Friday, July 01, 2011

For Sophia

I took my Barbies with me when I visited my mother every other weekend and for six weeks in the summer. Every two weeks I'd pack a small suitcase for myself with a couple of outfits, toothbrush etc. as if I were going on a mini-vacation (and in many ways my visits with my mother were a vacation) and then I'd pack up my Barbies with several outfits for them, all impossible to get on, as well as numerous pairs of tiny shoes of the sort that were always getting lost.

I had two Barbies. One of them was old. Someone had given her to me but I can't remember who and I bet she'd be worth a fortune now, but she probably ended up in a yard sale bin once I hit puberty. That Barbie I named Christine and she had a very 1960s look to her with winged out eyeliner and platinum hair that had once probably been styled to look like Marilyn Monroe's. By the time Christine came to me, her hair had dreaded up into one big mat and no amount of pink plastic combing could undo it.

I liked the second Barbie much less. Her name changed depending on who I played with. She was a Malibu Barbie and looked like a stripper although I had no idea at the time what a stripper was or looked like. When I grew up and got a job at a real strip club one of my first thoughts upon seeing the dancers was that I bet all of them as little girls had really loved their Malibu Barbies much more than I had. Malibu Barbie always stole Ken from 1960s Barbie and if I had the luck to be playing with Dawn from across the street, she'd make them have sex in the upstairs, sky-lit bedroom of the Barbie Dream House. So see, even though I didn't know what an exotic dancer was, there was still an inherent sense of sluttiness in Malibu Barbie. It was so much so that if I was so unfortunate to be playing with the chunky Mennonite girl who also lived across the street, instead of Dawn her naughty neighbor, I didn't even get Malibu Barbie out of the toy box.

At the peak of my Barbie years my mother moved into a mostly black neighborhood and I immediately made friends with all the little black girls, whom I found fascinating with their beaded braids, fancy names and crazy mad double dutch skills. I never could get the hang of that, but I loved watching them and listening to the accompanying rhymes. I was jealous of the black girls. I believed that they lived in worlds of fun louder and more brightly colored than my own. None of them had parents who were together either but somehow this fact seemed less of a big deal in their lives than it did in mine. I envied their apparent lack of court appointed this and that and custody disputes, but when I saw what the black girls had to play with I nearly choked on my covetousness. 

The black girls all played with black Barbies. They had dolls who looked as they did, while all I had was two skanky blondes I couldn't relate to but played with anyway because that was all I had. 

I grew up in the pre-diversity days as a little white girl who didn't fit the beauty ideal for little white girls and I knew it. All the princesses were blonde, except Snow White and she was obviously my favorite. I couldn't get over the fact that she even had brown eyes. Snow White was the lone brunette in a fairytale universe of flaxen haired, sky eyed damsels in distress. Every book, every movie depicted Aryan heroines who looked nothing like me. There were no dolls with my complexion and so I had to settle for tow-headed baby dolls, all of them so pale that my basement playroom looked like a Swedish orphanage.

The message wasn't subtle even though it was never stated in words. If you aren't a blue eyed blonde, you're ugly. There was no place for skinny, scabby, brown haired girls with eyes the color of cola, knobby knees and dirty feet. I was ugly. Brown was ugly. Try to make a pleasant simile. Brown as blank. What comes to mind? Mud? Poop? Old Shoes? You can only compare brown to chocolate so many times you know. See. There aren't a lot of brown things that are beautiful and that proved it. I was brown so I was ugly. If I weren't ugly, they'd make dolls that looked like me and swarthy brunettes would be allowed castles and crowns too without having to be named Snow White as if to say "Hey I may have black hair, but look! I'm so white, it's my name! I swear! Look how white I am! Like snow."

Yeah well, I felt about as pure and white as snow that the dogs tinkled on.

But black girls. Wow. They had black Barbies. Albeit, the Black Barbies had white features like narrow, pert noses and thin lips. They also had silky, flowing white girl hair. I actually asked my friend Lucinda about that.

"Lucinda, why does your Barbie got white people hair even though she's black?"

"Duh," Lucinda replied, "My Barbie got her a perm. She use relaxer so she gots straight hair."

Made sense. Lucinda's mom's boyfriend was always giving her cash to go her hair did too and Lucinda's mom came out of the beauty parlor with hair as flat as mine.

But still, smooth hair, skinny lips and ski-jump noses aside, the black girls were doing a lot better than I was in the doll department. At least their Barbies looked pretty close to them.

I lost the genetic lotto I supposed. We couldn't all look like Briar Rose and after all, the teensy glass slipper only fit on one special foot.

But I was a take charge kind of kid, even back then. I've always believed that if things aren't the way you want, you have the power the change things. That was why I took a black permanent marker to Malibu Barbie's hair. I wanted brown but we didn't have a black marker and in the end the results were less than desirable. Malibu Barbie ended up looking like the vampire lady that hosted the Saturday afternoon horror movies on Channel Five with her white streaked, inky black locks.

After that summer, after I'd gone back home to my grandparents' house and gone back to playing with my old crowd of white girls and all of our blonde babies, my grandmother took me to a local department store.

It was in the fall. She had important errands to run and she allowed me to go look in the toy section of the store as long as I stayed there and acted right while she shopped. I was a good girl anyway. I knew not to ask for anything, throw a fit or run off with strangers. It had long since been drilled into my head that only terrible children, awful, rotten children asked for toys in stores and I came to believe that to want something was a sin right up there in heinousness as premeditated murder, so I was all prepared to simply look at the toys and play quietly with things not in packages until my grandmother came to get me.

