By Abby Otte.
When people attempt to sum me up for a stranger, it usually goes something like this: “Abby is tall and blonde.”
My parents like to say that when I was born I came out all limbs. My arms and legs stretched from my body like taffy. As I aged I used them to hold tight to my dad, my legs wrapping around his waist and clinging, my feet crossed and locked at his stomach. My little monkey, he would whisper, his head turned to the side in profile. My nose. My eyebrows.
I was born with light brown hair, grayish in pictures. The “blonde” came a few years later, when I was three and it was suddenly sprouting from my head like faded sunflower petals. Natural highlights, my mom joked. As I grew up during those Kansas summers, I spent whole days at the pool, my skin deepening to crisp honey and my hair brightening. Over the years my natural blonde has faded, but I’ve kept up the charade with unnatural highlights, and more dollars than I’d like to admit. For me, once a blonde, always a blonde.
Like thousands of girls across the country—across the globe, really—I also grew up with a Barbie perpetually in my hands, like a long blonde finger. And like all those girls, I brushed her hair, whipped her around in her miniature pink convertible, and assigned several outfits to her in a single session of playtime. A sequinned skirt for dinner dates with Ken. Blue jeans when she played with her sister, Skipper. Swimsuits for lounging beneath an open sky in my backyard with me, her bleached hair like a speck of the sun itself splayed across my beach towel.
Barbie is tall and blonde. Eleven-and-a-half inches high, she has a reputation for unreasonable physical proportions—36-16-33 on a human female five feet, nine inches tall. Barbie has been redesigned recently to compete with the Bratz dolls, but we always think of Barbie as curvaceous—and as blonde. No matter how many brunettes or international avatars or ethnically varied dolls Mattel puts out, my Barbie is tall and blonde.
In grade school I became acutely aware of my height, noticing that I was usually the tallest in my classes of boys and girls, and when I was eight I wrote a poem that I taped to my headboard and read every night before I went to sleep. It went something like this:
I stretch to the sky,
Long and tall.
But let me be not so high.
I’d like to shrink, please,
To the green grass below,
Farther from the trees,
Which blow and blow and blow.
I dreamed about miraculously becoming smaller, and I convinced myself most nights that it would happen, that I’d wake up with a few inches cut out of my torso like a slice from a round of cheese. When I was thirteen I hit 5’8” and then my growth slowed, allowing the kids around me to catch up—at least some of them. Over the course of the following few years I grew only an inch, topping off at 5’9,” Barbie’s human height.
Why did being tall bother me so much? Likely because it made me different from my young peers, who were adept at picking out any irregular characteristic and constantly drawing your attention to it. Because I was tall I was encouraged to play basketball, and in grade school I could stand beneath the hoop and rebound without jumping, my arms reaching two feet farther than the girls below me. I’d shoot and miss, shoot and miss, the ball returning to me each time, until I finally hit the backboard just right and the ball fell through the net with the sound of escaping air.
I’ve always been slender, too, and although I lack Barbie’s figure in the way of hips and breasts, I undoubtedly receive unwelcome attention—both negative and positive—for my physique. Women have told me I’m lucky, that they covet my body.
“You’re thin! It must be so great.”
But I’ve also been told, by both women and men, that I should eat a hamburger, that I don’t have the desirable hourglass curves. While walking on the sidewalk one day, a woman said to me, “Girl, you need to eat something, you have no ass.”
Despite how desperately I wish I could speak up in defense of myself, I usually walk off when comments like this are thrown my way, always a bit surprised, always a bit hurt.
But being tall—and slender—is only half of my superficial definition. The other half is (again) blonde, a feature that I intermittently love and hate. After a good visit to the beauty salon I walk out feeling brighter, my mood reflecting my lightened locks.
The parallel to Barbie’s beach-blonde hair came mostly during my undergraduate years, when I experimented with platinum blonde. I kept it long then, too, and frequently curled it so it fell a third of the way down my back in a cascade of sun-tipped waves.
But the comparison to Barbie has always made me cringe, probably because Barbie has too often been defined by her hair and by her shape. It’s what she’s known for: Barbie is tall and blonde. A likening to Barbie is a simplification of myself, like looking at A Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and saying: That’s a sky, that’s a village. I feel cheap.
It’s not that I don’t want to be blonde. I like being blonde. But I hate being limited to blonde. And, of course, there are all those blonde stereotypes that never cease to be annoying.
Aspirations and Aspersions
When I was a child, Barbie was my best friend.
Most mornings, I’d kneel close to my special Barbie, look into her dinner-plate eyes rimmed in blue eyeshadow, and ask, “What do you want to do today?”
When I was five her answer was, “Let’s go to the moon!” Because I had every intention of visiting there myself one day, which I imagined at night when I stared up onto my adhesive-star-speckled ceiling. The perfect glowing five-pointed stars were fixed in space millions of miles away, I told myself. Barbie and I reached toward them sometimes, on the nights I took her to bed with me. With Barbie in my hand and me on my tiptoes, we could almost reach the one directly above my pillow. Tall together.
When I was six Barbie’s answer was, “To the office.” Because by then I’d decided—like so many children—that I would inevitably do what my parents did. My mother was raising my brother, my sister, and me, driving one hour each way to her law office in Wichita. I loved her immeasurably and so I too chose to be a lawyer, and Barbie and I fought cases in court, filed papers, wrote on legal-lined paper. While working, Barbie wore brown and gray business suits, skirts reaching to the knees, and blazers snug around the waist. I’d take my mom’s conservative two-inch heels from her closet and strut around the house in them, Barbie lecturing from my hand about our client’s right to bathtub time.
