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Barbies Forever

Desiree Cooper

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Desiree and her Barbies
(Nancy Rosenbaum)
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My Barbies have been living in my mother's attic in Virginia for the past 35 years. My mom knew how much I loved them, and would never throw them away. So this summer, when she was cleaning the attic, she packed them up and mailed them to me in St. Paul.

My co-worker Nanci Olesen was as excited as I was. Both Nanci and I are 50-ish, the same age as Barbie. For us, Barbie wasn't just a doll, but a best friend.

Nanci had just come across boxes of her old Barbies, too. So we made a plan. As soon as my Barbie dolls arrived, we'd hang out at Nanci's house and open them together.

"You know what?" I asked. "I'm gonna just scoop them all out of this. It smells like the attic. It smells like 1965!"

Nanci laughed and agreed. "I'm getting a waft."

The first thing I pulled out was a white Barbie coat. "Whoa! Look at this! Is this Jackie -- O? A leather jacket."

"You know what, it's not leather," Nanci said, gently dashing my childhood fantasies. When I pulled out one of my old Barbies from the package, Nanci exclaimed, "And here she is! What's her name?"

I was dumbfounded. "I don't know who she is. I don't remember her name! Oh, that's kind of sad."

Nanci had less trouble remembering her childhood dolls.

"This is Skipper," she said. "She's in her original bathing suit. And her hair is really snaggy and gross now. But I remember what it was like when we first got her. Whoopsie, uh-oh! Her head fell off! OK, OK, nobody panic."

It was mesmerizing. All of those wedding dresses, evening gowns, purses and shoes. To think, we had grown up to be educated, career-driven women with daughters of our own. But Barbie still had us under her spell.

"Do you wanna play Barbies?" asked Nanci.

"I AM playing Barbies. As you can tell, I'm not even listening to you. You see how her knees snap? I used to like that sound and how you can pose them. So now, the Malibu Barbie has her wedding dress on, and she's on the way to the wedding."

Soon Nanci grabbed one more box of her old Barbie stuff.

"It's a kitchen!" I said as Nanci unpacked a metal, vintage kitchen.

"I integrated this into my whole Barbie world," Nanci said. "My Barbies would stand at this kitchen and cook, and here's the little dish rack."

"The mixer," I added. "You've got pots and pans, and whole kernel corn."

"I've got it, sistah!" Nanci laughed. "I've got the stuff. And when I was set up in my full glory, it was exciting to be over at my house playing Barbies."

As we rummaged through more clothes, I came upon a surprise. "OK, I just found a pair of black, silk bloomers, and lace."

"Promiscuous!"

"Oh my God, that's craziness!" I said. "I didn't know my Barbie had lingerie like this."

"Yeah, she had Victoria Secret lingerie. This is something."

"All right. I have a question for you. Did your Barbie ever kiss Ken?"

Nanci hesitated. "Well, I don't know. What did your Barbie do?"

"She definitely fell in love, especially once Ken or Brad came on the scene," I confessed. "So, yes, they did kiss."

"I think you said that they got naked."

"My Barbies got naked," I confessed. "You called me out."

"And they went to bed together."

"Ah, yeah. But that's about all that we'd figured out. Nap time! Nap time!"

"Clothes off, nap time, under the sheets," said Nanci. "There you go. I don't remember that my Barbies did that, but I'm not saying for sure that they didn't."

Playing with Barbies made Nanci think about how the dolls affected her body image.

"My feet are very huge," she said. "I have gigantic Nordic, flat, size-11 feet. But Barbie got to wear the really cool shoes that I can never wear. Sometimes when I look at my feet I still have a flash that my feet are not right, they're not the right feet."

I had a different relationship to my Barbies: "For one thing, my first Barbies were white, and I was keenly aware that I was black, so I knew that I wasn't going to one day look in a mirror, a magic mirror, and look like Barbie, really. It kind of broke the illusion that this was suppose to correlate to me in some way. I just liked the cache of Barbie. One day I'd be a beautiful woman, I would have long hair, and big boobs, I'd have fabulous clothes. I'd have a Ken. I'd have a car. It was the cache of Barbie that I really, really bought into."

