouse, maybe in the bathroom where she can obsess over her too-slender physique. Like the prom queen at the behind-the-gym pot party, her pretty little face – not to mention her skinny legs and all – is not welcome here.

For one thing, all the women writing in this anthology were born sometime after the infamous blonde. For another, while some adored and some eschewed her as children, few looked into her wide blue eyes and saw their plump, or brown-skinned, or disabled, or athletic, or just plain sensible selves reflected.

Growing up, with perhaps the help of a few college credits in women’s studies, they were able to question the influence of 11-1/2 inches of plasticized sexism on their own senses of self-identity, sexuality and body image.

But don’t let’s alert Mattel’s attorneys by saying this collection centers around dissing the perky-nosed Barbie Millicent Rogers. Remember, she’s just a scapegoat.

Rather, it’s an intelligent discussion, along the lines of Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s benchmark The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, but with more personal anecdotes and fewer historical facts – the faces, as it were, behind the issues of self-definition that make up the rallying cries of third-wave feminism.

Yes, that’s right – third wave. Now that women can more or less take for granted the rights to vote and work as welders or doctors or astronauts, we’re finding ourselves obsessed with how we look while doing it. Or how we think we should look. Or how we would look if only we were a size 6.

And, girlfriends, this self-obsession is not a good thing.

As the essays in Adiós Barbie point out, body image and identity are crucial issues for women today (how self-obsessed is that?). When we look in the mirror and see ourselves looking back, we need to be happy with what we see, rather than wishing we looked more like, well, like Barbie.

So, the writers get self-obsessed, but in a good way. They put forth autobiographical essays which are consistently original and witty, thought-provoking and honest. Few succumb to the consciousness-raising style of overly personal (read: dull unless you’re an overly personal friend of the writer) rehashings of eating disorders or nose-size obsessions – a potential minefield in this particular territory.

Instead, they examine the circumstances that led to dissatisfaction with their bodies. Peer pressure. Fashion magazines. Stolen glimpses at pornography. The disdain of friends, relatives, the cute boy at school. (Yeah, Barbie too.) And then, happily ever after, they lead themselves out of the shadows and explain how – on paper, at least – they’ve learned to accept, rejoice in and love their bodies and sexualities.

Which we should all do. Even if we’re tall, thin and made of plastic. Yes.


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