Barbie is a feminist icon and the role model little girls need today

According to author and Barbie expert Susan Shapiro, Barbie has always been a feminist who encouraged self-acceptance and reinvention.

According to author and Barbie expert Susan Shapiro, Barbie has always been a feminist who encouraged self-acceptance and reinvention.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Mattel partnered with Headspace, a meditation app, to introduce a line of wellness Barbies to promote self-care through play. Barbie has always been my guru.

Growing up the only girl in a big Midwest clan of three brothers, I had 68 Barbies, 12 Little Kiddles and multi-cultural Dawn dolls so tiny that instead of changing their clothes, I just switched their heads. My safe space was my doll domain, complete with Red-headed Barbie the Bombshell Queen, Skipper, Scooter, the Malibu Barbie triplets, cousin Francie, Casey, Christie, Julia, Stacey (visiting from England.)

Too cramped to all fit in my Dream House, plastic convertible and camper, they resided in a boot box extension. They slept on my mother’s Maxi-Pads-turned-cots and in her size 9 high heels that doubled as pod beds.

Mattel recently launched a line of

Mattel recently launched a line of “wellness” Barbies, which aim to promote self-care through play.

When I was 4, my (redheaded) Mom saw my doll kingdom spread out on my pink carpet. She yelled “No man is going to marry such a slob.”

No problem, I remembered thinking.

While growing up, Barbie helped me realize it was OK to reject my family’s conservative ideals

The idea of having a husband and four kids like my mom stressed me out. In graduate school, when I confessed my Barbie antics to a famous sex therapist, she said “that’s why you’re healthy, you worked out all your issues through your dolls.”

Indeed, it was Barbie who taught me I didn’t have to be a conservative wife and mommy taking care of other people in the suburbs.

Barbie helped me decompress, offering important life lessons: There were six Susans in my second grade class, which caused two to run home crying. Not me. Talking Barbie, Tropical Barbie, Color Magic Barbie had taught me that many girls had the same name, and you’ll become known for what you do best.

Barbie showed me it was possible to be both sexy and serious about a career

Barbie was the first doll to show girls that they could be both sexy and ambitious.

Barbie was the first doll to show girls that they could be both sexy and ambitious.
Getty/Ian Waldie

I also learned you could wear a hot bathing suit and lipstick while having multiple professions. Female companionship was essential, and a shortage of men wouldn’t ruin any party. With Ken as the only escort, I stole my brothers’ G.I. Joe for double dates with Midge. (I heard rumors of Ricky and Alan, but could never find them.) Amid 96 eligible females, Ken, and a bendable soldier, alternative lifestyles and gender fluidity were encouraged. Okay by me – as long as they followed one rule: Everyone shares clothes.

Unlike the popular Chatty Cathy and Betsy Wetsy baby dolls you were supposed to nurture back then, Barbie was a hip teenager with her own apartment, job and car. Mirroring her independence, I begged my parents for the Cutlass that cruised me to college at 16, where I too lived with female roommates.

Each Barbie had a different career, which made me see my own limitless options

Barbie was a model, singer, nurse, doctor and stewardess, proving it was cool to have many careers. She paved the way for my stints as an unpaid intern, receptionist, failed poet, editorial assistant, paperback book critic, part-time teacher and broke freelancer.

Researching a book for Barbie’s 60th anniversary, I was thrilled to discover that Ruth Handler, a fellow Jewish workaholic from a big clan with lots of brothers, created Barbara Millicent Roberts, the world’s most famous blonde WASP. In many ways, Ruth was a woman’s rights advocate and female health ambassador way before her time.

Susan Shapiro is the author of

Susan Shapiro is the author of “Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration,” published by Assouline.

Like me, she got a car for her 16th birthday. She was driving her Ford Coupe when she spotted Elliot Handler and fell for him. While I gave my beau an ultimatum to cough up a ring, Ruth took it farther and proposed to hers. I found a fellow scribe; she went all out to become business partners with her mate.

Ruth Handler realized that many little girls simply didn’t want to play ‘mommy’ with their dolls

Bored as a stay-at-home mom, Ruth overheard her daughter with girlfriends playing with adult cut-out dolls and realized: little girls didn’t want chubby baby dolls to take care of. They wanted to be older girls. An adult-looking plaything was impossible to create inexpensively, Ruth was told. While traveling to Switzerland in 1956, she saw Lilli, a female doll with a shapely body. Ruth showed Lilli to her design team to recreate, naming the dolls after her children, Barbara and Kenneth.

Ruth too saw a shrink. In her case, it was to consult a psychologist – who found little girls wanted to be as sexy and glamorous as Barbie, but mothers saw the doll as cheap and vulgar. (No wonder I loved her.)

