Roughly two years ago I experienced an odd series of events that has been itching at the back of my mind ever since. More than odd, it was pretty irking and more than “events” it was the same event, three times, in slightly different contexts. So, an unfortunate series of event? We’ll work on the name.
The event was this: on three separate occasions males told me, in a complimentary tone, that I looked like a Barbie.
First off, in case there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t actually know me (unlikely) let’s just clear up that I don’t look like a Barbie doll. There are those women who spend a lot of time and surgery trying to look like a Barbie and I am not one of those women. I am a much more typical woman, fairly unremarkable looking, albeit tall and on the thin side with long, blondish (bronde—I’m told that the color is bronde) hair.
So, I resemble Barbie as much as, say, any guy with brown hair resembles Jon Hamm, which is to say, they resemble each other in that they are people. Except wait, no, because I don’t even resemble Barbie that much because she is not a person. But she is person-shaped? Except, no, she’s not even truly person-shaped. So I resemble Barbie the way Jon Hamm resembles a GI Joe. Except maybe even less than that, now that I’m google-image-searching “Jon Hamm GI Joe.”
I think I understand what these gentlemen meant. I understand that they were saying something like, “you resemble typical beauty standards.” I understand it was meant as a compliment. But my brain won’t let me process it like that, because it’s not that simple.
The first time this happened a teenage relative of mine said it—Someone who speaks his mind fairly freely, undeniably has no attraction to me, and typically makes no comment on my physical appearance, period. It surprised me to hear him say anything about my looks and I thought, what a funny kid and didn’t follow the thought much further. Until it happened twice more in a three week period.
The other two times were more the scenario you’d imagine—grown men I don’t know giving what they think is a killer compliment.
The thing is, I don’t think being anything like Barbie is a compliment, and I think many women would agree with me. First off, we all know about her unrealistic measurements and the fact that the first Teen Talk Barbie said “Math class is tough!” We all know that the term “Barbie” is basically a synonym for bimbo.
When I think of Barbie I remember a time when, as a college student, a female friend and I discussed a third female friend, whose body we thought was perfect. One or the other of us said, “her breasts are so perfect they look fake, but they’re not.” As that sentence came out, we both felt a little strange about it, both realized how screwy it was. Now, I’m certainly not saying that plastic surgery is wrong or bad. I’m certainly not saying that women (or men) should or should not have plastic surgery. What I am saying is that a beauty standard being set by something seemingly unachievable in nature is pretty effed. And that, further than that, beauty “standards” in general are effed, since one of the beautiful things about the human race is its capacity for variety in forms.
However, in the context of being compared to a Barbie, more troubling than her simple appearance is her mechanism: Barbie is a doll. She cannot move on her own. She cannot speak, even, unless the right button is pushed. And the full range of what she might say has already been programmed.
I am reminded of a strip joint I walked by in Key West years ago, called “Living Dolls,” and how that name has haunted me. How not all—not even most—but some men want not real women as companions, but living dolls, who act, move, dress, speak and screw like they want.
I am reminded of a past relationship where my boyfriend told me how to dress, how to dye my hair. I remember him writing an essay for a creative nonfiction class where my character was not even given a name. I remember his petulance when I was accepted to a competitive study abroad program and he was not. I remember being shocked that this came as a surprise to him; I had always been the better student. I remember thinking, he wants me to be smart enough to make him look good, but not so smart he feels inferior. I remember that right before we broke up he gave me a list of graduate schools where he wanted me to apply. I remember that he did that in the library, right in front of a friend, and how humiliating it was. That the friend and I walked outside and she told me it was like he wanted a porcelain doll and not a girlfriend. That I said, I think I have to break up with him and she said, you do.
I remember how when I cut him out and changed my hair he laughed and said a haircut wouldn’t change anything. I remember that it took weeks to actually break up because he didn’t listen to me, didn’t accept what I was saying. I remember that in the final conversation he hissed you’ll always be crazy, a last ditch effort to control.
Now I feel as though I hardly know the girl who dated him. But I can see how she was stiff yet accommodating. I can see the way she shrunk and contorted herself to make room for a man who did not desire her wholeness. I can see calling her a Barbie. But even that would be cruel.