What makes a perfect Barbie Doll?
Is it her hair, her clothes or the little girl who adores her?
When I was 10 years old, I was invited to my neighbours Barbie doll birthday party. The premise was simple. Each of us were asked to bring their best Barbie to the party to share with their friends. This was at the height of the Barbie craze in the 90’s where every girl had at least 3 Barbie dolls. I did too and I loved them all dearly.
I spent the entire afternoon dressing up my Barbie. I had a few outfits which my mother had bought for me but after many rounds of trials, I decided that none of them worked. She needed a new outfit. The party was in the evening and there was no time to go and buy something new. So I decided to make one.
My mother always had fabric scraps lying in a white crumpled plastic bag under her dressing table. I dug it out, along with her needle kit. There were a few white buttons in there as well. This had suddenly become an exciting afternoon. I started with making a long skirt using an embroidered fabric stitched and held together with a white button. I used another contrasting fabric to create a dupatta which draped beautifully and then added a thin metal wire as a waistband. A small bangle adorned her head. A delicate gold necklace I had ripped off another doll was gently placed on her neck. When the work was done, I was proud of what I had put together.
I was excited to go to the party and share what I had created. When I entered the room, all the girls had brought their fanciest Barbies. From satin gowns to disco heels, they were all shining new. My Barbie was not new. She was old and worn and used. She was also my favourite. No one looked at her.
Suddenly there was an announcement from the birthday girl’s mother. It was time for the competition. We were all made to stand in line and show off our Barbie Dolls to the mother who would then proceed to judge and choose the prettiest. I was horrified. Not only had my Barbie not been noticed or appreciated; now she would be subjected to critique. I had no choice but to stand in line. When my turn came, the birthday girl’s mother asked me what I had brought. I explained that I had made her clothes. She smiled at me kindly, patted my head and mumbled something along the lines of “very good.” It was over in less than a minute.
I walked away awkwardly, wondering if I should find a chair in the corner of the room or go hide somewhere else when I heard everyone in the room let out gasps of “oohs and aahs.” I turned to see what the fuss was about and saw the birthday girl’s mother holding a Barbie dressed in a white satin wedding gown, complete with a tiara. She was beautiful, new and straight out of a box. The mother’s eyes were shinning in amazement. The Barbie had dazzled everyone in the room. She won the competition. There was a round of applause. All the girls gathered around the winner to look at her closely. I hugged my Barbie tightly, waiting for the cake cutting and then left the party.
I have avoided all kinds of fancy themed birthdays after that. And if for some reason I could not get out of attending one, I refused to participate. My mother never understood why I took it so personally. I was never able to articulate it either.
Twenty nine years later, I was lazing in the drawing room on a hot Sunday afternoon, when my daughter asked me if I had any fabric lying around. I did and I gave her whatever I could find. She refused to tell me why. She shut herself up in her room and told me not to enter until she opened the door. I was happy that she was occupied and took this precious opportunity to read a book I had been meaning to finish for over a year.
After a while, she walked up to me, her eyes shining with excitement. She was ready to show me what she had been working on. I was allowed in to her room and was asked to sit on the bed with my eyes closed. On the count of three, I was to open my eyes. I did as I was told, curious and equally excited.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that my daughter had cut up fabric swatches, glued pieces together and created a dress which she had draped on her doll. She needed help in stapling it up. I helped her put it together after which she proceeded to go through her jewellery (most of which she had made with clay) to find the perfect pieces for her new outfit. The dress was creative, original, thoughtfully put together and absolutely beautiful.
My daughter tentatively asked me what I thought of her work. I told her it was beautiful. She nodded in agreement.
I wonder what would have happened if she had taken this to a birthday party full of perfect Barbie Dolls. Would someone have noticed her effort, enthusiasm and creativity? Or would the birthday girl’s mother have patted her on her head, smiled kindly and mumbled a few words of encouragement? Would I have asked her why she took it so personally? Would she have been able to articulate why she was upset?
With all the technological advancement in our lives and that of our children, with all the resources on parenting available at our fingertips and with all the different pedagogies of education, are we able to see children as smart, creative thinkers? Are we able to appreciate their differences without comparing them to industry standards, peer standards and our own standards?
Because if the answer is no, then memories that haunt me from twenty nine years ago, will continue. And we will wonder why our kids are not performing in spite of all the effort we are making for them.
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