Two girls, tall and blonde, could do anything.
But Barbie was not initially expected to succeed in the toy market. She bombed her first toy fair in New York City in 1959, as conservative and mostly male buyers thought her too racy or too three-dimensional for little girls used to playing first with baby dolls, then with paper dolls, never with a doll who was reminiscent of a full-grown woman or teenager (yes, despite the boobs, Barbie was supposed to be sixteen or seventeen).
But Mattel, Barbie’s home company, believed in her—and so did little girls who watched Mattel-sponsored television shows. By the end of 1959, Barbie was hugely successful and Mattel was rich.
But Barbie has been so judged over the years.
The course of my life has mirrored Barbie’s in many ways—like so many girls’ lives mirror Barbie’s. I grew up and became obsessed with friends, gossiping late at night while munching on Snickers and Twix and trying on each other’s clothes, the chocolate smears across collars like wet kisses we left behind. And, then came the obsession to be with boys. I fell in love for the first time when I was seventeen—Barbie’s age—with his brown hair and goofy smile, with the black Jeep he said he’d never trade in, and his uncanny ability to name any song that came on the radio. By then, of course, I’d abandoned Barbie for more age-appropriate activities, but I can see now how Barbie—a teenage fashion doll—was more a part of my life than I realized.
When I was ten and my mom moved us from our three-story house to a rented one-story, I filled multiple plastic bins with clothes, accessories, hairbrushes, and other accouterments. By then I owned several Barbies, including some with specific careers; they eventually came to sit boxed and locked in a crowded, musty storage shed—in one of several rows—that sat next to an empty field with a Walmart just across the way.
By then I’d also flipped through pages of old photo albums and found my mom on the day of her high school graduation, just-turned-eighteen with sandy blonde hair big from curlers, long like mine and dropping to her chest like coiled ribbons.
Last summer, when my mom and I were in the process of consolidating our storage, she pulled out my Barbie bins and slid them across the floor to me.
“Do you want any of this?” she asked.
I hadn’t seen my Barbies in years. “You kept these?” I asked.
“Of course.” My mom ran a hand through her bangs, leaving them fluffed up like Barbie’s so often were. Her hair was swept into a lazy ponytail; some pieces too short to reach the band brushed her neck. “You basically spent your childhood with them.”
I laughed because she was right. I opened one lid. It was like looking into a time capsule of childhood in the nineties. Totally Hair Barbie lay on top: a blonde bombshell with big bangs and blue eyes, her top row of teeth visible between parted lips. Mermaid Barbie and Dr. Barbie lay nearby, piled on top of dresses the length of my palm and shoes fit for my pinkie fingernail.
A fleeting twinge of indecision. “No,” I finally said.
Despite the hours we spent together during my childhood, I now felt an inexplicable distaste for this 11.5-inch slender-legged plastic toy and the array of accessories my mom had spent a small fortune on.
With this fortune in mind, my mom took another glance at the bins and said, “We’ll keep them for now.”
During the sixteen intervening years, from the time I placed my Barbies in the bin to when I took them out last summer, something had shifted. It wasn’t the reaction I expected from myself. I would have thought that upon gazing at a dearly loved childhood best friend, I’d be struck by nostalgia, an overwhelming wistfulness. But as Totally Hair Barbie reclined in my hand, all I saw was this: long, blonde, thin.
Life With Barbie, After Barbie
A few nights ago I was trying to explain to a few friends why it bothers me to be described—first and foremost—as tall and blonde. The men in the group didn’t understand.
“But you are tall and blonde.”
It was when a girlfriend piped up that it became more clear. “If you were telling a friend about me,” she said, “you wouldn’t say, ‘She’s short and brunette.’”
Everyone agreed. My friend, instead, would be described as a happy, positive, witty hula-hooper who has a dog named Novia.
When I opened that plastic lid and saw Barbie in that box, I saw what people see in me: a girl who is tall and blonde. And I was reminded of all the times I’ve been compared to Barbie, of the parallels people draw because of my appearance. And, mostly, people think this is a comparison I’ll be happy about, that I’ll welcome the swift, comprehensive association.
It’s not Barbie precisely that I felt an inexplicable distaste for, it’s what I see of myself in her. I think most girls—and boys!—who grew up playing with Barbie have a unique relationship with the doll, and mine is that people often fail to see beyond my exterior, in much the same way Barbie is constantly criticized for her exterior. Because, when I consider it, Barbie was a large contributor to my world of make-believe and not the propagator of impossible female body standards she’s so often made out to be.
I’ve been asking myself lately: Why can’t I rewrite what the words tall and blonde mean? Each has an abundance of connotations, overtones I’ve shirked. But, like Barbie, it’s time I make these my own, that I accept that I’m much more than my appearance, that it’s others who want to define me, that I may be both tall and blonde but I’m also capable of going to the moon, or winning a lawsuit in a courtroom full of people. I can, like Barbie, win over reluctant store executives at the will of the people.
Maybe I’ll be a teacher. Maybe I’ll work at the health food store down the road, where they serve the best garlic quinoa I’ve ever had and where there’s a perpetual scent of ginger. Or maybe I’ll find a way to make this writing thing work. Whatever it is, I’m certain that I can be absolutely anything I want to be.
A tall and blonde girl taught me that.
For more on Barbie, see “Making Friends with Midge,” from the debut issue of Broad Street, “Dangerous Territory.” Susann Cokal’s essay was recently awarded a Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes. Read it in full here. —The Editors