I was not an instant hit in Manhattan, and neither was Barbie. My dad and brothers thought my poetry degree was a waste. After Barbie’s debut as a bombshell teen fashion model at the New York Toy Fair in March of 1959, male buyers thought Ruth was crazy to sell a big breasted toy.

I struggled to find my voice, while Ruth Handler pushed to create a doll that didn’t conform to society’s modest standards

Yet Ruth and I believed in ourselves. I struggled to find my voice away from my family. She fought for her unmarried female doll with an identity all her own.

Ruth pitched the first Barbie TV commercial to girls during “The Mickey Mouse Club,” broadcast directly to kids, fascinating young females like me – who begged their moms to buy her. Ruth changed the consumer from parent to child. Mattel went public in the ’60s around when I surfaced, with Ruth as president.

She shrewdly marketed Ken to girls needing a date for Barbie. Ken was the boyfriend and sidekick, but Barbie was the star.

With a brilliant physician father and three sharp science-brain siblings, of course I preferred my female-dominated Barbie world.

In my worst year on the East Coast, I was fired from my book reviewer job. I started teaching and wound up on “The Today Show” to promote my funny debut sex book. At Ruth’s lowest point out West, she was ousted from her own company.

After a double mastectomy, Ruth Handler launched a line of custom prosthetics at a time when it was a taboo topic

After surviving double mastectomy from breast cancer, the only prosthetics available were awkwardly shaped, ill-fitting and the wrong size. Doctors told her to stuff her bra cup with stockings.

Instead Ruth consulted Mattel’s design team and a top prosthetist to design custom-made falsies. In 1977, she launched Nearly Me who made lovely comfortable silicone and polyurethane bras and other soft healthcare products designed to give women a natural shape, comfortable fit and restore their confidence.

A taboo subject decades before the proliferation of reconstructive surgery, Ruth was determined to make women’s health part of the conversation. She stripped off her shirt for a People Magazine photo shoot, explaining there were 90,000 breast removals a year, one in every 13 women in America. She plugged her foam breasts on “The Dick Cavett Show,” asking him to feel her new bosom.

Early on, Ruth Handler pushed to diversify Barbie and introduced African-American dolls

Hating prejudice she’d experienced as a Jew, she pushed Mattel to create African-American dolls early on, like Christie and Julia (after Diahann Carroll’s TV nurse.)

When her married son Ken contracted AIDS from a gay liaison, she supported him and took him to doctors before he died. After 20 years of exclusion, Mattel’s new female president asked Ruth to help publicize Barbie’s new professions as astronaut, doctor, dancer, soldier and president, reuniting Ruth with Mattel.

When she died at 85, the 2002 obituaries reinstated Ruth as the woman behind the worldwide bestselling American icon. Barbie had a 98% recognition rate – higher than the American president and the Queen of England.

Early on, Ruth Handler pushed to make Barbie more inclusive.

Early on, Ruth Handler pushed to make Barbie more inclusive.

But Barbie’s founder still faced criticism

We both had missteps that irked feminists.

I was accused of defending men and marriage, getting addicted to false eyelashes and fad diets. Ruth was pummeled that Barbie’s measurements were the equivalent of 39-18-33. In the documentary “Tiny Shoulders,” Gloria Steinem said “Barbie was everything we didn’t want to be…everything the feminist movement was trying to escape.”

Through decades of ups and downs, Ruth and Barbie taught me that successful females roll with the punches, breathe in deeply, regenerate, then reinvent themselves to stay relevant.

Mattel went on to create dolls with disabilities and sophisticated interests

In modern day, Mattel launched dolls with more realistic shapes and disabilities, diverse “Sheroes” like artist Frida Kahlo, aviator Amelia Earhart and gymnast Gabby Douglas, along with Game Developer, Lab Scientist and Robotics Engineer Barbie.

“We need to see brilliant women being brilliant” became their Dream Gap slogan, echoing Ruth’s philosophy.

When I asked my editor friend Julie if I could get her young daughters Barbies, she balked, relenting only when I found President Barbies (long before Hillary, Elizabeth, Amy and Kamala were in the running.)

Stopping by, they were awed by the Batgirl and Poison Ivy Barbies I’d kept in their original containers on my shelf. In my 40s, I handed them over. I was a happily married adult author who played with words, not dolls. Time to be mature and move on.

Or maybe not.

For my birthday, a package came with Poison Ivy and Batgirl. It felt like good Barbie karma.

“You can get anything on eBay,” my husband winked, reminding me how chill it was to live in an actual Dream House filled with books, my old dolls and real-life Ken.