If you've ever had Barbies in your house, you know that they spend most of their lives naked. At least my sister's did, as did my own daughter's. The point of the Barbie doll, I foolishly thought, was to own one or maybe two, then to acquire new outfits for them that were continually traded out. You know, like with real people.
I was quickly to learn as a parent, however, that this was not the case. The shape of the Barbie body, the stiffness of the limbs, and the tendency for all those little fingers to get hooked up in everything, made dressing these cartoonish characters nearly impossible for little hands. If they were going to get dressed, it was going to require either adult assistance or a very persistent child. And once that outfit was off, and it happened with regularity each time a friend came over to play, it tended to stay off.
Personally, I do not object to the Barbie doll. I know it's supposed to somehow create unreal expectations of unattainable beauty for little girls, but I don't buy it. The Barbie, to my mind, is just another princess, a powerful figure in the lives of many little girls, an exaggerated expression of our society's idea of femininity, one that plays into a preschooler's developmentally appropriate exploration of the extreme manifestations of the stereotypes of her gender. Playing with Barbies is no more an indicator of a future as a superficial bimbo, than playing with Star Wars figures is a predictor of a little boy growing into a violent bully. All the research shows that those futures have almost everything to do with the values and behaviors of a child's parents.
That said, I didn't want to have the argument at Woodland Park, so when I thought 9 years ago that it would be fun to have some dress-up dolls around the classroom, I went for a set that represents slightly older children than the ones I teach in the hopes that they would still bear with them the shine of being aspirational, without having to deal with the adult objections to giant breasts, waspish waists, disproportionate legs, and poofy hair. They have been, in a word, resounding flops. They come out every year, they do manage to get naked, then they get scattered around the floor, walked on, tripped over, and otherwise neglected.
This week they've been engaged in their annual festival of neglect and humiliation, until yesterday when I noticed Sasha, alone, playing with them.
"Sasha is playing with the dolls," I said, working on my descriptive (or informative) speaking.
She was wrestling with a tiny windbreaker with an itty bitty zipper. She handed the jacket and doll to me, "Teacher Tom, will you help me?"
"Sure." I took the windbreaker and wrapped it around the doll, laying it on the floor as a sign of completion.
"That's not the right way."
"It looks right."
"It's not." She then very carefully pulled one sleeve up a stiff arm, picking the individual fingers free when they got caught up in the nylon one by one, repeating the process with the second sleeve, patiently manipulating the arms into an angle that worked for her process because the second arm is always more challenging than the first.
I said, "You put it on."
She handed the doll to me again, "I can't do the zipper."
I got it started for her, showing her how to insert one side into the other, then handed it back saying, "You can do the zipper now." She did.
Sasha then proceeded to clothe all the dolls in the basket, carefully, meticulously, using the tips of her fingers to manipulate those little socks and shoes, leaving only the zippers open, no longer turning to me for help. In fact, I shut up entirely and just sat with her, given that my previous forays into conversation had resulted in requests for unneeded assistance.
I'm glad I had the insight 9 years ago to buy these dolls for her.