by Betsy McPhee
Stopping my shopping cart so abruptly that I am nearly rear-ended by a distracted mom, I pick up and admire the fiftieth anniversary edition Barbie in her pink box. Could Barbie really be fifty? Could I? Yes, she and I both recently celebrated our half-century birthdays. The iconic Barbie looks as good now as she did at twenty five. I haven’t worn quite as well, but then I haven’t stayed in a cellophane-wrapped box, either. I consider purchasing the doll. I never had a Barbie. I had baby dolls, troll dolls, a Chatty Kathy who talked when you pulled her string, and my favorite––a Raggedy Ann who was raggedy indeed, having been loved to the point that her nose had to be stitched back in place and the black paint had worn off her eyes.
Growing up, I desperately yearned for a Barbie doll. She epitomized sophistication, with accessories to match every outfit, including teensy plastic high heels perfectly molded for her pointy feet. Barbie had an extensive wardrobe (purchased separately) and she could swap clothes with my friends’ Barbies when we played dolls. If I had a Barbie, that is.
My mother refused to let me get one, even if I bought it with my own carefully saved money. Whining and pleading only netted me the standard explanation of “Because I said so, that’s why.” When I was older, I again asked why she had been so adamantly anti-Barbie. “Because a teenage doll would have made you want to grow up too fast,” she replied. “And besides, those dolls were a scam. Once you had the doll you’d want all of the paraphernalia that went along with it––the house, the car, the Ken doll.”
Barbie may have been the poster-diva for consumerism, but the possibilities for purchases were part of her mystique. With the change of an outfit, she could morph from nurse to Spanish dancer. She could become whoever and whatever a girl pretended she was, and the options were endless.
I saw many versions of Barbie dolls when, during a visit to my grandparent’s house, my Aunt Sis took me on an outing to a toy store. I stared longingly at the neat rows of pink boxes, and the hanging array of trendy clothing for Barbie and her friend Midge. Aunt Sis knew my mother’s objections to the corrupting influence of Mattel’s temptations, so walking to the end of the aisle, she picked up a different doll and examined it. “This one comes with a tennis racquet,” she announced, “And her feet aren’t deformed.”
Sure enough, Tammy wore modest aqua play clothes and had feet unsuited for high heels. “Your mother can’t complain about a doll that plays tennis,” Sis reasoned. Tan and athletic herself, Sis resembled the wholesome Tammy much more than glamorous Barbie. She bought me the doll. I could hardly wait until we returned to my grandparents’ to take her out of the box.
Carefully untwisting the wires holding her upright to the cardboard backing, I held Tammy, stroking her auburn curls with one finger. She had large brown eyes like my own, with lashes painted on at the corners. Her outfit had snaps at the back, and I discovered that she could really hold the white tennis racquet in her right hand. “Everyone has a Barbie,” I thought, “but I’ll be the only one with a Tammy doll.”
Now when I played with my friends I took Tammy along, wedged diagonally into my pale blue lunchbox with the picture on the front of a stewardess standing next to an airplane. I filled the old lunchbox with accessories: tiny dishes from my dollhouse, a small china dog, and the plastic barrettes which I had outgrown in first grade.
As I learned to sew, Tammy’s wardrobe grew. Cutting kimonos and circle skirts from felt required nothing more than a yarn tie or a snap, which was harder than I’d thought to sew on. For my ninth birthday, one friend’s mother made me an entire shoebox full of outfits from fabric pre-printed for a Barbie doll. Barbie’s clothes fit Tammy too, although they were too big in the bust, and I had to give the shoes away to my friends. Tammy could now go to a dance, swim in a backyard wading pool, or look exotic in her Hawaiian muumuu. I loved playing with Tammy, doing her hair and dressing her. Still, she would never be Barbie.
That cachet of confidence, that aura of girly glitter infused with pinkness was unique to Barbie. I recognized this Barbie-mystique in other girls in my high school and college. Flirty and ultra-feminine, they charmed those around them with their perfect smiles and shiny hair.
I grew up to be a Tammy, not a Barbie, more comfortable in athletic wear than a sparkly evening gown, with feet suited for flat-soled Keds rather than stilettos. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the girl-next-door image. Women were never jealous of me, and men told me that I reminded them of their sister. I became a teacher and a mom, not a veterinarian, astronaut or princess.
I’ve been happy as a Tammy. My Ken doll and I have been married over thirty years, and our home, while not a Malibu Dream House, has nurtured four little Skippers and Todds. I will admit to harboring just a smidgen of envy over the years, when meeting a real life Barbie at a cocktail party––a doctor or scientist who could still turn heads.
Now as I stand in the toy aisle holding the pink box, I gaze wistfully at the fifty-year-old Barbie behind the plastic. She’s beautiful, but Barbie belongs to little girl dreams, and I don’t need dolls anymore. It would just be more clutter. I replace her gently on the shelf and move on.
Betsy McPhee grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated from the University of Michigan. She now resides in Arizona with her husband, mother, and the youngest of her four kids. Ms. McPhee enjoys her women's writing group, and her stories have appeared in Quiet Mountain Essays and Raising Arizona's Kids. She recently read a piece at Monsoon Voices. Contact Betsy.