Turning forty was a big deal when it applied to my parents.   I remember being part of the secret posse that put up a big sign on the front lawn asking passing cars to honk in celebration of the big four-oh.  Forty-year olds were ancient, and I was an invincible eighteen, amused by the aging that wouldn’t touch me for a long, long time.  How that time flew.  And now it’s a big deal for a certain manufacturer walking down yet another avenue of profit. 

Barbie’s aging might have gone unnoticed by me were it not timed so closely to my own.  Now, before you rush to judgment, _I_ am not yet forty, though my mother is already spreading rumors that I am really her younger sister, as she is too young to have a child my age.  I admit to looking slightly older than Barbie, that my toenails are the only part of my body that seems firm, but I’ve had children - and younger brothers, too.   I’d tell you that childbirth was easy compared to growing up with them, but they’re bigger than I am now and would pummel me, given the opportunity, still resentful of the times I broke favorite games or poured milk over them in fits of adolescent rage.

I read that a more life-like (smaller breasts and bigger hips) Barbie was released about a year ago, purportedly to appease those who decried the other Barbie’s influence on anorexic and bulimic teens, but that marketing ploy sadly reflects another reality for many of the women who grew up tearing off the doll's head and leaving her naked body with the dust bunnies under the bed:  we can’t wear the same outfits we wore when we were younger.   And if we could, we wouldn’t want to. 

Believe me, we could wear short, tight skirts (my friends and relatives have closets full of tight clothing we simply *choose* not to wear), but loose, elastic-waist pants and shirts long enough to cover hips simply appeal more to our fashion sense.   High-heeled shoes are for woman paid enough to endure the resulting pain. 

Not that turning forty is something I think about much.  No, it’s perfectly natural to compare oneself to a toy, don't you think?

I didn’t buy the first Barbie.  Or any of the four that joined her bedroom floor commune. Barbie, the woman of many careers and few words, has a strong, silent boyfriend, and a best friend that changes every few years.   Not the Susan B. Anthony role model I might have chosen.   I’d done my reading and knew that Barbie is really a tool of the male dominated diet and clothing industries, designed to instill fears of extra pounds and yard sale clothing. 

Though I harbor those fears like so much Boston tea and love the winter jacket I got for only a dollar at that house down the street, I was determined to make a liberated woman.  But when she called that first one by name, I was sunk.  Obviously, knowing Barbie is somehow genetic.  Having one is required.  Feminism be damned.   There are stronger forces at work. 

Playing Barbies may be no more than a painless field trip on the long passage to womanhood. Our first trip to a friend’s house to do that was punctuated by my daughter’s brown head bobbing in the rear view mirror, literally to the beat of my heart. Shopping for groceries, wrapping presents, and buying clothes, while bushels of fun, were small potatoes compared to this. 

After settling the two girls on the couch with dolls poised stiffly in the firm grasp of juice-stained hands, Paula and I headed for the kitchen.  That is, after all, what moms do when they go to a friend’s house. At least it’s what our moms did.

Anna’s words stopped us.  “How do you play, Barbie?”  she asked Colleen, four years old for seven long months compared to Anna’s two days.  Expecting our elders to have the answers starts early. 
Colleen responded, “I don’t know.”

Mouths slightly agape, Paula and I threw sparking glances that said, “She still needs me” and started back to help. 

Then we heard, “Why don’t we pretend they’re women friends?” and a delighted “Okay!” 

I don’t remember a time that I didn’t know how to play dolls, but I don’t remember not knowing how to walk either.  One day I must have taken a doll to a friend’s house and somehow figured it out.  Figuring it out is important.  We forgot that, for a minute, as we headed back towards the living room to show them how to play.

“Hi, how are you?” squeaked one pretend grown-up voice. 

“Fine.  Do you want to come to my house?”  chirped the other.

So it began, and we inched away from the door.    A greeting, a question with an easy answer, an invitation to come inside.  Learning how to play dolls is a lot like making friends.  They learned that from us, the women friends in the shade of their raucous play.  We didn’t know we were teaching them how to play dolls.  We thought we were teaching them how to live.  Sometimes, the two are closer than we like to admit.  Today they didn’t need us in the room showing them anything. 

Barbie doesn’t look like either mom.  She doesn’t look like anyone we know, or at least anyone we really like.  But who would want to pretend with a doll that looked like a real person?  The doll would have to gain weight every winter, only to deprive herself and exercise back into summer clothes.  A realistic Barbie wouldn’t succeed as well as she hoped and would need at least two separate wardrobes.  And that’s not pretending.

Hours of plots rich with conflict and changes of clothing reached their tiny arms out of my yesterdays into her tomorrows.   One more door opened.   Because I’m her mom, a role richer than any I could have dreamed, I hope she finds many more open doors as she grows and promise to drive her wherever I must to find them, too.  If she thinks she’s getting a driving license, she’d better think again.

Of course, I could be wrong about that, too.

Write "Ellavon" at ellavon@ellavon.com.
Editor: Robert Basil. 
Publisher:  Raylock Design Group.
Copyright retained by contributors.

Released: April 15, 1999