I was born in 1958. So was Mattel’s best-selling toy ever, the Barbie Doll. These are not unrelated events in my mind, or my life. I had my first Barbie by the time I learned to say “Barbie,” right after I learned to say “Daddy.” I kept this plastic epitome of ‘50s beauty and femininity enshrined in a pink, vinyl box. She was decked out in a skin-tight bathing suit and spiked sandals. She had long hair and a blob of black plastic at the end of her baby blue lidded eyes, high cheekbones with a splash of color and ruby red lips. Her breasts were huge and pointy while her waist was almost non-existent. Her legs were long and so were her fingers, capped off by red nails. She was da bomb. And I wanted to be just like her. She hadn’t yet become a doctor or a college professor or even a stewardess. She was perpetually 18-years-old and she had everything that I wanted. Beauty, style and true love. I never thought about whether she was smart or dumb. I knew that anyone that successful in attaining the best that life had to offer a girl in 1964 – a handsome boyfriend, a cute, but not as cute as her, friend, a fabulous wardrobe, a Dream House and a sports car – had to be smart. She was a force to be reckoned with. I doubt that I realized her power originated in her sex appeal but I knew there was something in those lips, those eyes, those breasts. And I wanted that kind of clout.
By the time I was twelve the women’s movement was in full swing. Just as I was developing breasts, breasts became a liability. I didn’t let that stop me in high school, even a uniform-wearing Catholic high school. Sex sells, I knew it then as surely as I know it now. I often claimed that my formless blouse was in the laundry and donned a sweater, a ribbed one, whenever possible. I rolled my pleated skirt up and pushed my socks down, revealing lots of adolescent leg. On weekends I favored halter-tops, hip hugger pants and platform shoes. I was da bomb.
I felt obliged to tone it down a bit in college as I set about becoming a “serious” woman. I attended a very Catholic, all-woman’s college that did not encourage living, breathing Barbie Dolls. I wore flannel shirts and cords to class, but there was always the weekend. Oh, the weekend! Fraternity parties, beer and boys. Could sex be far behind? Tight jeans and ribbed sweaters returned. These guys were not interested in my GPA or my career aspirations. This was the mating game, oldest competition in the world. No one ever asked me, as we gazed into each other’s eyes over a trashcan filled with grain alcohol, “What’s your major? What’s your IQ? What’s your position on the Equal Rights Amendment?” Do you look good, do you smell good, do you sway when you walk? That’s what mattered. And I did all three.
At the same time I managed to snag a couple of cute boyfriends I was also busy making Dean’s List. I was smart. Surprise, surprise. When GPAs were printed at the Registrar’s office there were little gasps when my name popped up. Some of my more unedited classmates even stopped me in the cafeteria to congratulate me, adding that I “didn’t look like the smart type.” Just what does smart look like? Apparently, it’s not attractive. Or sexy. Now, that’s stupid.
When I finally entered the workforce, the mostly masculine workforce of investment banking, I gave in and gave up. I wore seersucker jackets, sensible pumps and silk blouses with coordinating ties. I was a reverse Pygmalion. The world didn’t want to reveal my female charms; it wanted to strangle them with those blasted bows. I wore a pair of fake glasses too. I hoped that I finally looked as smart as I was.
Once I married and had children I was free to dress as I pleased, free being a relative term. Dressing for success meant wearing something washable and never required ironing. I was a housewife and mother. Nothing sexy about that.
I was still a mother when I re-entered the workforce in 1995, but no longer a wife. I didn’t work in the big city or for a big company anymore. No “uniform”. So, I experimented and romped. I wore flirty skirts, sleeveless sweaters and sandals. Spiked sandals, just like Barbie’s. I was woman, hear me roar. I was still a bit of an oddity among the working women I saw. They had suits and not even a hint of toe cleavage, much less cleavage cleavage. Bow ties were gone but silk blouses refused to die.
A decade later and we are in the 21st century. Barbie is 47-years-old. So am I. She looks pretty much the same. So do I. Things are a little droopier and my face is far from that smooth, plastic mask Barbie maintains, but, all in all, I’ve held up pretty well. So, blessed with the confidence wrought by middle age and the post-feminist backlash, I revel in my womanhood and my sexuality. Snug jeans cover my red leather boots, 4-inch heels exposed. Victoria Secret bras, the helpful ones, give ribbed sweaters new appeal. And my sleek brunette tresses have given way to wild, red curls. I look good, smell good and sway.
“Mid-life crisis,” that’s what some women my age sniff as I pass. Most men, including their husbands, sing a different tune. Sex still sells, I’m still smart. And Barbie still rules. No surprises here.