Okay, I’ll admit it – on some level I wanted to look like Barbie. Even though I intellectually knew that she wasn’t real and didn’t resemble any person I knew, that skinny piece of painted plastic still had the power to make me feel woefully inferior, if I let it. There was something about her silent perfection that could not help but scream “pretty,” “hip” and “athletic” to me, especially when she was dressed up to go hiking or rollerblading with the ever-hunky Ken.
Of course, most children go through something like this as we are growing up. And because I did not develop MS until well into adulthood, I at least did not have the additional burden of incorporating a cane, a walker or a wheelchair into my developing self-image. That would only have made things more difficult and infinitely more confusing.
And it’s not just Barbie. Traditionally, images have abounded on television and in books and movies about “desirable” people, who almost never include people with disabilities (unless we are shown as unrealistically cheery and inspirational or as sinister and even evil, driven mad by our disabilities).
But it’s refreshing to see that things are slowly but steadily changing. There are more television shows, movies and even commercials that feature people with disabilities as just regular people – because that’s all we really are.
And it was good to read that later in 2019, Mattel is going to introduce new Barbie dolls that will look a lot more like real people. As shown in the above photo and accompanying CNN article, the dolls will be varied in their bodies, hair, skin and clothes, just like we all are. And significantly, one of the dolls is a wheelchair user and another one has a removable prosthetic leg.
So while the new Barbie is not going to feed the world, stop global warming or eliminate all discrimination, she can at least provide a little reassurance to children with disabilities who want to feel a little more connected to a very confusing world.
UPDATE: I’m now in my 60’s and have had multiple sclerosis for about three decades. I haven’t played with dolls for a long time, and I think I’m pretty much over “Barbie Envy.”
But when I feel particularly frustrated with my limping and tripping, it gives me some measure of comfort to see more and more people like me represented on television, in movies and elsewhere in the public domain. It reminds me that “real” people are not (usually) made of plastic!