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Emily Morrison Emily Morrison
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Barbie's plastic people

September 12, 2012
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Do you know what scares me? Barbie. Barbie scares me. You know why? She's plastic. I know this is not necessarily groundbreaking news, but hear me out. As a teacher who works with young women between the ages of 16-18, I see girls who truly believe their self-worth depends on their ability to morph into whatever someone else thinks is beautiful. Do you know why they think this? Barbie.

I know, I know. Why am I blaming rich ol' Barbie? What did she ever do besides become a vet and marry Ken? It's not that simple. From the time girls were handed their first Barbie doll to the moment they hop in the driver's seat, much of what girls have been given tells them that they aren't made of sugar and spice and everything nice they're made of plastic. Think of all those pretty dolls, the princess costumes, the Disney movies: Where is 'Bad Haircut Barbie?' Any pleasantly plump Disney princesses out there? Why didn't Cinderella bust out of her 24-hour girdle instead of that glass slipper?

Even if girls weren't bombarded by impossible images of perfection during their pre-teen years, adolescence will take care of that. Let's say they escaped Disney unscathed and moved on to the Disney channel or, heaven forbid, MTV. Heck, let's say they just pick up a 'People' from the library during study hall. What are they going to see?

A laundry list of stars from Heidi Montag to Pamela Anderson who have capitalized on their ability to surgically reconstruct themselves into the stereotypical blond bombshell. And what about the airbrushed images of models advertising jeans in a size that less than 5 percent of the female population will ever fit into? Then let's add on fashion faux pas pages: 'Who Wore it Better,' 'Want Not to Wear,' and the 'Oh, No She Didn't' pictures. What message do they take away from this educational experience? I am what I look like, so I better look good.

In a 2011 series on 'The Today Show' titled 'It's All About Hair,' 'Today' cited a recent poll that revealed women in the U.S. spend $7.5 billion per year on hair care products alone. That's a lot of volumizer, ladies. Even the late, great Nora Ephron wrote about the pressure to be high maintenance. She said, 'For weeks now, I have been trying to write about maintenance, but it hasn't been easy, and for a simple reason: Maintenance takes up so much of my life that I barely have time to sit down at the computer.' Ephron's unique gift was her ability to poke fun at herself and a whole culture of people who have bought into the idea that women should spend their time on hair care, gym fare and maintenance work.

So if we know it's shallow, why do we succumb? Let's face it. The benefits of being attractive are, well, attractive: an equally appealing mate, increased popularity, job advancement and sundry social perks. What guy doesn't stop for a pretty woman at a crosswalk? Even Richard Gere pulled the Lotus over. Whether our teens have seen 'Pretty Woman' or not, they have seen how the system works. Look great, suddenly boys are interested. Highlight my hair, all my friends compliment me. Post a pic in my new outfit on Facebook, count how many friends liked it. Many of them believe it's not what you know, but what you look like, and you know who's to blame? We are.

We give them Barbies. We buy the Disney princess movies. We sign up for cable. We leave 'People' lying around. We let it happen, cap'n. I'm no better than anyone else. I just bought my 9-year-old a Barbie RV. It's quite breathtaking, really. I just couldn't stop myself. We were in Walmart, that magical monopoly, and there it sat, a shiny, plastic recreational vehicle bathed in light. 'Wow, Mom, that's so coooool! Barbie can go camping. Can we get it?'

Like a fool who still remembers her first Barbie corvette, I said, 'Sure, hon. But it's for your birthday. We can't just buy a Barbie RV any day of the week.' As we walked through the store I thought, what am I doing? How can I support this plastic epidemic?

I turned to her and said, 'Do you think you need to look like Barbie to be pretty, sweetheart?' Everything I've ever thought of myself as a woman and a mother hung on her answer.

'No, Mom. That's Barbie. I'm not Barbie. I'm me,' she said simply.

I should have rejoiced in the knowledge that my daughter was able to distinguish who she was from who I assumed she wanted to be, but I just couldn't let it alone. How did she know this?

'How do you know 'you're you' and 'she's Barbie'? Don't you think Barbie's pretty?' I asked her.

She turned to me and with a look of utter disapproval said, 'Mom, being pretty isn't about what you look like. It's about what's inside. You told me this, and Mrs. LaLonde, and Meme and Pepe and...' the list continued.

I was blown away. Though she has more Barbies than I can count, though she lives and breathes to watch the Disney Channel, I can't help but feel an odd mixture of awe and relief. The media can't truly mold our girls into mini Paris Hilton's if we do our part to temper the message. Clearly, there's a way to exist in our appearance-driven culture, to even partake in it, if we teach our girls that it's not all about what we look like or what giant pink motor vehicles we drive.

Two days ago, a sparkling black car with a large pink Barbie decal on the side, a Barbie license plate, and tinted windows passed us on the highway. My first instinct was to say, 'Girls, look at that car!' My second instinct: 'Really, lady?'

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