But all this was before I saw the Italian Barbie.

Italian Barbie was total glamor. She had big earrings and wore a sheer, peasant top tucked into a silky skirt the colors of the Italian flag. She had a big purse and hot yellow pumps, but what I could not believe, what I could not get over was this. Italian Barbie wasn't a black girl and yet, there she was with a gorgeous head of dark brown hair Just   Like   Mine.  No, and it gets better. She had brown eyes (with blue eyeshadow even) and a tan, Mediterranean complexion that looked like my skin at the end of a long summer spent splashing in my grandparents' pool. This couldn't be happening.

I spent my entire half hour of freedom, alone in the toy section sitting on the dusty floor holding Italian Barbie's box, just staring at her.

I had to have this Barbie. It was a matter of life and death. I couldn't continue to breathe and eat and sleep and go to school or even play if I did not have this Barbie who looked like me. But how could I ask for her when I wasn't allowed to want things? What if someone else bought her? What if she was the only Barbie like this in existence and I missed out on having her because she was meant for me. That was all there was to it. She was my Barbie.

"Look at this beautiful Barbie. She looks like me," I told my grandmother who appeared utterly unmoved by the plastic brunette.

"Hmm. She looks like Sophia Loren."


"A movie star from a while back."

And that was the end of it.

Although I was not allowed to want things or to ask for them, there was one small loophole in this rule. I could make a Christmas list and I always made it before my birthday so as to loot as much crap that I wanted between Halloween and New Years. That year I wrote one thing on the list.  ITALIAN BARBIE.

My birthday rolled around and did I get the Italian Barbie? No I most certainly did not. I don't know what I got but it was probably clothes or something idiotic like that and I was despondent over it. They'd probably forgotten or maybe my family wanted me to play with blonde dolls. Maybe I was right and there was only one Italian Barbie and now she was gone. By Christmas I gave up hope. I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment.

But you know what? My family knew. They understood. I don't know why Italian Barbie didn't come for my birthday but it no longer mattered when I found her beneath our tree. I can't remember a single other present I got that year or a single other thing about that day except that gorgeous, dusky Barbie with her smoky eyes and glossy dark hair. She was finally mine. Finally I had my proof that brown haired, brown eyed girls could be beautiful too and maybe I'd grow up to be pretty one day even though my hair would never glow like corn silk.

I named Italian Barbie Sophia, after Sophia Loren of course, even though I didn't know much about her. I thought Sophia was a lovely name and perfect.

I played with Sophia for many years. She suffered an unfortunate accident in the jaws of our Pomeranian, which left her with one mangled arm, but it wasn't a big deal. I loved her more because those of us with scars of all kinds are even more beautiful for having lived and survived, even if our hair is brown and even if we don't conform to what someone else says is pretty.

This story is dedicated with love to my friend Kira who loved when I told her this story and who encouraged me to write it down. Kira is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met.

(And for fun, if you'd like to see a picture of Italian Barbie you can see her here. I couldn't find a picture that I could legally use and paste into the post.)


Head Ant said...

Now I have to post my Italian Barbie story.

perl said...

Another exquisitely written story - loved it! (but keep in mind that this is coming from a girl who, with help from her little sister, turned her 2 Barbies into the Eurythmics, shaving the head of one and gluing the hair onto the face and chest of the other. And yes, I am in therapy.) :)

English said...

Another great story!

Laurie said...

This great story reminded me of a friend I had when I was little. Her mom worked for Mattel, and brought her home ALL the dolls, but always the black ones. Here we were, a bunch of little white girls with our blondie dolls, and Susan's dolls were always black - black Barbies, black Beautiful Chrissy, black Pat-a-Burp. It was funny, since most of our black friends had white dolls and envied white Susan's dolls that looked like them. Francie ("Barbie's MODern cousin") was always my favorite because she had brown hair like me, but we all loved Susan's dolls the best. Thanks for the memory jolt, WL! :)

rosie-b said...

I loved my Sweet Roses PJ for just the same reason.

Melissa said...

I always wanted a black Barbie, but my weird racist family wouldn't let me have one.

Their uppance came when my one year old son fell in love with "Baby", a cute little doll who just happened to be black. He dragged her everywhere with him. :)

Miss Kitty said...

Excellent post, WL. You put into words what I couldn't. Just...WOW.

And now I too must post about Barbie...the Malibu Barbie my sister and I got for Christmas one year who (just like Sophia) survived a dog attack. My sister still has her, except we've renamed her High Plains Drifter Barbie.

E&P post to come. (((hugs))) I hope you're working on your book, WL. I'll be first in line to buy it and have you autograph it on your reading tour.

L. said...

I always read your "Nasty Ass recipes" so of course I thought about you when I found these images and pdf collections of old "historical" recipes. Not that they are Nasty...but it's really interesting to see how American women cooked and thought about food over a hundred years ago.

Look on the right side of the page. The cook book icons lead to pages that let you view the cook book images in digital form or pdf. There are also other links on these pages that lead to other "historical" cook books.

Feeding America Project

L. said...

I had to come back and show you this..I found where they start to use the "mayo" in the salad recipes, which later would morph to the awful concoctions that are in the Nasty Ass recipe catagory. Look at page 204:

But ...I really think these recipes are interesting, especially when realizing the women are using blocks of ice in the refrigerators.

JoeinVegas said...

At least she finally came!

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