"I was interested in Barbies for about 12 years," said Nanci. "I'm still interested in Barbies. They were my life. And I am living a domestic life that I was practicing as a girl. I kid you not. Now I'd like to think that it's a liberated domestic life. But I'm deeply interested in household activities, and I practiced when I was a girl. And Barbies was just an extension of playing that I did every weekend."

"I think that what's sort of been lost in translation is what it means to be a girl and what it means to be a woman," I added. "For me, as I've grown up, I've maybe politicized those things a bit, dressing up or going out on a date. Those are fun, wonderful things about growing up, and they're things that were cherished by the Barbie existence. Just to be ferociously pink. And I think Barbie kept that alive for us."

Comments

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  • By darlene bloom

    From WI, 11/13/2008

    Desiree's story is my barbie rememberence story also. Mom gave me my first barbie it was magical when all the neighbor girls came over with all their dolls...Mom moved all the living furniture back we made a whole village to play in..i have no children, however i made sure my nieces know who barbie is and how she is part of their life now. we play often. they even let uncle be ken doll, but i keep an eye on him, no funny stuff ken!!!!

    By j troeh

    08/29/2008

    Eve and Lea -- All of your Barbie dolls and all of their clothes and accessories (all washed and cleaned before being carefully stored away!) are waiting for you at home someday.
    Mom

    By Barb Palmer

    From Greensburg, PA, 08/24/2008

    My barbies just loved GI Joe. Your stories brought back sweet memories of Barbie and GI Joe floating down the creek in her convertable. Those were the good old days!

    By Patricia Meagher

    From chicago, 08/23/2008

    You want to hear something tragic? I wasn't allowed Barbies because my mother said they were "too mature". Read that "too developed". I had a Skipper, however. In consequence, I LOVE Barbies and always played with them with my friends' children! In defense of my mom, she did make the most exquisite doll clothes ever. They totally beat Mattel clothes. I really remember a red velvet swirl coat. Hmm...maybe I should ask for a Barbie this year for Christmas!

    By libby appleyard

    From courtenay, BC, 08/23/2008

    Wow! This segment on Barbies brought such warm, youthful feelings into my afternoon. I remember playing Barbies all day long with my friends and then at the end of the day making arrangments to meet the next day and carry on. I wounder where they are now, both my Barbies and my childhood friends. Thanks for the memories.

    By tom norris

    From bellingham, WA, 08/23/2008

    Thankfully my sister loved Barbie and being a good brother I spent hours in a fantasy world that was briefly brought back by your story. Thank you so much.

    By Susan Detwiler

    From Baltimore, MD, 08/23/2008

    My 1960s world revolved around my Barbies, collecting them (new family members), playing with them, making furniture for them and food out of play-doh, and learning how to sew so that I could make clothes for them. My sister and I would empty a bookcase and make an apartment house for our Barbie families. I am so jealous that Nanci had a Dream Kitchen; I wanted one for years! Thank you so much for this story.

    By Bridget Taylor

    From Jonesboro, AR, 08/23/2008

    Great story - brought a smile to my heart and tears to my eyes. I am 52 and still have my original Barbies, Skipper and Ken Dolls - only two Barbies. When my daughter was 14, she decided she wanted to make money by selling all her Barbies and Barbie accesories. She probably had about 25 Barbies plus. In the middle of her yard sale I found my Barbies and case, etc. I pannicked. I said you can do what you want with yours, but these are mine and they aren't going anywhere. She is now 35 - I bet she wishes she had kept a few of her Barbies to share with her daughter. Thanks for the story and pictures.

    By cindy smith

    From ellicott city, MD, 08/23/2008

    I could go on forever about my Barbies...but I think you should consider writing a book about Women in their 50's and their Barbie Memories! Loved the story.

    By Bridgit Cornale

    From Waukesha, WI, 08/23/2008

    Thank you for the story about Barbies. Desiree's words seem to come straight from my heart. The story conjured up all the same emotions, like remembering old friends. I was made fun of as a 12 year old by my class mates because Barbies were my favorite toy-now I know I'm not alone-having been drawn into the magic world of Barbies. I still love Barbies and always will!

    By libby bentley

    From salisbury, NC, 08/23/2008

    wow first of all Im amazed you and your mom have been able to keep these together for all these years...my barbie ,midge,skipper all fell by the wayside after bad haircuts and lost clothing...loved listening to the story on NPR...cool

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