Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Dolls I Bought For Sasha

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.

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pink and green mama MaryLea said...

This is great Tom, and yes, we have a at least 50% of our current Barbie populace living in a naked state. Only the very favorite one or two dolls get regular outfit changes and the ones that don't get played with also stay dressed. Probably means I should purge 50% of our Barbies!

satyamara said...

sweet...i like how things come around like that too...

Scott said...

That's why I like to buy stuff. One day I'll have a child (or group of children) who will need it. :)

Jenny said...

Two stories came to mind as I read this. First off, a good friend was not allowed to have Barbies as a child because her parents were concerned about what having Barbies would do for her self image. For many years she was anorexic and still struggles. My daughters have Barbies.

Secondly, my daughter's babysitter when she was a toddler had a bunch of dolls for the kids. They, like yours, often ended up naked. Once the kids named them, she would write the name on one butt cheek so that she could determine the name at all times.

Unknown said...

Teacher Tom, I'm glad someone-- specifically my daughter Sasha-- finally played with those unpopular, neglected dolls you bought 9 years ago! I'm glad you didn't give up putting those dolls out; otherwise, Sasha would have missed out playing with them. I read your blog often (although this is my 1st time commenting. I'm very "comment shy") but thought I'd write to let you know how I really enjoyed reading this post in particular for it gave me a little glimpse of a moment of her time in school that day that I wouldn't of known about had you not written about it. So thank you! I've started printing out posts you've written that mentions Sasha. I plan to save it in a scrapbook and give it to her when she's older to remind her of all the fun she had in preschool and Teacher Tom's class.

Trisha said...

Sorry for off-topic comment:

You've probably already seen Stewart's take on cutting 8M from public schools in WI, but here it is.