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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

A Part of Girlhood They Can Still Share

September 26, 1997|SANDY BANKS

I am cleaning under the bed when I come across the body. She is naked, with a bad haircut and only one leg.

I waver for a moment . . . she still has a pretty face and that trademark hourglass figure. She deserves better than this ignominious end.

But I know there are dozens more like her--many fully clothed and with all their body parts intact. So I toss her in the trash . . . but not without a pang that lets me know that this unkempt Barbie is more than just another discarded toy.

Barbie, and her sisterhood, are a link between my daughters' childhood and my own; a comforting sign that in this day and age, there are some things about being a little girl that haven't changed.

*

Despite my feminist bent, I have never been one of those mothers philosophically opposed to letting my daughters play with Barbies.

I can recall too vividly the fun my sisters and I had as kids, playing Barbie under the dining room table for hours on end.

First we'd argue over who'd get the best Barbie--the one whose hair had not been hacked off yet--and the lone remaining pair of tiny matching high heels.

Because I was the oldest, I usually won. That left my younger sisters stuck with her sidekicks--best friend Midge, with that god-awful red hair and freckles, and wholesome blond little sister Skipper. I'd ride around with Ken in the Barbie Corvette, then spend hours with Midge recounting the details of our night on the town.

Today, I am the mother of three young girls, raising them--like my mother raised me--to be strong, ambitious, independent . . . and to relish a good game of Barbie.

In the nine years since my eldest got her first Barbie at age 3, we have amassed a collection of 73 Barbie dolls and their friends--not counting those consigned to the trash since then, because their head wouldn't stay on or the dog chewed off a foot or an arm.

We have Working Out Barbies and Fashion Magic Barbies; Rollerblade Barbies and Hula Hair Barbies; Malibu Barbies and Teacher Barbies and Doctor Barbies. And a dozen of their little sisters, babies and teenage friends.

And then there are the Kens--three of them . . . for all those Barbies. Don't ask me why, but everyone seems content with the arrangement.

Most came as Christmas and birthday gifts, from friends and relatives who, even if they don't know much about little girls, recognize Barbie as a sure-fire hit.

For my girls, it doesn't much matter if it's a big-ticket Barbie, like the ball gown-clad versions that Grandma sends each Christmas, or the garden-variety types I pick up for $5.99 to quiet a whining child or reward a daughter for not annoying her sister at school.

Ultimately, the clothes come off, the accessories vanish and each new doll becomes just one more girlfriend to add to our ever-changing Barbie tableau.

*

In the early days, I insisted on buying only dark-skinned Barbies--presumably of African American heritage, though you could scarcely tell by that generic Barbie nose and those long flowing locks. If Barbie was going to become my children's beauty icon, I thought, at least let her skin color match their own.

But our Barbie gene pool has since been diluted. It's not easy to find a coveted Barbie in her black persona here in Northridge. And many of my daughters' friends gave them white dolls because they were not aware that black Barbies exist . . . or they didn't want to risk offending us by pointing out our "differentness" in the guise of a brown-skinned doll.

No matter. Our black dolls (all dubbed Christie by Mattel) have now been joined by Teresas (Latina), Kiras (Asian American), and an assortment of blonds and brunets. And the Kens they date are multiethnic as well, though I do notice that the dark brown Ken always seems to snag the best-looking girl.

Today's Barbies, it seems, live much more luxuriously than the dolls I remember. They have motor homes and off-road vehicles, swimming pools and show horses, boomboxes and cellular phones.

But those novelties tend to wind up on the scrap heap at my house. So the Barbie Dream House that set Santa back $200 a few years ago now sits in dusty pieces in the garage, while my girls use a laundry basket, pillows and shoe boxes to construct Barbie's home.

And while I'm not privy to much of what goes on in that home--they play in their bedroom, behind a closed door--I can reconstruct from the remnants they leave behind a life very much like the ones my Barbies led 30 years ago.

It's a world of pretend weddings, shopping trips and visits with friends, where the dolls all have names like Krista and Stacey and Kelli. And while it may seem a throwback to less progressive days, it's also a familiar touchstone for this fortysomething mom.

Most times these days, my children's childhood seems so different from my own, with its interactive videos and parent-arranged play dates and organized sports.

But Barbie remains a vestige of earlier, less complicated times, when our play was dictated mainly by our imaginations, not by parents consumed with keeping us on schedule and enriching our minds.

I don't believe my children rely on Barbie to define for them a woman's role or dictate a cultural standard of beauty. Their lives are far too cosmopolitan for that.

But I do know that I rely on her. A good game of Barbie is still the only way I know to keep three little girls occupied for hours on end.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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