Forget Marmite. The world can be divided into two camps: did you, or didn’t you have one? Yes, I’m talking Barbie, and whether you were one of the lucky kids whose parents could afford the glamorous lifestyle of the doll first sold in 1958, the year I was born.
It’s the question my friends and I have been asking prior to the release of the movie Barbie on July 21st. And, interestingly, not one woman from my generation owned one. Every autumn, I remember the catalogues arriving at our house (‘Don’t tell people I buy from catalogues,’ warned Mum, not wanting the neighbours to know we were having, effectively, a hire purchase Christmas) and sitting down excitedly to choose what I wanted Santa to send me.
Barbie. I wanted Barbie. Already a child with stars in my eyes, influenced by the F. Maurice Speed’s Film Review books Mum gave me to pacify my strangely early Hollywood cravings, I wanted a doll with a lifestyle to which I could aspire – and a figure to match.
Barbie was everything I was not. Alas, I was a chunky child (I’m a chunky adult, too, but that’s by the by). When I went to ballet, aged seven, the end of term concert featured 32 snowflakes – and six fishermen for those deemed unworthy of looking good in tutus. I was a fisherman. I can still feel the agony of that elasticated gingham top sinking into my upper arms; the top of my legs sweating under brown cotton. The snowflakes were standing by to pirouette in their delicate pink satin pumps, waiting in the wings for their magnificent debut. I glanced at them enviously from the stage where I stood with my bamboo rod, catching an imaginary fish. I remember every step of that alleged ‘dance’ to this day. The Sugar Plum Fairy it was not.
So, Barbie was my dream girl. A fantasy. The girl I thought I might become, who would live happily ever after with the man of her dreams, the penis-free Ken.
But I never got her. Despite years of drawing black felt tip pen circles around the film star doll in the Jones and Kay catalogues, Santa never delivered. What did I get? Sindy. Basically, Barbie Lite.
It was probably a question of economics. My parents were not rich and had to count every penny. When the Corona pop man came for the weekly delivery, we had two choices: one plain lemonade (the cheapest) and one dandelion and burdock (the most expensive), or two orangeades (middle range price). My brother and I were never allowed two chocolate biscuits; one chocolate, one plain – luxury had to be tempered with ordinariness.
And we could forget having a hot dog from the burger van, tempting us with the smell of fried onions when we returned to the car park following a day at the beach. ‘They’ll give you worms,’ said Mum.
I had to make do with Shredded Wheat for breakfast, when all I wanted was Farley’s rusks. But no: ‘They’ll give you worms.’
Instead of the meat and two veg dinner and pudding served up every day after school, I wanted Ritz crackers. No, again. ‘They’ll give you worms.’
It took me years to realise that ‘worms’ was a euphemism for ‘We can’t afford it.’
I’m not sure how my parents managed to distract me from Barbie, although I’m pretty certain they didn’t go down the worm route. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Sindy was clearly the cheaper option; that much was clear from her wardrobe.
Barbie was always dressed for a film premiere; Sindy was an outdoorsy type – the kind of girl of whom fishermen are made. The year that Santa delivered her, she was wearing a ski costume: a striped sweater, trousers and a hat.
Not even Sindy’s bedroom, which I finally got after about five years pushing her around on the the slopes and breaking Sindy’s leg off in the process, was enough to placate me. Neither was Mum’s attempt to jazz up her wardrobe by knitting her a few more sweaters (Bless her; she really, really tried). The white wardrobe and quilted bedspread with its gold trim didn’t do the trick, either. Even her nightdress was a letdown. She could have been a corpse for all the glamour it exuded.
Dissatisfied with chunky Sindy, I nagged again for Barbie. Not a chance. This time, Santa delivered Tressy, a girl with a waist the circumference of my little finger and breasts that would put the Eiger to shame. Tressy’s selling point was that she had a button in her stomach that you pressed while tugging at her hair, thereby turning it into a ponytail. When you fancied Tressy with shorter hair, you wound the key in her back to reel the locks in again.
Tressy met a sad end when I snapped her head off when her ponytail did not meet my excessive demands.
Tiny Tears was another doomed non-Barbie experiment. This was (and still is) a doll that cries and wets itself ‘just like a real baby.’ She also looks like the original model for Chucky. Mum made me a nightdress for her in an attempt to distract me from her fluttering tarantula eyelashes giving me nightmares. That didn’t work. I was shedding more tears than the doll. Give every girl one of these and I swear the teenage pregnancy rate will plummet.
So, I’m not sure I will be going to see the Barbie movie; the publicity alone has induced in me a severe case of PTSD (Post Traumatic Sindy Disorder). It tells the story of what happens when Barbie and Ken enter the real world in their pursuit of true happiness.
Personally, I think they’re doomed. It’ll give them worms.